Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Rookie's First Blog

Welcome to my new Blog! As a new blogger, I thought I’d take the time to talk in this first post about my vision for this blog. My intention is to provoke thought-provoking, open discussion on all aspects of enterprise improvement, operational excellence, continual improvement, “Big-Q” quality, Six Sigma, Lean, “Lean Six Sigma,” or whatever label you wish to use for a systemic approach to optimizing the performance of your organization for all its stakeholders.
It might seem odd that I don’t pin anything down with a label. Although I consider myself a Quality Consultant, I have recognized that over the past 20 years many of my fellow consultants have split improvement consulting into ever-smaller competitive niches. While there is much to be said for specialization and developing depth in a particular knowledge area, there is very little to be said for promoting that one area as “the” fix to a complex system. I have seen presenters at Quality conferences tout Lean over Six Sigma, Six Sigma over Lean, DMADV over DMAIC, “Lean Six Sigma” over everything else…it’s harmful to all of us, and harmful to all our clients, and it needs to stop. Now.
When he was alive, people at Deming seminars used to ask why Dr. Deming, with all his knowledge, didn’t provide specific prescriptions and methodologies. Quality professionals tended to study not only Deming, but Juran, Crosby, Kano, Ohno, Shingo and many others (i.e., Ackoff and Senge for Systems Theory, Kohn and Maslow for psychology, Lewis and Peirce for epistemology). Good quality practitioners were expected to know project management, standardization, lean (as they came to be called) tools, Cost-of-poor-quality, SPC, QFD, “seven old tools,” “seven new tools,” statistical theory, and systems theory.
Having said all that, there was a lot of variation in the Quality world. Some people followed their Gurus and only studied the others to find targets for disdain. Some became very dogmatic. Deming said that “the most important numbers are unknown and unknowable” so some people took that to mean that you don’t worry about costs, even those that are knowable. Some decided that they could act as curmudgeonly and arrogant as the Gurus themselves. These things (and more) turned many executives off.
After Deming died, consultants found that very few hiring executives cared much for philosophical approaches. Some of this reluctance could be laid on some of the consultants themselves; some of the most dogmatic “Deming Disciples” spent much of their time quoting Deming, often arguing about “what Dr. Deming said” or “what Dr. Deming meant” like biblical scholars interpreting a prophet.
I think, though, that managers just didn’t want to deal on a conceptual basis…nothing in business school had prepared them for seeing the long view or managing a system. They just wanted simple methods they could install quickly and painlessly. Six Sigma seemed in many ways to fit that bill. It was proven at GE, Motorola, and Allied Signal. It was trainable, had a defined roadmap, a hierarchical structure that could (with a reasonably small amount of pain) be bolted on to existing structures. Importantly, it could be positioned as a cost-cutting initiative rather than a quality initiative.
In the beginning, it fell to Quality professionals to develop the initial Six Sigma training materials. Black Belts were trained, who became Master Black Belts, and trained other Black Belts, who became Master Black Belts, etc. Because many of those Black Belts had had little or no previous exposure to Quality concepts and principles, their understanding of the tools suffered. They passed their subset of knowledge on to others, and more concepts and tools were lost in each generation…classic “rule four of the funnel.”
Management, too, fell victim to the dilution. Busy executives became too busy to take the time to learn enough to effectively lead Six Sigma as a strategic initiative, and upper/middle managers became too busy to take a few days to learn to be an effective champion. Process owners received little or no training to help them understand and cope with the changes and resource needs. Project selection became less strategic, sometimes devolving into Black Belts looking for their own projects and trying to find their own project champions. Some of these Black Belts ended up laid off; they sometimes found work with consulting companies.
As the focus narrowed from optimizing systems to local improvements and cutting costs, much of the rigor was diluted, and the conceptual underpinnings were often cut or minimized in the training. Deming’s fourteen points, seven deadly diseases and System of Profound Knowledge were treated as an important historical footnote…maybe included in introductory material, maybe not. Because Black Belts were not trained in simpler, non-project or small-project approaches, and all responsibility for tools rested with the Black Belts, many opportunities for process standardization & control, continual improvement, and reduction of waste were missed.
The Toyota Production System (Americanized to “Lean Manufacturing”) came in to help fill some of the gaps in Quality Management Systems. Because lean provides a relatively simple set of tools for daily management and doesn’t require much statistical knowledge, it quickly caught on. In some organizations, it was seamlessly integrated into an overall quality system; in others, it became another flavor of the month, replacing Six Sigma. In others, the boardroom decided to let Six Sigma and Lean compete for viability. Some consulting companies began selling “Lean Six Sigma.” Even simpler approaches, like Shop Floor Standardization, were lost in many organizations.
I could go on, but it’s already been a long path to get to an explanation of why I don’t call this a “Six Sigma” blog or a “Lean” blog, or even a “Lean Six Sigma” blog, even though I hope and fully expect to be discussing all these topics in depth and detail, as time goes on. What I’m going for is the kind of reasoned and mostly respectful discourse we used to have in the Deming Electronic Network. Hopefully, we can all suspend our assumptions, bring our knowledge to the table, learn and have fun!


  1. O all right Rip; I think what you have here is a provocative, thumb-in-the-eye super skinny blog, devoted to parsimoniously prevaricating on the nature of sigma. Continuous did you say? Oh my.

    Good job. Just change the name to the super-skinny, no hands barred blog. Hey, it's just a rookie mistake after all.

  2. Well, as I said, it IS my first blog. I'm not sure what "super-skinny" means, unless it's just that I don't have a lot of extra gadgets yet (they're coming). I'm a little surprized that you say I'm "parsimonious;" I'm seldom accused of not being wordy enough. I'm also a little surprized that you think I'm "prevaricating on the nature of sigma." I'm certainly not trying to deceive anyone; these observations come from years of working in Quality (Six Sigma included).
    If you disagree, it might be more useful to step up and point out what it is you disagree with, and further the discussion. Anonymous sniping

  3. Good job, Rip

    And might I say right on. I've seen some of the processes mentioned here in play, taking up valuable time and energy, yet ultimately providing lackluster results. It's not about the process, it's about the results. It seems that even the most detailed and well coordinated process has to deliver a result that is, at the very least, as valuable as the time spent.

    The "time is money" saying applies more now than ever and a solid payoff needs to be the reward for the efforts expended. There are no easy answers and that comes across loud and clear here.

    Good work and thanks for the plain speak on a complicated and controversial issue.