Six Sigma and more: Say yes…and yes, again!

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn reflects on the power of the inspiration that can be garnered from interaction among people who are doing good work in the world. In Six Sigma efforts, purpose may be more important than the “how” of what is done, he suggests.

Last evening my wife, Carole, and I attended a celebratory dinner for the family of one of my former students. Luca, my student, originally from Italy, brought his wife, Olivia, and his young daughter, Kendra. After getting his degree from us, Luca followed his wife to Oregon.

Olivia, originally from Uganda, is a family physician working primarily with disadvantaged folks. We asked her about her current work. While she loves what she is doing, she wishes that she could do more and is disappointed with how the health care funding system limits what she can do for her patients who have trouble even scraping together the cost of prescription drug co-pays. She is doing good work.

While with us at the college, Luca and Olivia were interested in starting a school in rural Uganda because it is so difficult for youngsters there to get an education. Given that Luca completed yet another degree in Oregon since that time, I asked him if he still held that vision. He said that, while maintaining his desire to start the school, his education in Oregon expanded his vision to one of solving important and difficult problems. He also noticed the need to include both quantitative analysis and, more importantly, an understanding of and appreciation for the human side of every problem and solution. He is currently applying to a Ph.D. program that will help him achieve that dream. He is doing good work.

When we arrived at the party, we knew only Margie, the hostess, Luca and his family, and one other person. The atmosphere that Margie and her husband, Dan, created helped us deepen our existing relationships and come to know most of these new “strangers.”

Owen, for example, is an Irish priest who has worked both inside and outside the life of a parish pastor. He has worked in the U.S. and all over Europe to try to make a life for the disadvantaged a little better. He is also a sociologist who is regularly invited to help resolve inter-ethnic conflicts. Another example, George, just finished his Ph.D. to continue his work toward building evermore ecologically sustainable buildings. These folks are doing good work.

Margie, a college colleague, has kind of adopted Luca and his family, and when they said they would be back in town, she decided to throw the dinner…no, the party. I don’t believe that I’ve ever been to a traditional Italian dinner before, so, perhaps to be expected, Carole and I were both positively overwhelmed by the food, the drink, the conversation…and the love. I do not know Margie well but she is generally considered to be a shining light in our institution. I now have a much deeper appreciation for that light. We were told that Margie and Dan create these kinds of events on a regular basis. She seems to seek out good people doing good work and give them a chance to appreciate and help each other. Carole and I came away with new connections, new resources, new friends, and a deeper appreciation that there are good people doing good work in a world that seems frequently to be troubled and on the verge of even more trouble. Margie is doing good work.

On the way home from the dinner, Carole asked me if I ever figured out how the dinner came together. I said I wasn’t sure. She had asked Margie, who told her a story that I had nearly forgotten.

While Luca was my student, he came to me and said that although he was pleased with the way the course was going, he was interested in doing something more that would help him learn and practice his management and leadership skills in some other way that would positively influence the community. Although that kind of request had not been given to me before, I was happy to help him toward that goal. We went to Sue, the person on campus who I thought had the most community connections. After a thoughtful conversation, we agreed to pursue the creation of an event that would encourage all our students to showcase what they were learning at the college. Since we knew this would be a large endeavor, we went to the college’s leadership council. They blessed the project and that began the relationship between Luca and Margie. Margie, one the college’s formal leaders, admired Luca’s initiative and noticed that Luca appeared to be Italian. After the meeting, she asked him more about himself, and their relationship started.

After a few weeks with Luca leading our class in the design of the event, the college’s bureaucracy shut the project down. Although we were all disappointed, I saw it as a good learning opportunity. As those of us who engage in change know, living systems tend to see change as an attack and push back. In this case, the push back was decisive. Another part of last evening’s celebration, however, was that the event that Luca tried to create is finally beginning to come alive. Most people do not remember Luca’s specific initiative, but the college culture has perhaps evolved adequately to embrace the idea. Some great ideas take a little longer to come alive and sometimes they must take a different path. This is the nature of positive change.

As I reflected on what all this has to do with Six Sigma, I first remembered Peter Block’s book, The answer to how is yes (Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, 2002) in which he says the “how” of what we do is not as important as the purpose of what we do. We need to do the important work. Next, I remembered a series of questions that I keep in my pocket. One of the questions that came from Professor Mariachi Kano, Professor Emeritus at the Tokyo University of Science, suggests that given a solution or a proposal, we should ask the purpose.

Given all this background, let me suggest that we:

  • Say yes to ourselves. We should be pursuing work that is worthy of our unique humanity.
  • Say yes to others. Begin by asking the purpose of their intention and ask about the higher purpose of it as well. Then support what others want to do by providing resources, connections, and, sometimes, another perspective and other suggested paths toward the important purpose our colleague, friend, or family member wants to pursue.
  • Say yes again and again by staying the course toward the important work.

I am reminded of the mission of the Google X innovation lab: find unusual solutions to huge global problems…a mission worthy of our humanity (The X Factor, Fast Company, May, 2014, New York).

I treasure your comments and questions.

One thought on “Six Sigma and more: Say yes…and yes, again!

  1. I like the idea of looking at purpose of things before taking action. I used to do short,easy assignments first because they were, well, short and easy. This however did push back the more larger, important assignments. When you sat back and looked at the purpose of each assignment, usually the short and easy ones made less of an improvement impact on the company. It was time to work on the larger, more important projects.

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