Six Sigma and more: Try telling the truth

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn addresses the process of getting to “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” when it comes to using data.

My wife, Carole, and I recently saw the video, “Promised Land.” In it, a gas company salesman tries to get the residents of a relatively poor town to sign away their property rights and permit the company to drill down to hydraulically fracture, or frack, shale to release natural gas. The salesman lies to the people to get them to release their rights. An environmentalist then shows up to show the residents the risks of fracking. He, too, is shown to be a liar. A lot of lying is going around.

In retrospect, however, I may be holding these folks to too high a standard. I’m thinking about “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” we hear about in court. In the movie, the salesmen mostly didn’t tell the whole truth, and encouraged people to believe overly optimistic expectations about the results of their work. They forgot to share the possible unintended consequences of signing up. But lying seems to be everywhere, when you think about it.

President Bashal al-Assad of Syria apparently lied when he said he had no chemical weapons one day, and then talked about turning them over to a third party the next. Remember Enron, whose executives lied to their stockholders, walked away with millions, and left their stockholders and employees penniless? Think about the mortgage lenders who led their clients down a primrose path toward mortgage loan defaults. Then there are the investment banks who wrapped up those bad loans into nearly impossible-to-understand collateralized debt obligations that they aggressively sold to other investors.

My personal experience with lying in the workplace begins with my years at General Motors. In the 1960s and 70s, we would generally inflate our requests for project funding and set our goals low to maximize our chances for success as managers. That was actually a pleasant use of lying for us. The only downside was that our customers paid a little bit more for their cars. When I went to Ford in the 70s and 80s, I found a much less benign environment regarding lies. We were happy to make up anything that would enhance our careers or destroy the careers of others. I am told that environment did not exist everywhere in the company, but it sure did exist where I worked. But I don’t think lying is necessary to organizational success.

When I left Ford, we started a 25 year consulting practice where, I believe, we told the truth. As a result, we lost several potential customers, but the ones we got were the kinds of customers we like to serve and work with. Whenever we ran into any kind of dilemma, Carole liked to remind us, “When all else fails, tell the truth.” That little phrase continues to work for us.

As I reflect on what I think it means to tell the truth, I am reminded of Jamshid Gharajedaghi’s notion that “objective data” is only generally-agreed-upon subjective data, and Peter Senge’s observation that we made it all up. I have been told that I am thoughtful, especially in the classroom. That is because in the classroom, in particular, my students may take what I say as the truth. Ghrajedaghi’s and Senge’s thoughts remind me that what I say may not always be “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

I carry a list of questions with me that I find especially useful to ask as a manager. One of them comes from Professor Noriaki Kano. He suggests that when given a “fact,” we should ask:

  • How do you know?
  • Where’s the data?
  • How did you get the data?

These are, I think, good questions to ask whenever we are trying to get at the truth. They are also good questions to answer as part of “telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Telling the truth is challenging business, but I think it is worth trying…in our Six Sigma efforts and in life, in general.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions.