Six Sigma and more: Preaching to the choir

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn remarks on the ways that organizations undermine win-win opportunities in the name of competition, and how an approach to quality management through Six Sigma efforts can counter that tendency.

I recently had a dream in which Adrian Bass, a colleague and friend for whom I have much admiration, asked me why I still care about quality management after all these years. You can substitute Six Sigma for quality management because, in my mind, they are both part of a larger belief system that supports win-win solutions to the world’s problems at a time when the world still too often defaults to win-lose solutions. Let me provide a few examples of the way we default into win-lose approaches to improvement:

  • We try to make our peers look bad in order to make ourselves look good and get the promotion or other reward. We even have human resource management systems and corporate cultures that encourage that kind of behavior. Rate and rank, Dr. Deming used to call it. Bill Conway, the CEO of the Nashua Corporation, called it carrots and sticks…reward the ones who do what you want and punish the ones who don’t. Never mind that the lack of resources stacked against management’s requirements makes it impossible to achieve excellence for many of us. Once Conway realized the problem, he said his new job was to “help the people.”
  • We spread lies about other departments to secure their resources and grow our own size and power.
  • We spy on our competitors in order to get a bigger piece of the pie rather than growing a bigger pie. By the way, it’s not just the Chinese. Plenty of us spy domestically.
  • We squeeze our suppliers to reduce prices rather than working with them to produce ever improving products and services for our customers.
  • We create unreasonable situations for those who desire financial help by providing loans that cannot be repaid, then lie to others about the quality of the loans in order to get out from underneath the anticipated defaults. We even bet that they will default, so that we can get yet another uptick in our revenue stream.
  • We manipulate the governmental systems to maintain the status quo that maximizes our own short-term profit while we continue to deplete and pollute the world’s nonrenewable resources. We even help raise the temperature of our planet so that, even if we survive that change personally, our children and their children are likely to find a vastly more difficult world in which to live.
  • We off shore jobs to reduce costs rather than think how we could use the untapped resources within our employees to create thriving enterprises.
  • We set up schemes to employ overseas low cost labor in situations so bad that those employers need to install safety nets to reduce the numbers of suicides resulting from their workers attempting to jump to their deaths from the very buildings in which they work because the working conditions are so inhumane.
  • Our political leaders even listen to their opponents only to find ways to attack and defeat them so they can get or stay in office. They forget that very strategy prevents them from cooperating to help the citizens who put them into office in the first place.

Maybe it’s just a few “bad apples” that create these situations. I prefer to think, as the Buddhists explain, that they and we are just unskilled or maybe unconscious or unthinking that there is a better way to be and behave.

The Industrial Age taught us to treat workers as machines. People who were not part of our “clan” were considered a threat and, therefore, as those whom it was okay to abuse and even destroy. We were also taught to think of the earth as an unlimited bowl of resources to be used, polluted, and discarded at will. But most of us, especially those of us educated in the continual improvement, quality management, and Six Sigma disciplines, know better, now, at least intellectually.

Six Sigma focuses on providing “perfect” products and services to our customers while reducing waste, as one way to achieve win-win rather than win-lose solutions. Six Sigma practitioners also know:

  • How to treat our employees and other stakeholders like the amazing human beings we all are rather than as machines with no brains or spirit;
  • How to embrace ever larger systems and begin to treat our peers as partners rather than competitors, and to treat our suppliers, competitors, and customers as partners, and the earth as our home;
  • How to treat our politicians as colleagues and partners as well as servants instead of entities unworthy of our respect;
  • How to treat those whose words and deeds seem unreasonable as old friends, who have come to a different perspective but whose story is worthy, even valuable, to understand.

Knowing these things intellectually, however, is not enough. For me it has to get from my brain into my spirit and into my gut. I need not only to understand these things, but I need to behave differently because I believe we are at what Malcolm Gladwell calls a “tipping point,” what Beth Jarman and George Land call a “breakpoint,” and what Fritjof Capra calls a “turning point.” We’ve been here for a while and are quickly running out of time.

Although “industrial age” thinking is deeply ingrained in all of us, we can all do a little something to help ourselves operate at a more conscious level and, indeed, I believe we must. For my part, I’ll try to continue telling the story to more people. Please tell me what you’re already doing or intend to do. I’d like to share your stories with others. If you’d like to know what some other folks around the world are already doing, check out our new book, Transformative Workplace, at

As always, I treasure your stories, comments, and questions.

David Schwinn

David Schwinn