Vol. 12, No. 5
May 2010
PQ Systems
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Six Sigma and more:
Pay it Forward—one more time

Several years ago, I wrote a little about the book and movie titled Pay it Forward. I recently saw it again, and new ideas came to me about the concept that I thought might be useful to your Six Sigma effort and, maybe, to your life.

In the book and movie, Reuben St. Clair, the teacher and protagonist, starts a movement with this voluntary, extra-credit assignment: "Think of an idea for world change, and put it into action." Trevor, the 12-year-old hero of the film, thinks of quite an idea. He describes it to his mother and teacher this way: "You see, I do something real good for three people. And then when they ask how they can pay it back, I say they have to pay it forward--to three more people. Each. So nine people get helped. Then those people have to do twenty-seven." (http://www.payitforwardfoundation.org/). Trevor begins the process and, as you might imagine, wonderful things happen.

When I recently saw the movie again, I first thought of the norm of reciprocity. This concept states that as human beings, we have a natural tendency to want to pay back a favor given us by another. You can see it in the brief description of the behavior described in the movie and book. It is, I believe, a powerful motivator.

A similar concept is the idea of karma, an idea that seems to have come from India. At its simplest, it is the idea of cause and effect. If I think, do, or speak something good, good things will come to me. If I think, do, or act in a way that is not good, that, too, will come back to me. As this idea of moral cause and effect makes some sense, Peter Senge, long ago, helped me to understand that many times cause and effect are very much separated in time and space.

The last thing that the movie brought up for me was the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. I’m no expert about Jesus but I do remember the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It turns out that is a pretty universal rule across most religions and philosophies.

All this makes the idea of doing good to others look like a pretty good idea. But then, I remember that Jesus was crucified and Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot. Maybe, too much good is dangerous. I tend to think it really gets back to leadership. One definition of leadership involves influencing others to behave in a particular way. A larger view of leadership, the kind great leaders exemplify, tends to change the existing culture. To follow these leaders means to change the way many people think. Fundamentally changing the way we think about the world is always a scary prospect. Sometimes when some people get too scared, they want to destroy the leader who seems to be taking them there. Leadership that challenges the existing way of thinking is a courageous act. Even in the movie, the hero, Trevor, loses his life while acting on his world view that is countercultural to the bullies in his school.

When we read the headlines these days, when we examine the unethical, even illegal acts of our leaders, when we see people in our organizations stealing, treating other employees unfairly and disrespectfully, doing the same to customers, and doing even worse to their suppliers, it is easy to think that “those” people don’t deserve our good will and our acts of kindness. Maybe we must walk away.

But first, I challenge us all to try to learn their story. Try to find out why they behave the way they do. Then, ultimately, pay it forward with the courage it takes. Maybe something bad will happen. Maybe nothing you can notice will happen. But maybe, and, I think, probably, something good will happen. Maybe not right away, maybe not that you can see, but I bet something that improves our culture will occur. And that change in culture will result in a change in what we see, and that change in what we see, will influence what we do…just a little bit at a time. We tend to believe that the great leaders change our culture in a big event. Maybe. I rather think that we are slowly evolving by fits and starts and that, from time to time, some folks notice what’s going on and announce the evolving culture in a way that captures and excites those who are also noticing…they are what we call great leaders.

Anyway, I don’t think we need to be great leaders. All we need to do is pay it forward as a way to move our culture a little bit in the right direction. I think the culture of Six Sigma can be more than just projects accomplished, money saved and products and services improved. Although that is plenty, let’s try for even more.
I treasure your thoughts and questions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.

 

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