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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
Competition and common ground

Two events occurred since last month that prompt this column’s topic. In the first event, the Detroit Free Press announced a “win for all” deal between General Motors (GM) and the United Auto Workers (UAW).

The second event was a provocative response from an old friend and colleague to last month’s column. Let me start with the provocative response.

My friend comes from a career in government and brings me a fresh perspective. He writes:

Competition can be a good tool for balancing and focusing power -- keeps people more honest as opposed to a monopoly.  Within the government environment, anytime we had to compete with the private sector to retain a business function, we became motivated to do the right thing which resulted in better quality at less cost. Without the competition, bureaucracy (the system) takes over which results in less efficiency and higher cost.

I believe he is correct. In some organizational cultures, particularly the government, bureaucracy tends to take over. While much management literature still points out the value of bureaucracy in keeping things stable and predictable and in making planned change more orderly, the risk is that as the world continually changes, the bureaucratic organization will be painfully left behind. Many of us recognized that in the 80’s and 90’s as we learned Kaizen, PQ Systems’ TQT Alignment Process, and other incremental, continual improvement processes as a better way of obtaining bureaucratic predictability and stability without bureaucracy’s downside.

My friend’s comments also prompted me to reexamine my beliefs about competition or, perhaps, clarify them.  He articulated the value of seeking competition toward the right thing such as better products and services, lower costs, and less variation…all goals of Six Sigma. He contrasted that with the destructiveness of focusing on competing against someone else. The dilemma for me is that sometimes I believe that destroying the competition is useful. In the marketplace, gaining market share may result in destroying our competition. Sometimes wars end up destroying governments that do bad things to the people they are supposed to care for as well as others.

As I consider this, it seems that it may be that intention is a critical factor in creating competition. If, as my friend says, we compete to pursue the right thing, such as better products and services, lower costs, and other even more noble purposes and the competition falls away as a result, maybe that is all right Most business ethics and, I think, some laws suggest that some competitive actions are not appropriate. That is why we have, for example, anti-trust laws. I think my friend and I agree that pursuing competition that results in losers is probably okay if our REAL intention is to better serve someone rather than to destroy our competition. That may be what GM and the UAW did.

The Free Press article stated that both GM and the UAW claimed victory. That sounds like win-win. The union said it secured new jobs, improvements in profit-sharing, and protection for pensions and health care benefits. GM got worker wages and benefits to near parity with their foreign competitors. There will, of course, be some expected and unanticipated negative results from this proposed agreement, but it still looks win-win…finding common ground.

The lessons from these reflections might be that competition is good for our Six Sigma efforts so long as our intentions result in better products and services at lower costs. That seems obvious. A more important lesson may be that we need to consider the downside of our competitive efforts that overtly or inadvertently create losers, and try harder to create win-win competition. A final lesson is that the avoidance of creating losers must not justify letting our effort fall into bureaucracy. Six Sigma is all about improvement. The status quo just won’t do.

As always, I treasure your comments and questions. I'm at support@pqsystems.com.

 
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