Six Sigma and more: Tired, scared, or shopping?

David SchwinnDavid asks his students how Nelson Mandela’s life might inform our views of management and leadership.

After Nelson Mandela’s death, I asked my students how Mandela’s life might inform our views of management and leadership. They were not very forthcoming with responses, and I asked them why this would be. As you can imagine, many of them are much younger than I. They responded that they had heard of him but did not know much about him. Finding that not very satisfactory, I told them my story of his life.

He found himself and most of the people in his country being treated extremely unfairly. He decided to follow Mahatma Ghandi’s model and try to overturn that unfairness with nonviolent demonstrations. That nonviolence begat violence from the country’s rulers. He then decided that he and his collaborators needed to revise this nonviolent approach, whereupon he was promptly arrested. As he was being sentenced to a life prison term, he vowed to continue his pursuit of fairness for the people of his country even if he had to give up his life doing so. In prison, he did continue his pursuit of freedom for his people. Despite extremely harsh circumstances, he continued to educate himself and the other prisoners, to plan new strategies and tactics to change the country’s situation, and to learn as much about his foe as possible.

Even as he was subject to prison, with little communication with the outside world, many of his colleagues who were not imprisoned continued the battle both inside and outside their country, South Africa. As a result of his work, the work of his colleagues, and pressure from the rest of the world as other nations became more and more dissatisfied with what was going on in South Africa, Mandela was released. He quickly negotiated an election that provided the possibility of a new government. He was elected president of this new democracy. While this new position offered him the easy opportunity to get back at the very people who so abused him and his fellow citizens, he chose to treat his previous foes as fairly as he had previously wished them to treat him. When asked if he had thought of getting revenge when he got out of prison and was in a position to take that revenge, he said that to take revenge would be to remain captive…he wanted his freedom as well as the freedom of others.

Like many others, I am taking this opportunity to celebrate Nelson Mandela, his life, and his work. Unlike many others, I choose to reflect here on how his life might inform our Six Sigma efforts. Here are a few thoughts.

What he did and who he was offer nothing new intellectually. He embraced a cause and purpose worthy of his humanity. When the path became difficult, he changed his tactics but stayed the course. When he succeeded, he embraced his former enemies. We know these are good things to do and good ways to be human. The lesson for me is that he not only understood these ideas, he acted on them…consistently.

What makes his life so extraordinary is that he continually acted in contradiction to the prevailing culture. Many of us begin with a seemingly worthy goal. The theme “Get in, get rich, get out” that has been prevalent may be simply based on a culture of greed, or it may be based on gaining the economic security and assets necessary to make a positive difference in the world. Unfortunately, many of those who begin by wanting to make a positive difference get stuck in the habit of simply making more and more money. Others choose public service.

I believe most of those who choose public service do so because they truly want to make the world a better place for those they represent. Unfortunately, many of those people get caught up in the need to get reelected in order to stay in their position long enough to make the difference. The need to stay in place usually seems to override the ability to make the difference they originally intended to make.

I believe that many of us choose education and work that will lead toward our ability to work on something worthy of our humanity. Unfortunately, I also believe that most of our institutions are acculturated to prevent that pursuit. Our wonderful friend and mentor, Meg Wheatley, recently sent my wife, Carole, a quote by Victor Lebow, a 20th-century economist, that speaks powerfully to the reason for this culture.

Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today is expressed in consumptive terms. The greater the pressures upon the individual to conform to safe and accepted social standards, the more does he tend to express his aspirations and his individuality in terms of what he wears, drives, eats- his home, his car, his pattern of food serving, his hobbies.

These commodities and services must be offered to the consumer with a special urgency. We require not only “forced draft” consumption, but “expensive” consumption as well. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing pace. We need to have people eat, drink, dress, ride, live, with ever more complicated and, therefore, constantly more expensive consumption. The home power tools and the whole “do-it-yourself” movement are excellent examples of “expensive” consumption. (Price Competition in 1955, Journal of Retailing, Spring 1955)

In the face is this overwhelming culture, I think we get tired or scared that rocking the boat will result in our own personal economic misery. Or maybe we are so immersed in the culture that we don’t even know that we can choose not to shop.

I was brought up to believe that the job of commerce is to provide products and services that meet the needs of customers. Six Sigma and continual improvement help us to more exactly meet those needs with the products and services customers want while reducing the waste associated with that work. Maybe that’s okay if we don’t destroy each other or our home while we’re at it. Anything less, I think, is unworthy of us and makes us tired, scared, and compelled to shop away our lives.

This month’s column leaves me with more questions than answers. I will treasure your insights.

2 thoughts on “Six Sigma and more: Tired, scared, or shopping?

  1. It might be difficult to implement given the power of people who benefit from the current system, but I think it would be possible to move from a consumer-based economy to a worker-based economy. Given all the unnecessary goods and services out there it should be possible to reduce the work week, increase the number of workers, and maintain a comfortable lifestyle. Just a thought.

  2. The native americans had it right. We are trapped in this superfiscial greed machine called capitalism.

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