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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
It's the system, Stupid!
David ruminates on front-line blame.

As we continue our sabbatical journey, more opportunities for the improvement of management practices continue to appear. This month, the overriding theme which I have observed is the lack of front line performance that seems to be a result of the system. I have been reminded of the many times we as managers and leaders have blamed the front line folks for system-induced problems when, in fact, the systems we have devised have caused the problems. Here are a few opportunities I have observed on our trek.

In last month’s column, I wrote about our school travel agent and the theme of under-promising and over-delivering. As I think about some of our encounters since then, I may have settled on last month’s theme because of my own shortcomings. A good friend and colleague of my wife Carole and mine, Barb Hummel, used to say we had “big eyes.” She meant we were likely to take on challenges that seemed to be beyond our known, existing capabilities.That may still be true. This sabbatical may be a recent example. Our past record shows that we usually accomplish that which we go after, but it usually takes much more effort than we had anticipated. That is certainly true for this journey. All this leads to the first example of an opportunity.

Perhaps because of the tendency I described above, we found ourselves needing visas to enter India and Cambodia, and without adequate time to get them without extraordinary effort. Our solution was to drive the five hours to Chicago to take our travel documents to a special agency designed to process Indian visa applications quickly. We got there, waited in a relatively short line and, just as we were about to go to the counter to submit our documents, the manager of the office came out and announced that the India Embassy had made a change to application requirements that required having birth certificates as part of the application package. We, of course, did not have birth certificates with us. There was no opportunity for any application in process to go forward. Thank goodness, the manager worked with us to suggest yet another agency in Chicago that might be able to help us. They did and we finally got all our visas squared away after further extraordinary efforts on our part. We never got an explanation for the abrupt change in application requirements.

Maybe I’m spoiled living in the USA, but, it seems to me that a government ought to serve folks the way other organizations try to serve people. I am now a little more sensitive to India’s continuing concern about security. Maybe that is why they decided to make the change so quickly and decisively, but there is some evidence around the world these days that a government that does not at least try to take care of its citizens is at some risk. I like the idea of government of the people, by the people, and FOR the people. In India, people don’t seem to like the government much. In the U.S., people don’t seem to like the government much. In the U.S, I believe that elected officials are more concerned about getting elected and reelected than serving the people. Maybe the same is true in India. Maybe not. No matter what, those shortcomings seem to be system problems. I believe most of our public servants are trying to do the right thing.

In South Africa, we ran into the same problem with our carry-on luggage that has happened on other airlines as well. Their standards for acceptable carry-on luggage seem to be inconsistent. The standard that we are used to is one carry-on and one personal bag, both of which must fit into the airline standard size, which seems to be universal. One time, one of my bags was deemed to be too heavy (weight requirements were not clear) and one time, one of Carole’s bags was deemed to be too large, although it was no larger than any of our other luggage. Maybe we ran into front line folks who were inept at their jobs, but my guess is that there was a system problem with inadequately defined and communicated operational definitions of acceptable luggage limits.

Without boring you with too many stories, let me describe one more impression. Airport processing in India was essentially a set of very long lines and many security checks. It seemed as though if someone needed a job, someone else would just tell them to provide another security check. I am reminded of W. Edward Deming’s statement about 200% inspection being the same as no inspection at all. That’s apparently not a lesson Indian airline systems have learned.

In contrast, I must tell you about two of the folks we had the privilege to interview on our trip to India. Prakash Apte, President and Managing Director of Syngenta India Limited and Ravi Kant, Vice-Chairman of Tata Motors, Ltd., both, without prompting, focused on the need to stay close to your customers and to the people who work for you and to continually try to serve them better. That sounds like a reasonable Six Sigma intention. If we remember that our job as managers and leaders is to create and continually improve the systems that support that intention, I think our Six Sigma efforts will thrive.

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

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