Six Sigma and more: “Just a range ball among Titleists”

David SchwinnThis month, David Schwinn remembers Ed Souders, who transformed his company and its employees by pursuing the methods of W. Edwards Deming.

A great man passed away on July 25. His Name was Ed Souders, a family man, born on March 29, 1933 in Benton, IL. He was a leader in the computer industry and in mid-Michigan. After 30 years at IBM, he opened his own business, Entré Computer. We first crossed paths shortly after Ed started up Entré.

Ed liked to tell the story of his personal transformation and that of his company, once he had been exposed to the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming. Ed starts his story with an outline of the difficulties of starting a new computer company after his upbringing at IBM. In an attempt to overcome his difficulties, he agreed to a visit by my wife, Carole, and me, to explore the possibility of incorporating Deming’s philosophy into Entré. That visit prompted a long journey into continual improvement, and this involved working with Carole and me, attending a Deming 4-day seminar, and converting his internal training manager, Adrian Bass, into his own personal and organizational continual improvement trainer and facilitator.

His first improvement action was to use Pareto analysis to focus on his most important customers and close down one of his two offices. After his exposure to Dr. Deming, he discarded his prevailing and honored Management by Objectives (MBO) system. Ed’s system was the same one he had grown up with at IBM. It was the same one I grew up with at GM and Ford. It was the same one Deming persuaded many of us to abolish. It is the same one, I am told, that exists as part of many Six Sigma efforts. It is not what is written in the textbooks. It is not Hoshin Planning as I have seen it described and practiced. The kind of MBO system that Ed discarded is a top-down driven set of goals given to people to achieve without their real input or without consideration of their ability to achieve those goals. That system rewards those who are lucky or devious. It punishes those who are unlucky or who try to play by the rules. It is a good system to discard. At its best, it achieves suboptimal results. At its worst, it destroys good people and potentially good organizations.

In its place, Ed participatively created a vision, “We are the first organization that potential customers think to call.” He then asked his team members to figure out how to contribute. Besides the things he’d already done, an early step Ed took was to commission a focus group of unsuspecting customers of both Entré and its competitors to find out what they liked and disliked about the products and services they were receiving from their information services providers. The results significantly influenced the direction Entré took from that point on.

In his own words, Ed also eliminated appraisals, rankings, “loss reviews,” commissions, quotas, contests, and spiffs. He replaced all that with profit sharing, aggressive personal development plans created by his team members, self assessments, customer-directed job descriptions, open books, and PDSA. He also set up a new set of values and a new set of measures, including team member feedback. The company showed early growth from 18 to 55 employees, top percentile in profitability in his industry sector, outstanding customer satisfaction, and high employee morale.  There’s more.

Ed noticed along the way an organization called the Jackson (Michigan) Area Quality Initiative that was trying to encourage all of the organizations in Jackson to embrace the philosophy of Dr. Deming. At that time, there were a couple hundred such initiatives around the country, dozens of which joined a national network that Carole and I helped to organize. With his primary operations then in Lansing, Michigan, Ed decided to start the Capital Quality Initiative (CQI). He continued to be active in CQI until his recent passing. CQI continues to be a contributing part of the Lansing area scene.

From all that is said in praise of Ed Souders, perhaps the most important thing to note was not what he did, but who he was. A prominent part of the honoring of his life was his self description, “Just a range ball in a box of Titleists.” Always self-effacing, always looking to praise others, yet always there with support and guidance, he, perhaps, unconsciously, lived Lao Tzu’s description of a great leader…one about whom the people say, “We did it ourselves.” The people around Ed Souders might not say that, but Ed would say, “They did it themselves.”

It was a blessing and honor to know Ed Souders.

As always, I treasure your comments and questions.