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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
Organizational evil

These days, I mostly write about only the things that touch me. Over the last few weeks, three things have touched me. They were learning about the death of my wife Carole’s ex-husband and the father of three of our children; rereading Freedom and Accountability at Work by Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block (Jossey-Bass, Inc., San Francisco, CA: 2001); and reading Carry it On (Warner Brothers Records, Burbank, CA: 2003), a consolidation of the work of the musical group known as Peter, Paul, and Mary. As I began this reflection, I only knew that these three things were important. I now know they revolve around freedom.

James T. Hannan, 68, died on August 4, 2010 of pancreatic cancer with his children and his wife at his side. “Jim was a handsome, suave devil who loved talking and meeting interesting people.” He was a free spirit. At the visitation, I heard a common theme from his three adult children. Because he so powerfully modeled his freedom, they each felt ennobled to find and pursue their own personal way in the world. And they have done so magnificently. Jim’s funeral ended with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” sung by the church soloist.

In Freedom and Accountability at Work, the authors put forward two fundamental truths: we will all die, and evil exists. They further argue that once we accept those two truths, we are likely to have the courage to see and attack the evil that most bothers us. They even provide a list of the types of evil--ignorance, ugliness, weakness, alienation, poverty, and chaos or separation--that might concern us. They further assert that the essence of being human is to see the evil that bothers us most, to find freedom to attack that evil, and to be accountable for our actions.

In Carry it On, I was reminded of the power Peter, Paul, and Mary (PP&M) had in my life. I first heard them in the 1960s while at college. It was a time when the Vietnam War made no sense to many of us. PP&M sang our feelings for us beautifully and poignantly. During that same time, they sang the story of what I was learning about the racial injustice of our time. They sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington in 1963. In the late 60s, they went on to sing to raise funds for and awareness of the plight of farm workers. After a hiatus, they came back together to sing against the arms race in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, they sang against world hunger, the U.S. policy in Central America, and apartheid in South Africa. They also sang about many other evils, issues, and relationships. As a matter of fact, Paul Stookey’s composition, “Wedding Song,” was performed at Carole’s and my wedding.

Their courage to sing against evil mirrored their action to challenge land mines in Nicaragua, death squads in El Salvador, and threats of violence in America. Their long term commitment to those causes lasted more than 40 years. It is, perhaps, notable that 40 years after their 1963 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, they repeated that same effort on those same steps to prevent us from invading Iraq. Carry it On shows that I am not the only one whose life was changed as a result of these three powerful people. The Carry it On collection contains the thanks of people including Bill Cosby, Walter Cronkite, Studs Terkel, Coretta Scott King, David Halberstam, and Norman Lear. As I was researching this column, I found a reaction on the Internet to Mary’s death last year. It, I think, captures the feelings of many of us. 

I too feel so sad, but I refuse to feel...older than I already am. Just watching the videos [of PP&M] made me feel younger and more hopeful once again. It is not so easy nowadays to maintain that hope, but I am not prepared to give up. Not yet.

The authors of Freedom and Accountability at Work argue that many, if not most, businesses try to efficiently make money. They point out that, for a time, the quality movement got businesses and other enterprises to try to serve their customers--a more worthy goal, according to the authors. Where does your Six Sigma effort fit? If that question is not useful, they provide a few other examples of organizational evil:

  • Companies that have left cities and at risk areas to go to lower cost areas to achieve short-term economic benefits;
  • Companies that have reduced the wages and benefits of core workers while increasing those of top management;
  • Companies that have criticized industry government regulations while using their job-creating power to negotiate tax and regulatory concessions for themselves;
  • Companies that are happy to externalize the costs of their waste management, pollution, roads, police, fire, schools, and the like;
  • Companies that are happy to sell products that are no longer acceptable in the developed world, to underdeveloped countries;
  • Companies that advertise to fulfill consumer needs such as beauty, friendship, and love with little or no ability to fulfill those promises.

Evil in the workplace is real. We all know it when we see it. I’m not naive enough to think any enterprise can survive without being profitable or, at least fiscally sustainable, but I think we must claim our freedom and accountability for minimizing the evil that most calls our name. Let’s examine our Six Sigma efforts and assert our freedom to work to eliminate any perceived evil we find. I think our efforts…and our humanity…will be better for our effort.

As always, I treasure your thoughts, questions, and reactions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.

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