Six Sigma and more: Transformation through conversation

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn ruminates about leadership, transformation, and sustainability in this month’s column.

When I realized that this year’s Chair Academy annual leadership conference was focused on Sustainability through Leadership, I immodestly thought I had something to offer. The folks at the Chair Academy apparently agreed. I argued that if we want our educational institutions to model sustainability, we have to shift our thinking about sustainability, higher education, and the world. My thoughts might be helpful toward transformation of your own organization.

Let me start with a wonderful quote by David Hales:

The historic role of education has been to provide society with the capacity to understand, anticipate, and respond to the needs of society. The responsibility of education is no longer just to help understand the world in which we will live, but also to shape the world in which we want to live. (1981. Sustainability and Higher Education. The New England Journal of Higher Education. (NEJHE)NEW ENGLAND BOARD OF HIGHER EDUCATION, 24. Retrieved February 27, 2013 from

Hales argues for a new mission. That is a transformational challenge to academia, but one that we can all take to heart. Keeping to the theme of sustainability, Joanna Macy has identified “Three Dimensions of The Great Turning,” or a transition from an “industrial growth society” to a “life-sustaining society.” These levels or arenas are:

  1. Holding actions, to slow destruction (e.g., protesting construction of a dam to save a local river or protesting job discrimination).
  2. Creating alternative actions and new infrastructures—institutions, networks, and communities—such as sustainable co-ops, community gardens, clean energy sources, etc.
  3. Spiritual and cognitive shifts in perception (e.g., speaking a new story of possibility through workshops, art, music, and conversations; changing consciousness of how we see the world and ourselves). (2009-2012. Three Dimensions of the Great Turning. Retrieved February 27, 2013 from

We could interpret Macy’s three levels into our own experiences:

  1. Holding actions are a little like reacting to special causes.
  2. Creating alternative infrastructures are the Six Sigma structure itself.
  3. Spiritual and cognitive shifts are what occurred when we all initially embraced Dr. Deming’s Profound Knowledge and his 14 points. Since then, Six Sigma has, in my opinion, attempted to act on at least some of that transformative thought.

As a matter of fact, I think Six Sigma brings much to the party of sustainability. Six Sigma, of course, is an incredibly powerful way to better achieve our intent while reducing waste. Simply applying Six Sigma technology to higher education’s sustainability effort would help a lot. I think, however, there is more to making higher education a leader toward sustainability. Anthony Cortese and Amy Seif Hattan argue that higher education needs to embrace Macy’s third level more powerfully. It is this third arena – the shift to a sustainable state of mind – that is the most challenging and least frequently addressed in campus initiatives. In fact, in many ways, according to Anthony D. Cortese and Amy Seif Hattan:

The current education system is reinforcing the unhealthy, inequitable, and unsustainable path that society is pursuing. This is not intentional. It is because of deeply held, unconscious beliefs that humans are the dominant species and are separate from the rest of nature, the pre­dominance of disciplinary learning, and an implicit assumption that the Earth will be the gift that keeps on giving, providing resources and assimilating waste and negative impact ad infinitum.” (Cortese, A., & Hattan, A. 2010. Education for Sustainability as the Mission of Higher Education. Sustainability. DOI: 10.1089/SUS.2009.9802. Retrieved February 27, 2013 from

I think Cortese and Hattan have a point. As a matter of fact, I think they have a powerful and important point. Six Sigma is a powerful way to reduce waste, but is that waste reduction enough? Are we reducing waste toward targets that are worthy of our efforts? I think we need to consider the need for using Macy’s third level. That level, as I understand it, is much like Gregory Bateson’s concept of Second Order Learning. Many years ago, an instructor at Jackson Community College, whose name I am ashamed I have forgotten, explained First and Second Order Learning in a fascinating way that has stuck with me.

Think of our mind as a file cabinet. Whenever new information comes to us, we figure out which file folder it goes into and we file it away for further use. That is First Order Learning (and Macy’s first two levels) and, by far, the most common form of learning. Every once in a while, some new information comes to us that doesn’t fit into our file cabinet, and our file cabinet blows up. Then we have to reconstruct it from scratch. That is Second Order Learning and Macy’s third level. It does not happen often. It has happened to me only a few times over a long life. It is so uncommon, I think, for several reasons. So much information is coming at us that we miss much of it altogether. Stuff that doesn’t easily fit into our file cabinet bounces off either unconsciously or, sometimes, consciously. How many times have I simply discounted information that did not fit my world view without seriously considering it? While that explanation might suffice, I think there is a related, but subtly different reason. It hurts when our file cabinet blows up. The blowing up creates pain, confusion, and a lot of hard work to reconstruct a new one. My own experience is that reconstruction could take as short as a day or as long as eight years. That’s a long time to be seriously questioning your world view.

A recent article in the Orion online magazine, “Dark Ecology” by Paul Kingsnorth, reinforced for me the recommendations by Hales, Macy, Cortese, and Hattan that we need to more consciously consider the need to operate at Macy’s level 3. Kingsnorth has produced a most thoughtful examination of the direction that homo sapiens has taken since the time of hunter-gatherers. He most eloquently expresses the need for a fundamental shift of world view if we are to avoid disaster. (2013. Retrieved March 10, 2013 from

All this results in what I am asking us all to seriously consider:

  • Consciously pay more attention to what doesn’t fit into our file cabinet.
  • Begin or continue a serious conversation (think dialogue) with a few people about what we care about.

Meg Wheatley, the well known author and consultant, likes to say, “There is no power greater than a community that discovers what it cares about.” Sounds right.

My wife, Carole, and I have proposed a few questions to start a conversation about sustainability among college stakeholders. I think they might also work as a way to transform our Six Sigma work…at least to explore whether we are being intentional about the things we really care about. They are:

  1. What kind of world do we want our children to live in? (Vision question)
  2. What is our role in helping to bring forth such a world? (Purpose question)
  3. What are the things we could start to do today that would bring us closer to our vision? (Action question)
  4. What commitments can we make to one another about actions we’ll take? (Accountability question)
  5. How will we stay together and learn from one another? (Community-building conversation)

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