Six Sigma and more: Purpose, passion, and performance

David SchwinnDavid Schwinn shares examples of solid leadership with purpose, passion, and performance—qualities to be developed in everyday work life.

Carole and I attended the Positive Business Conference in Ann Arbor, sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, last month. The focus of the conference was on best practices for increasing passion, purpose, and performance within an organization.

These three themes reminded me of a personally moving experience a few weeks ago in Chicago. Our son, Steve, finished up his year-long role as the Edward T. & Noble W. Lee Chair in Constitutional Law at the John Marshall Law School with a public address. We have always been proud of Steve, but his public farewell address was overwhelming. He has become the kind of person I strive to be. He shared what he’s been up to this last year, beginning with helping bring suit against the United Nations for bringing cholera to Haiti and ended by helping bring suit against the U.S. government for a young Afghan teenager who was accused of terrorism, then kept and tortured long after the government had acknowledged that, in fact, the young man had nothing to do with terrorism.

As Steve shared these and other stories, I could not help but see a purposeful and passionate man who was simultaneously smart, articulate, respectful, gracious, and humble by robustly sharing what others contributed to his accomplishments, and eager to learn more. During a brief conversation Steve and I had after the address, I was struck by the fact that all he could say was how proud of and thankful he was for the intelligence and passion of his students.

The research of Ross School of Business Professor Kim Cameron and his team have outlined a few ways for increasing passion, purpose, and performance, including:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes.
  • Inspiring one another at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.

While the similarity between what Steve offered and Cameron’s research might be obvious, I’d like to put my own spin on it. For me, it starts with purpose.

Both Steve and the folks in the Positive Organizational Studies section of Michigan Ross have consciously chosen to do work that makes the world a better place. I believe the vast majority of us want to make the world a better place. Since we spend most of our time and energy at work, why not pursue that purpose at work? Unfortunately many, if not most, of us feel we cannot do that at work. Those doing Six Sigma work have a leg up on most others in the workplace. We get to help simultaneously reduce waste and better serve our customers. That seems like a way to make the world a better place.

In my role as a professor in a community college, I get to help students, many of whom have grown up amidst a variety of circumstances that make it hard for them to succeed, earn a decent living or make the world a better place in the workplace after graduation. Frequently we forget how fortunate we are to be in such purposeful roles. Here’s a place to start. In being more conscious about purpose, we can:

  • Figure out how we help make the world a better place in our workplace.
  • Begin every day by reminding ourselves and our colleagues that we are so blessed.
  • If we can’t find that larger purpose in our current work, talk with others in the workplace about how things might change to permit this to happen.
  • If we can’t find that larger purpose where we currently work, begin to search for or create a workplace where we can achieve that larger purpose. Life is too short.

The next step for me is easy. Be passionate. You may have noticed that I rearranged the order from the one used by the Michigan Ross folks to purpose, passion, and performance. I did that because when I worked in the auto industry, many times I could find no purpose to my work beyond getting another apparently meaningless assignment done before I was called to task because it was late.

During those days, I frequently stood before the mirror to psych myself up before going to work. I suppose it helped a little, but being genuinely passionate was not part of who I was at work during those days. For many years now, I have felt my work to be worthy. Passion is easy. I am also reminded that the cure of burn-out is wholeheartedness…another way to say passion, I think. Carole reminds us of that in her “Circles of Transformation” assignment on Wholeheartedness where she recounts a life-changing conversation that Welsh poet David Whyte had with his friend, the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast. As he prepared for a much-needed evening of sharing a glass of wine and their mutual passion for poetry, Whyte “could feel how utterly exhausted I was in body and spirit.” A short part of the conversation includes:

Tell me about exhaustion, I [David Whyte] said.

He looked at me with an acute, searching, compassionate ferocity for the briefest of moments, as if trying to sum up the entirety of the situation and without missing a beat, as if he had been waiting all along, to say a life-changing thing to me. He said, in the form both of a question and an assertion:

‘You know that the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest?’

‘The antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest,’ I repeated woodenly, as if I might exhaust myself completely before I reached the end of the sentence. ‘What is it, then?’

‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’

He looked at me for a wholehearted moment, as if I should fill in the blanks. But I was a blank to be filled at that moment, and though I knew something pivotal had been said, I had not the wherewithal to say anything in reply. So he carried on:

“You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers. You know what that is; I don’t have to tell you.” (David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea, New York, Riverhead Books, 2001)

With purpose, and passion, naturally comes performance. I know not how Steve manages to do all the work he does while helping raise a family. I think it happens because of the wonderful partnership he has with his bright and loving wife, Susie. The only thing to add is that we do not perform alone. Steve’s acknowledgement of the roles others play in his success and the highlights from the Michigan Ross conference Carole attended speak volumes to the fact that we need to nurture ourselves and others and lie within a community where teamwork and collaboration is honored.

That’s all, folks. I think if we just remember and act on the three P’s, our Six Sigma efforts will thrive.

As always, I treasure your comments and questions.

Read more about Professor Kim Cameron’s research at

If you’d like to read the chapter, “Engaging in Meaningful Work” in our book The Transformative Workplace (Transformations Press Unltd., 2015), email


One thought on “Six Sigma and more: Purpose, passion, and performance

  1. An inspirational and frustrating article. It’s the spiritual equivalent to the guidance provided to overweight people that it’s all about diet and exercise.

    Variation is the gap between an ideal (achieving optimal levels of performance by living with purpose and passion) and the actual. As Deming reinforced, reducing variation (from the ideal) has always been the key to quality – excellent quality being the result of doing the right things.

    Along with your recent book, you’ve supported the case and designed the framework (TQT) that could be enhanced to support a national if not global level transformation that can produce results where we all gain, or at least are not any worse off.

    Ever think about creating a non-profit in support of the needed transformation?

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