Six Sigma and more: Think about the whole system

David SchwinnIt may seem dangerous to ask questions, especially in an environment that is hostile to change. As David Schwinn suggests, the heart of improvement often lies in listening to many viewpoints in order to involve people affected by the outcome. In an environment of trust, it’s okay to disagree with the boss. Dr. Deming would agree, as his Fourteen Points for Managers indicates.

My wife, Carole, was recently surfing the net and serendipitously came across a short YouTube video of Dr. Russell Ackoff from a teleconference we helped produce in 1994. Who knew? It took us back to the brilliance of Russ. What he said bears repeating.

His topic was Beyond Continual Improvement. He began by citing a study that concluded that two-thirds of managers who started programs in continual improvement said that they failed. He then explained that he thought they failed because they were not embedded in systems thinking. He then described systems thinking in the profound, insightful, and funny way that only Russ could explain anything. He reminded us that only the system can perform its functions. None of its parts can. The products and services an organization provides and the functions it performs are all the “product of their interactions.” Setting out to improve the parts independently will not improve the whole system.

My mind went immediately to sport. I remember when the Detroit Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA finals based on teamwork rather than star power. I remember the humiliating loss for the U.S. basketball team in the 2004 Olympics when we brought together a collection of stars the summer of the Olympics, rather than creating a team over the longer haul.

I also remember Dr. Deming telling me that a project I consulted on with the management team of a plant of a major IT company was “interesting but unimportant.” The team was working on improving communication within the plant. The plant was shut down shortly thereafter. I guess we forgot to improve the communications with the corporate office.

That brings me to how difficult it is to break down barriers and get everyone to work together. I remember our city manager coming into a community meeting we were facilitating in the 90’s complaining that when he asked for citizen input, he got none, but when he made a decision without that input he got widely criticized. I remember my own experience as a new plant manager, brought in to repair the damage wrought by the previous criticizing, punishing, plant manager. Until I spent months earning the trust of my employees, I got no intellectual help with problems. The culture left by the previous manager, kept the heads of those employees down unless to say “Yes, sir.” Finally, they trusted me enough to offer some ideas and suggestions about how to improve our operations. Building trust is not easy and is not quickly done.

This idea of involving everyone reminded me of a recent article I read in Vanity Fair (October, 2012). Michael Lewis followed President Obama around and recorded, among other things, that during one large, difficult meeting about Libya, Obama did not limit the discussion to those around the table, but asked those staffers sitting around the edge of the room for their insights. That little story reminded me of the many times I was one of those staffers at Ford World Headquarters wishing that someone would ask for my insight. Lewis also noticed that at least one of the staffers in Obama’s meeting disagreed with the boss. We’re back to trust.

All this reflection brings me back to two admonitions I try to carry with me continually. Dr. Noriako Kano, 1997 recipient of the Deming Prize for individuals, I am told, encouraged managers to ask more questions. One of his questions was, given a solution or a proposal, to ask “What’s the purpose?” As I remember, Dr. Deming, himself, used to ask the same question. In his Fourteen Points for Managers, Dr. Deming also required that managers “Put everyone in the company to work to accomplish the transformation.”

Finally, let’s remember that traditional and scientific management has tended to put us all in boxes. We must break out of those boxes to make sure that the purpose of our Six Sigma projects contribute to the whole organization and that we involve at least a sample of ALL the stakeholders who are effected and have insight regarding the topic of our projects.

As always, I treasure your comments and questions. You can reach me by commenting below.

David Schwinn

David Schwinn


  • Hi David, Your blog above hit a cord with me when you commented about “how difficult it is to break down barriers and geting everyone to work together”. I am the QA Manager and report directly to the CEO/owner of the company I work for. Unfortunately, the owner is a very criticizing and sarcastic manager and the culture here (always walking on egg shells) is not healthy nor does it promote any new ideas or suggestions on how to make improvements to our operations. Creating an environment where the people “want” to offer ideas without fearing rejection and ridicule has not been easy or possible up to this point. Any suggestions?