Six Sigma and more: Where we stand

David SchwinnBeginning a new year, David reflects on light, learning, wisdom, and what we bring to the workplace.

Wherever you stand, be the Soul of that place. – Rumi

I was blessed last week to spend two glorious days with my wife, Carole, our daughter Lisa, and her consulting partner, Rox. Those two days were a model for how we could be in every one of our workplaces… and the world would be a better place for it.

Every conversation began in those two days with “What do you think?” Every response to that question was followed by “Yes!” or “I agree and …” In many of our workplaces, if not most of them, the conversation, if we could even call it that, begins with a statement. That statement is followed by another statement that disagrees, criticizes, or ignores the previous statement(s). And on it goes with a few people speaking over and over again with most of those present being quiet. The quiet ones may be listening attentively and see no need to agree, their minds may be somewhere else, they may be secretly or even openly checking their electronic devices, or they may be silently and angrily wondering why they have been asked to waste their time in such a way.

I am reminded of a Quaker sentiment that I think I first heard from Parker Palmer. Since I cannot find the exact quote, my paraphrase is that it is wrong to be silent if the Spirit moves me to speak and it is wrong to speak unless the Spirit moves me to do so. The other thought that I try to remember in “difficult” meetings is a phrase by Eric Allen, “Everyone is my teacher…” Wouldn’t our Six Sigma efforts be better if we all just listened deeply and spoke thoughtfully?

Those two days were about more than just my appreciation for the communication process we used. We came together to explore how we might take our new book, The Transformative Workplace into the world. We quickly agreed that we were not interested in just selling the book. We agreed that we wanted to take the essential spirit of the book into the places where we humans work. We want to help and encourage people to “care about themselves, care about each other, and care about us all.” This sentiment goes back to one of Carole’s favorite sayings, “It’s not what we do, but who we are when we show up.” As our conversation naturally evolved toward Ken Wilber’s “Theory of Everything” model, Lisa called out the center of his four quadrant model as “heartwood.” In Wilber’s model, the center is where we start our human development. I had never heard anyone name it as heartwood before. I have come to believe that we all start as heartwood before the world with all its trials, pain, and difficulties can scar over our essence.

Some human development models track the process from self-interest, to interest in others, to interest in all human beings, to interest in all sentient beings. It struck the four of us that the journey of human development might take us from our beginnings as heartwood back to those beginnings. That is one of the seeming contradictions that most human development theories fail to address. It also gives us a target for our developmental journey.

As I continue to reflect on our conversation about being and doing, I am reminded of a story in Robert Fulghum’s It was on fire when I lay down on it (Ivy Books, NY: 1989) about the meaning of life. In the story, Fulghum writes about Alexander Papaderos shining a light. Maybe the light is the heartwood. I’ll share the story:

“I went to an institute dedicated to human understanding and peace on the isle of Crete, a brutal battle site in World War II. At the last session on the last morning of a two-week seminar on Greek culture, led by intellectuals and experts in their fields, Alexander Papaderos, the seminar leader, rose from his chair at the back of the room and walked to the front, where he stood in the bright Greek sunlight of an open window and looked out. We followed his gaze across the bay to the iron cross marking a German cemetery from WWII. He turned and made the ritual gesture: ‘Are there any questions?’

“Quiet quilted the room. These two weeks had generated enough questions for a lifetime, but for now there was only silence. ‘No questions?’ Papaderos swept the room with his eyes. So, I asked. ‘Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?’” The usual laughter followed, and people stirred to go. Papaderos held up his hand and stilled the room and looked at me for a long time, asking with his eyes if I was serious, and seeing from my eyes that I was.

“‘I will answer your question.’ Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, he fished into his leather billfold and brought out a very small round mirror, about the size of a quarter. And what he said went like this:

“‘When I was a small child, during the war, we were very poor and we lived in a remote village. One day, on the road, I found the broken pieces of a mirror. A German motorcycle had been wrecked in that place. I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it was not possible, so I kept only the largest piece. This one. And by scratching it on a stone, I made it round.’

“‘I began to play with it as a toy and became fascinated by the fact that I could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine – in deep holes and crevices and dark closets. It became a game for me to get light into the most inaccessible places I could find. I kept the little mirror, and as I went about my growing up, I would take it out in idle moments and continue the challenge of the game. As I became a man, I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game, but a metaphor for what I might do with my life.

“‘I came to understand that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light – truth, understanding, knowledge – is there, and it will only shine in many dark places if I reflect it. I am a fragment of a mirror whose whole design and shape I do not know. Nevertheless, with what I have, I can reflect light into the dark places of this world – into the black places in the hearts of men – and change some things in some people. Perhaps others may see and do likewise. This is what I am about. This is the meaning of my life.’”

Maybe we are meant to find the heartwood in ourselves and shine it on ourselves and others. Maybe we are meant to find the heartwood in others and in the behavior we see around us and in the world so we can shine it on ourselves and others. Maybe, in that way, we can be the Soul of where we stand…and, in so doing, make our workplace become a little more sacred. Six Sigma is necessary, but insufficient.

As always, I treasure your comments and questions.