Six Sigma and more: Becoming aware

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn brings retreat experience to the opportunity to reflect what Six Sigma represents.

Too many people are unemployed or underemployed. Too many people feel overworked, under-appreciated, mismanaged, led in meaningless directions, and lied to. We can do better. In 2011, I embarked on a worldwide search for better management and leadership. I have written about some of the wonderful people and practices I found on my six-month sabbatical. I will write more. This month I want to write about what I learned during a weekend retreat spent in the beautiful hill country of southeastern Ohio.

Earlier this year, my wife, Carole, and I had the great good fortune to spend a little time with a Buddhist priest and teacher, Beate Stolte, in a social situation. When we found out she was conducting a weekend retreat last month, we jumped at the opportunity to learn from her. We were not disappointed. I wanted to know what the Buddhist tradition might have to offer as guidance toward the kind of leadership and management I think is needed in these times.

The retreat organizer, Janette McDonald, established a theme around finding joy. That sounded like a pretty good idea. Our sensei, Beate, quickly shared a perspective that I thought was particularly useful for leaders and managers. She said that we are all blessed to have evolved over time with two marvelous gifts. The first is being able to reflect on and learn from our past. We Six Sigma professionals are, I think, particularly blessed in this area. The second gift is to be able to consider and envision the future. Unfortunately, our instinctual focus on survival inclines our mind to constantly consider both the past and the future events at such a rapid rate that our mind jumps from one concern to another so fast that we tend to inadequately think about any one of them and just get tired, stressed, and frustrated. We also have the ability to consider and stay in the present, but that takes a little practice for most of us. It is when we slow down our minds and consider the present that we begin to find joy. I also have come to believe that is when we tend to model better behavior and make better decisions. I am reminded of a favorite quote by the famed thirteenth century Sufi mystic, Jelalludin Rumi:

“Sit, be still, and listen,
because you’re drunk
and we’re at the edge of the roof.”

It’s funny how, as the world continually changes, some things stay the same.

Our sensei’s first instruction was to sit still, be quiet, and pay attention to our breath. She reminded us that we will notice our minds whirling off to the past and the future. That will happen almost immediately. She asked us to just forgive ourselves when we catch our whirling “monkey mind” and go back to paying attention to our breath. While that sounds simple, several of us had trouble staying with our breath for more than a few seconds. With practice, we can stay with our breath a little longer. Our natural inclination to blame ourselves and feel guilty for our inability to stay concentrated on our breathing reminds me of a story that we Six Sigma professionals can relate to.

Around 1980, Dr. Kaoru Ishikawa addressed quality and automotive professionals at a major conference in Detroit that I attended. I cannot find the exact quote, but it so struck me that it has been etched into my memory ever since. Ishikawa essentially said that western management had no chance to catch Japan in terms of quality because our culture is based on sin and Japan’s culture was based on an understanding that if a mistake is made, it is just because someone was not adequately trained. Our culture of sin here in the west inclines us to default into guilt when things such as our inability to focus on our breathing occur. Ishikawa would say, I believe, we just need a little more training and a little more practice.

After a little practice being still and focusing on our breathing, our sensei asked us to specifically notice an issue that arises as we practice, revisit it, and take a step back to more deeply examine it as part of our mediation practice. As I attempted to do as she asked, I noticed that I had felt slightly threatened when a new person entered our circle. As I examined why I felt threatened, I thoughtlessly concluded that I feared the new person might attack who I am–and I really like who I am. As we discussed how I considered this dilemma, the sensei gently reminded me that I made up who I am…and, after all, wasn’t that new person a part of who I am as I am a part of who she is? How differently we might all lead and manage if we continually remind ourselves that we are all part of each other. And how comfortable and easy it is to know who we are and to know what we know. It helps us quickly and efficiently deal with problems and predict the future. But like everything else, knowing without also not knowing becomes pathological and destructive.

Similarly, Carole used the same exercise to remind herself that she is pure light…as are we all. So simple…yet so profound.

Our sensei suggested that we try to find a balance among reflection on the past, reflection on the future, and being present. Being present does not require mediation. We can just be truly quiet, internally and externally, for a little while, we can go for a walk, we can pray, we can journal. There are many, many reflective practices. We already know what they are. Many of us already know what works best for us. Most of us just need a little more practice and, perhaps, a little more training. I believe a better balance will bring us a little more joy, a little better world, and, of course, a little better Six Sigma effort.

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

2 thoughts on “Six Sigma and more: Becoming aware

  1. Hi David,
    An interesting article but I can’t help but think that you have misinterpreted the message from Dr Ishikawa. I was trained in Kaizen and Management by Toyota in Japan which led to me becoming the Operations Manager at Toyota Australia for 18 years.
    What they taught me was that you must begin with mutual trust and respect which means that you don’t “blame” the person but rather you must dig further into the reason, the whys of how this problem occured. Were the correct instructions given, was confirmation of their understanding sought, are the correct tools available, etc.
    In Western companies our management tend to blame (culture of sin) rather than seek reasons. Many times I have heard managements response in other companies, including my current company, where managers state that they will “fix” a problem by telling their staff not to repeat a problem. Thereby assuming that it is their fault. We recently had aproblem with delivery of our products and when I asked the manager how he intended to resolve the matter he told me that he had told all his staff that if it happens again they will be given a formal warning and eventually dismissed. This definitely is sinful. When I spoke with his staff they were all demoralised and said that they were more than willing to help to resolve the problem, they even made some suggestions whilst we spoke, but they said that it was pointless because their manager wasn’t interested and wouldn’t listen to them.
    Perhaps the message is not lost, it is the managers who should be getting trained and if they breathed a little longer before making a judgement they could have their staff working efficiently and effectively for them instead of doing only what they are told and never improving.

    • Gary—Thanks for your response, and for your observations about Dr. Ishikawa’s approach. I think we have the same understanding of his methods, but my comments require some clarification. I guess my reference to Dr. Ishikawa was not clearly expressed. Ishikawa was really commenting on the tendency to find blame that our culture often seems to embody, while the Japanese approach would be to help those responsible by providing adequate training; offering this kind of help demands respect and understanding, rather than blame. In an ideal world, managers would be trained with this approach—but as you clearly point out, this isn’t happening in many organizations. Our hope would be that the system accommodates a different attitude toward errors—one in which the errors are seen as system problems rather than individuals’ fault. Managers must have more than training, but need to develop attitudes and knowledge consistent with this approach.

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