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Quality Transformation With David Schwinn

Six Sigma

Six Sigma and More: It’s the System, Stupid!

Ruminating on front-line blame

Published: Thursday, May 12, 2011 - 04:30

As we continue our sabbatical journey, more opportunities for the improvement of management practices continue to appear. This month, the overriding theme that I have observed is the lack of front-line performance that seems to be a result of the system. I have been reminded of the many times we as managers and leaders have blamed front-line folks for system-induced problems when, in fact, the systems we have devised have caused the problems. Here are a few opportunities I have observed on our trek.

In my May 2011 column (“Under-Promise, Over-Deliver”), I wrote about our school travel agent and the theme of meeting, and even exceeding, customer expectations. As I think about some of our encounters since then, I may have settled on last month’s theme because of my own shortcomings. Barb Hummel, a good friend and colleague of my wife, Carole, and mine, used to say we had “big eyes.” She meant we were likely to take on challenges that seemed to be beyond our known, existing capabilities. That may still be true. This sabbatical may be a recent example. Our past record shows that we usually accomplish that which we go after, but it usually takes much more effort than we had anticipated. That is certainly true for this journey. All this leads to the first example of an opportunity.

Perhaps because of the tendency described above, we found ourselves needing visas to enter India and Cambodia and didn’t have adequate time to get them without extraordinary effort. Our solution was to drive five hours to Chicago to take our travel documents to a special agency designed to process Indian visa applications quickly.

We got there, waited in a relatively short line, but just as we were about to go to the counter to submit our documents, the office manager came out and announced that the India Embassy had made a change to application requirements that required having birth certificates as part of the application package. We, of course, did not have birth certificates with us. There was no opportunity for any application in process to go forward. Thank goodness, the manager worked with us to suggest yet another agency in Chicago that might be able to help us. They did, and we finally got all our visas squared away after further extraordinary efforts on our part. We never got an explanation for the abrupt change in application requirements.

I am now a little more sensitive to India’s continuing concern about security. Maybe that is why they decided to make the change so quickly and decisively, but these days international news seems to indicate that a government that does not at least try to take care of its citizens is at some risk. In India, people don’t seem to like the government much.

But then, people in the United States don’t seem to like the government much, either. I like the idea of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Although I believe that elected U.S. officials usually are more concerned about getting reelected than serving the people, I also believe that most of our public servants are trying to do the right thing. Maybe the same is true in India, maybe not.

In either case, those shortcomings seem to be system problems. It seems to me any government ought to serve folks the way other organizations try to serve people.

In South Africa, we ran into a problem with our carry-on luggage. Their standards for acceptable carry-on luggage seem to be inconsistent. The standard we are used to is one carry-on and one personal bag, both of which must comply with the airline’s standard size, which seems to be universal. One time, one of my bags was deemed to be too heavy (weight requirements were not clear), and one time, one of Carole’s bags was deemed to be too large, although it was no larger than any of our other luggage. Maybe we ran into front-line folks who were inept at their jobs, but my guess is that there was a system problem with inadequately defined and communicated operational definitions of acceptable luggage limits.

Without boring you with too many stories, let me describe one more impression. Airport processing in India was essentially a set of very long lines and many security checks. It seemed as though if someone needed a job, someone else would just tell this person to provide another security check. I am reminded of W. Edward Deming’s statement about 200-percent inspection being the same as no inspection at all. That’s apparently not a lesson Indian airport systems have learned.

In contrast, I must tell you about two of the folks we had the privilege to interview on our trip to India. Prakash Apte, president and managing director of Syngenta India Ltd., and Ravi Kant, vice chairman of Tata Motors Ltd. Without prompting, both focused on the need to stay close to your customers and the people who work for you, and to continually try to serve them better. That sounds like a reasonable Six Sigma intention. If we remember that our job as managers and leaders is to create and continually improve the systems that support that intention, I think our Six Sigma efforts will thrive.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.


About The Author

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn’s picture

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn

David Schwinn, an associate of PQ Systems, is a full-time professor of management at Lansing Community College and a part-time consultant in the college’s Small Business and Technology Development Center. He is also a consultant in systems and organizational development with InGenius and INTERACT Associates.

Schwinn worked at Ford’s corporate quality office and worked with W. Edwards Deming beginning in the early 1980s until Deming’s death.  Schwinn is a professional engineer with an MBA from Wright State University. You can reach him at support@pqsystems.com.  



Continuous Improvement

"and continually improve the systems that support that intention, I think our Six Sigma efforts will thrive" ... back to the future ... Six Sigma morphs into Continuous Improvement !  At least that will give them a better chance of good quality.


Continuous Improvement

"and continually improve the systems that support that intention, I think our Six Sigma efforts will thrive" ... back to the future ... Six Sigma morphs into Continuous Improvement !  At least that will give them a better chance of good quality.