Six Sigma and more: Less than Six Sigma

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn mulls over issues related to giving and getting directions in the workplace. The way in which one is directed by supervisors contributes to workplace satisfaction, and affects Six Sigma efforts as well.

I teach management and leadership. Recently, the topic in one of my classes was change and stress. I asked my students, who are nearly all employed and range in age from 19 to 55, what caused them the greatest stress in the workplace. Among the various responses were several related to how they and their peers get direction.

They reported regularly getting orders from as many as 15 different entities. One of these was their boss. A few more came from the bosses’ bosses. Most, however, came from people for whom they did not work. Some came from the aides of people for whom they worked. Many of the people from whom they got orders were people they did not know. In several cases, their orders apparently did not even come from individuals. They came from entities such as human relations, internet learning, security, payroll, organizational development, and purchasing. It gets worse.

My students reported that the orders they received were frequently unclear, contradictory of each other, and continuously changing (just a reminder–changing is not necessarily improving). Besides being unclear, most orders provide little assistance—or useless or none–regarding how to accomplish the demanded task. If resources were provided to help accomplish the demanded task, they frequently did not work. Sometimes seemingly reasonable deadlines were included with the orders, but more often, no deadline was provided or the one provided was unreasonable. Sometimes, when deadlines were not met, heads rolled, but more often than not, nothing happened and the original order was forgotten or revised with a new, unreasonable due date. One of the most outrageous practices I heard about was that whenever some actors gave orders, they had a regular tagline at the end of the order that said something like “If you do not adequately complete this task by the deadline, you will be subject to disciplinary action up to and including being fired.”

My students then get stressed and spend much of their time and energy worrying about what they are supposed to do and commiserating with their colleagues about the situation in general. They also take time off for legitimate stress-related illnesses. Once they get beyond this initial, natural reaction, they get to work trying to understand what people and these various entities really want. They first realize that nobody cares about much of the orders given. Did you ever hear about CYA? They next try to untangle the web of unclear and seemingly contradictory orders given by the various players.

Once a task is understood, they try to determine the process required to accomplish the task and obtain the resources required to accomplish the task. Here, they run into another minefield. Processes suggested or required are unclear and contradictory, depending on who they ask. Despite all these difficulties, my students sometimes accomplish some of what is required. It is frequently done late and at a level of quality my students are ashamed of. It’s okay, though, because no one seems to care if the task has been done, and they especially care nothing about the level of quality. But sometimes, heads roll and there seems to be no predictability about which reaction will occur.

Some of my students struggle on in that environment, but most do something to try to reduce their personal stress. They do all the regular things we are used to outside the workplace. They whine, they engage in hobbies, they exercise, they meditate, and they drink.

Most students also try to do something about the situation by taking one or some of following actions in the workplace:

  • They go to their boss and try to figure out how to untangle the mess. That hardly ever works. The boss is frequently feeling the same sense of despair the student is.
  • They simply ignore everything except when their boss, and only their boss, gives them a direct order with a deadline attached.
  • They try to find another job.

Is it any wonder that Gallup reports that only 30% of the U.S. workforce is engaged in their work (

Useful work cannot be done in such an environment. World-class or Six Sigma work can certainly not be done. This is serious, even though you may be able to do a project or two, Six Sigma cannot be successful in this kind of environment. It is, unfortunately, the situation in which many employees and managers find themselves.

Most of us in the Six Sigma world have roles both as employees and as managers. If we find ourselves as employees in this world, I suggest starting with the first thing most of my students do. Go to your boss and try to figure out how to untangle the mess. You may want to get your resume up to date first and even begin doing a little looking around for job opportunities. Some bosses take this kind of initiative on an employee’s part personally. In some cases they should, but most of the time this takes a whole-system approach to change. There is a second step.

If untangling the mess you’re in doesn’t work, just do what you believe to be absolutely required and redouble your efforts at finding work at another organization. Even though the situation I’ve described exists at all too many organizations, there are also many organizations where the situation does not exist. Go there or create your own organization. In your role as manager, you can take yet another, but noble approach to improving this situation.

You can explore how this situation impacts the people who work for you and try to change the system in a way that gets it back toward one of the most fundamental managerial precepts: a person should be responsible to only one person. If you take this approach, you may make an amazing improvement in your organization and in your Six Sigma effort, but, again, you may also get fired. Dr. Deming liked to say, “Raise your hand three times and you’re a marked man.”

No one deserves to work in the kind of system I’ve described here. We should not accept it. I treasure your thoughts and questions.

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