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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
Lessons from Egypt

Egypt is free!

That is, of course, what the people said with the peaceful overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. What a powerful exercise of nonviolence and democracy!

I am first reminded of the famous Margaret Mead quote:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

Another manifestation of democracy that comes to me again is the power of the participative management/employee involvement movement we created at Ford in the late 1970s. As I reflect on that experience, I realize how often I advocate for that style of management with my students because it has always worked for me. As a manager, consultant, and trainer over the years, I came up against problems I did not know how to solve from time to time. My first reaction was frequently to silently throw up my hands in despair. Next, I quickly remembered the power of people in the collective, especially in an unnaturally divergent community.

In every attempt to do Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Continual Improvement, Interactive Design, Lean, Appreciative Inquiry, or any other problem-solving/system or improvement approach, there comes a point at which the process gets stuck--unless, of course, the solution was so simple that, as a manager, I should have seen the problem or opportunity and initiated the solution as a matter of course. When the improvement process gets stuck, it is necessary to brainstorm or go through some similar technique to get “out of the box.” My experience is that sometimes the sticking point is so fixed that those methods aren’t enough. Problems get unstuck, however, by introducing unnatural divergence. Introducing unnatural divergence means introducing people who know nothing of the system in question. Those people ask questions and make suggestions that the people who are part of the system cannot see. Peter Senge likes to say he doesn’t know what fish talk about but he’s sure it is not water. There are things so deeply embedded in any system that those who operate within that system accept them without question. They are probably not even conscious that those parts or aspects of the system exist.

I also noticed the power of nonviolence in play in Egypt. My mind immediately went to the immense power of people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. A recent article in the New York Times is titled “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution.” The article tells the story of Gene Sharp, an America intellectual who has, among many other things, produced “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” a 93-page guide for nonviolently toppling autocrats (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, The New York Times, retrieved February 17, 2011). There is some evidence that his work and work of his colleagues at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict influenced the strategy used by the Egyptian activists. A new and significant part of the process was, of course, the widespread use of social media.

I am reminded of an old phrase that technology usually precedes the ethical consideration of its use. In this case, social media seems to have been used in an ethical way. But it is also being used by autocratic regimes to target protestors for punishment. Let’s remember that social media is probably being used in other both good and bad ways as I write this. We, as organization and community leaders, can choose to embrace a culture that supports or one that punishes. We can support a culture that seems to care for us all or one that decides there are some of us that need to suffer. It takes courage to seek to change the environment. The people of Egypt have courage.

My final observation regarding this hopeful freedom for Egypt is the power of self-organization. Democracy is messy. In a traditional organizational hierarchy, much like a dictatorship, people will usually do what they’re told to do…but only what they’re told to do. Egypt has shown us that sometimes people get fed up and revolt. In organizations, people who get fed up usually quit. They are frequently the people who are most marketable and who have the most to offer if they’re allowed to participate. The rest do what they’re told and use the rest of their genius being passively reactionary or pursuing other interests while the boss thinks they are “working.” Given the opportunity to self-organize, however, magic can happen.

I just heard about a book recently written about the Chilean mine disaster. The trapped miners agreed that the formal leader, the foreman, was shy. But he was a good map maker. He began mapping the mine to plan their escape and to help them navigate the mine as they searched for resources. Another man became the team poet…the team poet? Why not? A wonderful friend, Mark Nepo, was hired some years ago to be the organizational poet for the Fetzer Foundation. It made no sense to me, but it sure worked out. Mark was, among other things, able to reflect on and share the organization’s learning and culture.

Another example of self-organization comes from Nature Air, the Costa Rican airline that is first in the world to be carbon neutral. Recently, Roberto Kopper, Nature Air’s U.S.-educated COO, told us that he asks new hires to just hang around for awhile until they figure out the best way that they can contribute to Nature Air. We have all heard of companies, not many, that operate this way. I am finally reminded of the Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project that occurred in Jackson, Michigan in the late 1990s. While many things were accomplished by the citizens and organizations of Jackson, the project evaluator’s conclusion that most stuck with me was that the citizens who were either not involved or only involved on the periphery of the process said, “the savior came and nothing happened” while those deeply involved said “the savior came and we found that we are the savior.” What have we learned?

The lessons from Egypt are probably:

  • nonviolence;
  • courage to challenge the status quo;
  • care for everyone;
  • involvement of everyone in seeking democracy and self-organization;
  • use of tools you have, perhaps in new and innovative ways.

As I look at these lessons, they might be a blueprint to attacking Deming’s deadly diseases and, in fact, many of the problems that currently plague our organizations and our Six Sigma efforts. The disease that first comes to mind is the emphasis on short-term profits. If a few more of us had lived by these lessons, we might not be in the financial mess we’re now seeing.

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

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