Six Sigma and more: The journey toward excellence

David SchwinnThis month’s column is about a recent trip to New York City and what I learned along the way. About a month ago, we attended the National Band and Orchestra festival at Carnegie Hall. The high school orchestra our granddaughter, Claire, plays in was invited to play there and we were not about to miss that event! The first stop along the way speaks to improvement and excellence in a way that is consistent with our approach to Six Sigma.

As we approached the airport, I remembered that I had forgotten to take a jacket. I was not going to Carnegie Hall without a jacket and, besides that, one of the restaurants at which Carole had made reservations required jackets for the men. We looked for a place to stop to get one and found nothing. I hoped to find something when we got to New York. Inside the airport was a Brooks Brothers store, one of my favorite places to shop. We stopped in. They had navy blazers, the perfect solution, but what most surprised me was that they seemed to have one of every size. There are probably many other travelers who forget a jacket. The fit was perfect and the price was high. We were reminded that people will pay for excellence.

Once in New York, the concert was, of course, joyous; a reminder that “practice, practice, practice” is the way to get to Carnegie Hall. There were other lessons, perhaps more important yet to learn.

We were overwhelmed with the presence of pain in all our lives when we saw mothers and sons at the Golden Theater off Broadway and when we visited the 9/11 Memorial. Mothers and sons is the story of the mother of a young man who died from AIDS and his partner at the time of her son’s death. The story takes place in the partner’s residence many years after the death of her son. There, the mother connects with not only the partner, but his new husband and their son. The play brought to me the deep pain felt by all the adults, especially because I know it afflicts so many real life people like them. The only hope and resulting invitations for reconnection and love came from the son, whose life had been one filled with his parents’ love for him.

The other pain we felt was at the 9/11 Memorial. The reminder of the stories surrounding the catastrophic event took us down, but also reminded us of our ability to survive such pain and even, sometimes, to make something useful out of it.

Those two occasions reminded us of how often we needlessly attack each other. But then we went to the Riverside Church Sunday service. Riverside is our favorite church anywhere so we attend whenever we are in New York. This Sunday was special, but every time we go it is special, so we should not have been surprised. When we got there, we found a buzz and a lot of television cameras. We asked what was up and were told that Mayor de Blasio was to attend that day. Not only did he attend, but he used that presence to acknowledge Riverside’s historic leadership in social justice. He said, “In this church all things are possible.” He then announced his intention to work with all of New York’s educational institutions to obtain pre-kindergarten education for every one of New York’s children.

All these occasions came together for me when one of my students asked our class to reflect on how life in America has changed over the last 70 years. The reflections went far afield based on stories from parents, other relatives, other instructors, and from, in some cases, firsthand experience (some of my students are mature adults). One of the themes that seemed to arise several times was how pleasant and easy it used to be when children could safely wander the neighborhood under the loving guidance and care of the whole community. This and other themes prompted a few of the students to yearn for the “good old days.” We all know that some of the old days were good and some parts were not so good. That conversation prompted me to share Russ Ackoff’s approach to planning. He identified four types of planning:

  • Reactive – Let’s go back to the “good old days.”
  • Inactive – This is crisis management, but could also include standardization, continuous improvement, Six Sigma, and other disciplines that focus on doing what we are already doing a little better.
  • Preactive – This focuses on predicting the future and then planning to be successful given that array of possibilities. This encompasses most strategic planning endeavors.
  • Interactive – This focuses on creating a future based on whatever we want, then planning to get there. This approach to planning assumes “all things are possible.” Ackoff believed that this last approach is generally the most fruitful. We might call it innovation.

In the 80’s we learned that success comes from being a quantum leap better than the alternatives in some aspect of our products and services that our customers care about. Six Sigma can help us do that. So can Interactive Design. I believe that to be successful, we must continually seek the perfect balance between improvement and innovation and “practice, practice, practice.”

One thought on “Six Sigma and more: The journey toward excellence

  1. Excellent and enjoyable lecture… brillant to use every day events to teach about the excellence

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