Six Sigma and more: Becoming engaged

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn comments on workplace culture in response to news about management practices at Amazon.

The recent news coverage of “bruising” and inhumane management practices at Amazon and other well-known companies got my attention because of its relevance to our new book, The Transformative Workplace: Growing People, Purpose, Prosperity and Peace, and other recent publications that are telling “the rest of the story.”

While Amazon claims that the reports are largely false or at least overstated, the recent New York Times study has generated a national, if not global, debate about workplace culture and management/leadership practices. On one side of the argument is the notion that high-pressure, competitive workplaces result in innovations and performance that would not otherwise be possible. And yet, a great deal of research suggests that overly threatening environments can cause stress and anxiety, as well as physical ailments. From a statistical perspective, the New York Times story leads me to believe that Amazon is aggressively using data to drive customer satisfaction and employee performance. While that is, of course, essential to any Six Sigma effort, the story also leads me to believe Amazon may be making some classic errors in the use of data.

While tradition tells us to gather all the data that we can because “we might need it later,” Gerald Nadler and many others have more recently asked us to gather only the data we need to accomplish the goals we want to achieve. That unneeded data dilutes our efforts at focusing on the important data and in some cases the “in case we need it” data can unintentionally drive our organizations in exactly the wrong direction. That dilemma may be helping to drive the apparent internal and unfair competition that exists at Amazon. It may also be driving some of Amazon’s product and service experimental failures in which the company seems to take such pride.

Another fundamental statistical error that Amazon, as with so many other organizations, seems to be making is to rate and rank with no understanding and application of common cause versus special cause variation. I infer from the New York Times article that this rate and rank use of internal performance data may result in the median employment tenure of Amazon employees to be one year. The whole story reminds me of the culture at Ford when I joined the company in the early 1970s.

The Ford I joined in those days included constant unfair attacks on peers as a way of getting ahead, brutal battles for resources, and impossible goals set in order to obtain more employees, influence, and compensation. All this and more drove Ford employees I knew to cover their asses, try to make other employees look bad, do only what kept them from being punished, and spend as much time as possible looking for jobs in other organizations. Thankfully, that began to change in the early 80s, or Ford certainly would have ultimately gone bankrupt. Amazon, on the other hand, may be a slightly different story.

Amazon seems to passionately use data and its internal culture to drive customer satisfaction. In the early 70s, Ford had to be only as good as General Motors. All that changed with the entry into the marketplace of Japanese auto makers in the mid-1970s. Amazon’s drive to achieve customer delight and surprise, on the other hand, may keep them in business. It seems that, as an employee, if you are willing to give your life to Amazon, work 80-90 hours every week, take no vacations, understand how to navigate the “kill or be killed” internal culture, and are lucky, you might do very well financially, if not health-wise. I believe, however, that their turnover costs and suboptimization based on their “rate and rank” culture represent an opportunity to be a much better company. I also think there is a better way for existing employees as well as the employees that have been left along the way.

In our book, The Transformative Workplace, along with stories of organizations that are creating work worthy of the human spirit, we provide substantial evidence that fostering more humane ways of being at work pays off in employees who are more loyal, hard-working, productive, and engaged. They are more positive, self-aware, inspired, creative, confident, and able to work collaboratively across differences. And, they save their organizations billions of dollars in healthcare and lost time costs due to illness, depression, anxiety, and other stress-related costs.

Our ideas may be a little edgy, but we’re not the only ones making the case for the benefits of workplaces where being human matters most. This month’s Fortune magazine features a cover story about the new Geoff Colvin book, Humans are Underrated (2015), in which he claims that we are undergoing a transition from the demand for machine age skills to the need for the “newly valuable skills of empathizing, collaborating, creating, leading, and building relationships.” We are being asked, he writes, “to become more essentially human, to be the creatures we once were and were always meant to be.”

To put this all in statistical perspective, Gallup’s most recent (2014) survey of U.S. works shows that 31.5 percent of U.S. workers are engaged in their jobs. That means that they are involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their workplace. Gallup further notes that 51.0 percent of U.S. workers are not engaged. Finally, the survey showed that 17.5 percent of U.S. workers are actively disengaged in their jobs. That last category describes these employees as “emotionally disconnected from their companies and [they] may actually be working against their employers’ interests; they are less productive, are more likely to steal from their companies, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away.” The results of this survey show me an important opportunity for improved performance at many of our organizations.

If you think all this information is as relevant to your Six Sigma effort as I do, here are a few things you can do:

I’m particularly interested in hearing about the ways in which you are assessing and trying to improve workplace engagement. I also welcome questions and other comments.