Six Sigma and more: Having an impact

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn learns about what others may bring to their interactions. Trying to understand these situations improves our communication, as well as our Six Sigma efforts.

As many of you already know, my wife Carole and I published The Transformative Workplace last year. Our daughter, Lisa, and her consulting partner, Roxanne Pals, have created a survey to help folks who want to do some self- and organization/community-assessments around the themes in the book. They asked a few of us to try out a first draft of the survey. What I learned about that small group of respondents, myself, and perhaps my readers, is the subject of this month’s column.

The context for this reflection is one of which many of us are aware. I am reminded of Lloyd Dobbins’ closing line in “If Japan Can…Why Can’t We,” the NBC documentary that aired in 1980 ( and introduced most of us to continual improvement. His closing line, after explaining that in the U.S., we have a history of our children doing better economically than their parents, he said “Unless we solve the productivity problem, our children will be the first generation in the history of the United States to live worse than their parents.” The other part of the context for this column is that since around 1975, the incomes for the vast majority of Americans have fallen or remained stable rather than growing which has been the history of the people of this country before that period in the mid-70s. That context greatly influences the people I serve. I teach in a community college.

My students are generally not part of the so-called upper class in this country. They are not even in an above average socio-economic stratum. Most of them do not come straight from high school. Some of them didn’t even finish high school in the traditional way. They sometimes come from very difficult journeys from other countries, seeking a better life and sometimes even seeking just to stay alive. They are mostly the working poor. They work full time when they can and sometimes they are working more than one job just to survive. They want desperately to work to earn a better life.

That work provides experience, knowledge, and wisdom that bring much to the classroom learning process. Many of my students are veterans who bring first-hand understanding of leadership, management, and work in the face of danger. Others are students who are well-regarded in their workplaces but lack the necessary academic credentials to get ahead in those workplaces. Still others are middle-aged or older adults who have been laid off in domestically dying sectors or who find themselves late in life with no source of income and no experience in the traditional workforce.

They are usually also raising a family. Sometimes, they are single heads of household. Sometimes, they are also taking care of parents who have serious income and health needs.

In summary, my students are bright, experienced, and highly motivated, but highly economically disadvantaged, with all the attendant difficulties that status brings. That brings me to what I learned from the survey.

The survey helped me see two things that I want to work on:

  1. A few of the respondents to the draft survey do not feel safe in their workplaces. They feel fearful and unable to meet their basic needs. From what I understand about human development and how our brains work in the presence of fear, it is very difficult for people to think, create, and learn when they are in this state. Seeing the results of the survey reminded me that I do not always seek to understand people as deeply as I’d like, especially when I do not understand circumstances or perspectives that are foreign to me.
  2. Many of the people who took the survey, including myself, responded that the nature of the work they do and their contributions to that work were worthy of their humanity.

My first learning prompts me to try to dig a little deeper into situations, particularly with my students, that I don’t understand or cannot relate to. Several times during each term, my students will miss class, not participate fully, come to class late, or leave early. They will sometimes ask about the consequences of these instances beforehand because they need to adapt to new assignments or new jobs at work, take care of family members or health problems, take care of transportation difficulties, or figure out a way to get to the textbook material without having to pay for the all too frequently high cost of textbooks. While I am usually able to accommodate these requests and experiences, I do not go the extra mile to more fully understand their situation. When learning and even wellbeing may be impeded because of personal situations, I want to do more. I’ve decided to try to remember to ask one or both of the following questions:

  • If it’s not too personal, would you help me better understand the situation that is arising for you?
  • How else might I be able to help?

My second learning prompts me to remind those of us engaged in noble professions that we are thus engaged, and that we have been given an important gift. On most any hierarchy of human development, being able to do work that contributes to having a positive impact on the larger world, giving back, and making life a little better for the people we touch in our work is at a high level. While many of us are privileged to receive such a gift, many more simply struggle to make ends meet. This column is a reminder to those of us who are so blessed.

Those of us in the Six Sigma world work with people every day who are struggling because of some personal disadvantage. Although those struggles may be reflected in the workplace, most people go to great lengths to hide them, so it may be hard to see them. We all are also bombarded with a multitude of information every day. Some of it makes sense and we are affirmed by it or we add it to our toolkit for future reference. Much of it makes no sense and we are programmed to ignore it or unconsciously let it bounce off us without even any awareness that it hit us. Some of it makes no sense and we are aware of it. For too much of that information, I do not try to understand. This is from where our real learning can occur and from where we can launch a newfound effort to help those with whom we work and serve. We can try to be more sensitive to that input that may seem to make no sense, and follow with questions that look something like the two I posed above.

Six Sigma is noble work. By improving quality and reducing costs, we better serve our customers and, as a result, our owners and, we hope, even our colleagues and ourselves. We also reduce the rework and scrap that causes unneeded frustration for those doing the rework. It also reduces the size of the scrap heap that we all have to live with. We Six Sigma-ers are lucky ducks. The research shows that being thankful makes us happy. What a good idea! Let’s try to remember and spread the word. I know that many of us also teach as part of our responsibilities and I recall the quote by the astronaut and teacher, Christa McAuliffe, “I touch the future. I teach.” I know we all create the future by what we do every day, but I think teaching has a special role in that way.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions.

One thought on “Six Sigma and more: Having an impact

  1. Dave – always enjoy your posts.

    The label “Six Sigma” does not do your work justice. It focuses on the efficiency side of quality, and your posts are more on the effectiveness side.

    Example: A six sigma black and white TV set does not have much of a market. However, there will always be a market for entertainment and information that the TV provides.

    I share your concern for the “working poor.” Transformation through the application of the SoPK is the only way I can think of for bringing about the needed change.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the challenge is not that we don’t know what we can do to make things better, but that for many reasons, we choose not to do it.

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