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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
Listen to the children

A few weeks ago, my eyes filled with tears as our daughter, Lisa, told those whom we call the Macaronis, that she was struggling with her current occupational choices (yes, she’s that talented and in demand!), but what she really wanted to do was work more closely with my wife, Carole, and me. I imagine that is the kind of comment any parent would love to hear. That wonderful comment prompted the rest of this column.

The Macaronis are a small group of organizational development (OD) consultants whom Lisa brought together with us several years ago just because we like one another. We get together every couple of months just to have lunch and converse at the Macaroni Grill…hence the name we call ourselves. As an aside, the Macaroni Grill is a great place to eat because they give you crayons and a paper tablecloth so you can develop and capture any crazy ideas you might come up with over wine and good Italian cuisine. The Macaronis gave me the rest of the story.

Peter Norlin, formerly executive director on the OD Network, asked me several years ago to help him and his partners at the International Organizational Development Association research essential practices in OD around the world. Although that project did not come to fruition, the idea prompted my recent sabbatical in which Carole and I traveled to 13 countries on five continents “to search for a higher level, more conscious practice of management and leadership.” Because we knew we wanted to visit the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in Cape Town, we researched other organizations, leaders, and managers in the Cape Town area. We found the Chaeli Campaign.

In Cape Town, we spent an afternoon with two families, the Mycroft’s and the Terry’s, co-founders and leaders of the Chaeli Campaign, a nonprofit whose purpose is “to mobilise the minds and bodies of children with disabilities and to normalise society through advocacy and education programmes and events.” The organization is named for Chaeli Mycroft, whose early struggles with cerebral palsy led the Mycroft and Terry daughters, then ages 6-12, to raise money for a motorized wheel chair. This simple gesture of these caring young girls, in which they raised R20 000 (approximately $2,500) in 7 weeks by selling their art work and greeting cards was the birth of the Chaeli Campaign, which now operates eight programs serving children and their families in South Africa and beyond. The original idea to get Chaeli a wheel chair came entirely from those young girls. They made the wheelchair happen and they, now a few years older, form the board of this vibrant, growing, and noble enterprise. These young women remind me of another experience Carole and I had years before.

When a dozen or so young people showed up for a community event early in the story of the Jackson CommUnity Transformation Project (JCTP) in the late 90s, we gave them some art supplies and just turned them loose. With no other direction than to design what they wanted for Jackson County, they developed a large map of the county that served as a guide for the rest of the JCTP journey. For me, listening to the children is essential, but there is an even larger issue.

Six Sigma is a very sophisticated, disciplined approach to improvement, but the stumbling block that nearly always arises is the actual creation and implementation of ideas about new ways to operate that would solve chronic problems. Dr. Deming used to like to say that change comes from outside the system. The children certainly come from outside most of our organizations, but so do others.

When Carole and I were more actively engaged in community development, we would nearly always bring together several teams working on different aspects of the community, primarily to help them each get a better understanding of the whole community while working on their own issues and to better understand the interrelations among the various teams and even among themselves and other community members not yet in the room. The side benefit was that people from outside each of those several systems were in the room. Because people who were not part of a particular team’s system were in the room, those “outsiders” could creatively contribute to the solutions of stubborn problems.

One of my favorite examples was a team in northeastern Pennsylvania trying to solve a particularly stubborn problem of jail overcrowding. When they got stuck because of a perceived fundamental roadblock regarding separation of powers, the other teams in the room got started generating solutions. I loved the one called “bowling for parole.” That solution didn’t hold, but the result of the process prompted the jail team to consider a series of informal, off the record meetings with the key stakeholders in order to make a series of slight behavior changes in all the related systems that solved the overcrowding problem.

The moral of this story is, of course, that when your Six Sigma project gets stuck trying to find a creative solution to a chronic problem, bring in the children, the “outsiders,” those folks who are not explicitly or implicitly invested in the usually unstated assumptions that keep the team from moving forward.

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