Six Sigma and more: Tell me a story

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn writes about putting storytelling to good use to reinforce Six Sigma processes and tools.

I recently finished reading Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull, president of PIXAR ANIMATION and DISNEY ANIMATION (2014, Random House, New York). On the jacket cover, he provides six great ideas for managing and leading a creative organization. Inside he wraps up with 33 “starting points.” In a fascinating afterword honoring Steve Jobs, he shares one of the high points of the book for me. “He (Steve Jobs) believed, as I do, that it is precisely by acting on our intentions and staying true to our values that we change the world.” What I best understood from the book, however, was that he consciously wrote it as a story. Throughout the book, he continually reflected on the need to have not only state-of-the-art technology, but also a great story to tell if a production is to be successful. I was reminded of how often I have heard that theme and how it is important to my own teaching style.

On our den bookshelves sit three books by Dr. Seuss, the master of using simple stories to tell us, our children, and our grandchildren life’s important lessons. Storytelling is also an important part of many organizational development approaches.

Appreciative Inquiry, for example, was developed by David Cooperrider to minimize the “getting stuck” effect of many prior problem solving and organizational methods. One of the first steps he advocates is to inquire into stories of life-giving forces. My 2011 sabbatical also showed me the power of story.

My wife Carole and I had an opportunity to interview Kolbjorn Valestrand and Signe Aarhus, the owners of Oleana, a world class luxury knitwear company in Arna, Norway. They noted that the future belongs to the storytellers. The story of their company is what drew me to them. They share it widely. They tell the stories of their garments, their design process, and their production process. Just Google “marketing and storytelling” and you can see it is a popular topic. My sabbatical also took us to the use of storytelling as a broader development process.

Chene Swart, a consultant near Johannesburg in South Africa, uses story to help both individuals and organizations change the course of their paths. Chene works with others to help them tell their stories, mostly so they can “re-write and re-author the narratives of their lives.” When we met her, she focused her work in South Africa. Since then, we are blessed to have her visit the U.S.A. from time to time.  As I consider all this, I go back to what may have sensitized me to the storytelling aspect of Creativity, Inc.

When I began teaching and consulting more than 30 years ago, someone told me that storytelling is a most powerful way to communicate and to teach. Being an engineer who was trained to persuade using data, numbers, logic, and facts, that took me by surprise. I have, however, embraced it as the best way to teach my students. It seems to work.

As I consider how this applies to Six Sigma, I want to remind you that we cannot forget the process, logic, data gathering, and data analysis inherent in Six Sigma, but storytelling can add a significant boost to our effort. Our customer relations are likely to benefit from telling our customers the stories of our company, our products and services, our processes, our values, and our people. Those same stories will also serve to bring our other stakeholders, including investors, suppliers, and employees, closer together.

Without really understanding the power of story, we used it to encourage and reinforce our efforts toward continual improvement years ago at Ford. We searched out success stories in our operations and within our supply base. We took those stories and put them into written reports and presentations that told the stories of those improvement projects in a way that celebrated the successes, made the process used clear, and showed explicit examples of analytic, statistical, and creative tools used along the way. We did that to encourage more folks to embrace a new way of doing business, to help them see that all the training they were going through could be applied to make a real difference, and to see how they might best launch their own efforts.

I think what we’ve learned here is that we can put storytelling to good use to reinforce our Six Sigma processes and tools and that we can use it to more closely involve other stakeholders like our suppliers, customers, and investors. We can use it to strengthen our values and to even teach life lessons. Finally, we can use it as a springboard to launch change that may be necessary to improve our Six Sigma efforts.

As always, I treasure your comments and questions.