Six Sigma and more: Beauty

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn writes about the dimension of beauty and how this perspective can enhance our ability to understand, design, and improve systems.

As I was waiting to ask my wife, Carole, about some inconsequential topic a few days ago, I noticed an attractive coffee table book, entitled China: People, Places, and Paradox. More importantly, I remembered that it was written, produced, and given to us by our amazing daughter, Lisa. We were recently blessed to visit China with her — a delightful experience for us! Lisa’s book was a photo journal of our journey together. As I again glanced through the book, I was overcome with the beauty throughout the book and even more so by its final pages, “For Mom and David. Thank you for giving me the world. Love, Lisa.” There may be a deep connection between love and beauty.

Lisa’s book begins with the beauty of a small girl in traditional Chinese dress. Then, a young couple is shown posing for wedding pictures in the Forbidden City. Throngs of hyperactive school children alongside retired Chinese elders who were knitting, dancing, exercising, singing, playing mahjong, and showing off traditional Chinese skills were everywhere in the Temple of Heaven. Besides the people, Lisa shared the beauty of the intricate roof tile and elaborate painting on the ceilings of the Summer Palace, the majestic sculpture along the sacred road, and lovers’ padlocks on the railings at the great Wall.

China was not all beauty of course. There was the periodic smog. There were the periodic blackouts of television broadcasts for a few minutes apparently whenever someone said something improper. There were the reminders we were given over and over again to avoid discussing sensitive topics such as politics, government, and religion in public.

This theme of beauty takes me back to the work by Russ Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi that we were privileged to study many years ago. A centerpiece of the work of these two is about understanding, designing, and improving systems. One of the fundamental principles that undergird Ackoff’s and Gharajedaghi’s work is that the more ways you can examine a social system, the better you can understand it. One of the many lenses they use to understand a system is through the perspective of dimensions. They describe the creation and dissemination of five dimensions as one important way to understand a system. The five dimensions are: wealth, knowledge, values, power, and beauty (Jamshid Gharajedaghi, Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, Boston, MA: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999).

As practitioners of Six Sigma, this perspective can enhance our ability to understand, design, and improve systems. An idealized system wants to robustly create and distribute wealth, knowledge, values, power, and beauty simultaneously. We, as Six Sigma practitioners, frequently focus our efforts toward wealth. That is, we try to reduce variation in order to reduce cost and/or improve customer satisfaction, leading to improved revenue. We are likely to find more opportunities and develop more robust projects if we expand our vision to take in the other dimensions.

For example, we could make sure we shared what is being learned on our projects with others in our organization and with our customers and suppliers as a way to enhance knowledge. We all know that a concentration on wealth can put quality at risk, but Wall Street has made clear to us over the last several years that a concentration on wealth also puts our values at risk. A real, transparent, safe, and vibrant ethics program can help keep our Six Sigma effort from going off track. Taking a look at power as we pursue Six Sigma may remind us to help everyone feel their own power to contribute to the Six Sigma work. One of Dr. Deming’s 14 Points was, “Put everyone in the company to work to accomplish the transformation” (Out of the Crisis, Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986). This takes us to beauty.

To Gharajedaghi, beauty is essential for the development of individuals, communities, and societies, and covers a far more expansive field than the aesthetics of objects or material goods. It is also the joy, excitement, fun, and exhilaration experienced in recreation. Thus, beauty is not only about that which is creative, it is also about the recreative, or that which is experienced for sheer pleasure, excitement, rest, rejuvenation, or fun. Ackoff added that beauty “recreates creators” by providing “the pause that refreshes” (A Systemic View of Transformational Leadership, retrieved from http://www.acasa.upenn.edu/leadership.pdf).  To integral theorist, Ken Wilbur, our capacity to perceive beauty is “a tribute to the existence of perfection” (Beauty and Spirit, retrieved from http://ollisintegrallife.com/2010/07/15/beauty-and-spirit-by-ken-wilber).There is much more to share. I’ll finish with a brief excerpt from our upcoming book, The Transformative Workplace:

The appreciation of beauty in our lives inspires us to tap into our own creative capacities and moves us to continually reach for unattainable perfection in what we do, at the same time that it provides deep satisfaction in simply being present to what is. It creates social cohesion and connection by urging us to share our positive experiences with others. It expands our horizons by opening us up to the outer expressions of the creator’s inner vision. It entertains us, lifts our spirits, and produces joy, excitement, and fun. It helps us to perceive harmony and unity, and to see the deep patterns of order in chaos. And, it connects us to our own nature and to the splendor of the natural world.

Organizations that are not focused on the arts or culture may not have considered the capacity for appreciating beauty to be an important part of their peoples’ development. However, most any organization can take a few simple steps to foster the appreciation of beauty in the workplace, including the enhancement of the physical environment. Open spaces, greenery, natural light, color, artwork, cleanliness, and orderliness can all make the workplace less stultifying and more satisfying. Sounds, sights, and smells all impact our senses and help us to feel energetic and productive or lazy and lethargic at work. The physical environment creates an identity that sends a message to employees as well as to customers, suppliers, visitors, and other stakeholders about the organization’s self-image and how it hopes to be seen by others. A beautiful space can let others know that the organization takes pride in what it does and what it offers to others.

Beauty is likely to be a useful dimension to more fully integrate into our Six Sigma efforts. As always, I treasure your comments and questions. You can reach me by commenting below.