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Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn
Quality and the human spirit

Earlier this week, I awoke from a dream. I have learned to pay attention when that happens. It tells me something is on my mind to which I have not been paying enough attention.

This dream was about my first full-time employer, the Frigidaire Division of General Motors. We made automotive air-conditioning compressors there, the best in the world at that time. In the dream, I, as a quality engineer, was part of a divisional advisory committee made up of a cross-section of internal and external stakeholders. The division was going through some tough times and we were asked to make some recommendations. One of the members of the committee suggested that we recommend laying off one of the extremely talented middle managers. My reaction is what woke me up. I passionately told the suggesting member that he was trying to take away just the talent that was needed to solve the problem. I furthermore told him that his idea would destroy the division’s morale, its performance, and the people connected with the division. I finally accused him of being part of what was destroying the human spirit in this country and around the world. I guess now we know what I care about.

I do not like it that when things get tough, people get laid off. Of course sometimes people must get laid off in order to keep the organization alive and functioning. My problem is that too often people get laid off without even knowing there is a problem. My experience is that if you watch the numbers, tell the employees about a problem when it arises, and ask for their help early enough, they can do much more than expected to help solve it. Some people say the problem with Six Sigma is that Six Sigma leaders lack the people skills necessary to get the job done. My own experience has shown me that there is a tendency for some people to be numbers-oriented and other people to be people-oriented, but some people have both sets of skills and that is certainly necessary to Six Sigma success. My recent sabbatical taught me there is more to it than that.

Oleana, a knitwear company in Norway, was founded because the two founders, Kolbjorn Valestrand and Signe Aarhus, thought there must be a better way to run a textile company than to design something and ship it to a third world country to make it, as has been the tradition in textiles around the world for years. Oleana’s story is too long to tell here, but the part that most closely fits with Six Sigma is its orientation to quality. The company is simply the best. And they spend every day trying to figure out how to get better.

Six Sigma comes from the idea of continuous improvement, an idea popularized by W. Edwards Deming. Continuous improvement was driven, of course, by Dr. Deming’s powerful understanding of statistics. But I believe it was also driven by his observations of first class companies that stood on their laurels. I further believe that central drive toward continuous improvement made being the best not so important. I have come to believe that continuous improvement is not enough. You also have to be the best. You don’t have to be the best at everything, but you have to be far superior to your competition at something your customers care about. Oleana has done all that and, as a result, they make their clothes in their little plant in Norway, a country with high wages, not cheap labor. Yet another lesson comes to mind.

In Costa Rica, we came across NatureAir that claims to be the world’s first carbon neutral airline. That was enough to get our attention. But there is more. The founder, Alex Khajavi, explained that the mission of his company goes well beyond providing transportation in an environmentally friendly way. Much of NatureAir’s business is to take people from populous places such as San Jose to out-of-the-way places where tourists can enjoy nature. The regular condition in most parts of the world is that a few tourists come and like a place and tell others. Sooner or later, the Hilton and other international hotels come in to accommodate the growing tourist business, pay the residents of the area a little, and take the profits back home to their stakeholders. Alex Khajavi wants to help the residents of these pristine areas to set up sophisticated accommodations for their tourists themselves and keep a little more of the tourists’ money where they spend it. That is a noble mission. During my sabbatical, we found many more organizations with noble missions. I think people want to help with a noble mission. That is a fundamental part of the human spirit.

Here’s what I think my dream was about. I wish managers would quit laying people off when they have other, better ways to manage. I think a better way to manage is to:

  • Pursue a noble mission;
  • Be the best;
  • Continually improve;
  • Use the same statistical tools for managing the money that you use to improve processes;
  • Share the problems and opportunities with the employees and ask for help.

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

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