Parable of the Sower: 1. Experience the Other, Not the Narrative

“Human beings are memory machines, for better or for worse. There is an autobiographical narrative that is alive inside all of us.”  Dr. Keith Witt

A narrative is what creates continuity out of the chaos of experience.   Rather than history being the story of “one damned thing after another”, as Arnold Toynbee once said of some of his fellow historians, it is supposed to be a story, an interpretive lens through which one views the events of history.

But like anything else, a narrative can be something which obscures experience rather than illuminates it.   One way to view racism is to see it as the phenomenon viewing individuals through the narrative one has received about their race, rather than seeing them as, well, individuals.   When you see a black person or a white person, you see them in terms of the “black” or “white” rather than in terms of a “person.”    Then you paste over that person’s face a mental picture you have based on the narrative you have developed about their race.   In other words, you no longer see them, you see the label you have created, and it is therefore a form of blindness.   That’s why they call it prejudice, because you are prejudging the person based on that narrative and not who they really are.

The cure is to start seeing people as people.   I remember when I grew up in the village of Homewood, and there were only about a dozen black people in the local high school I went to.   Although I saw them in the hallways, I didn’t have any of them in my classes, and wasn’t personal friends with any of them, so I had no experience of them as individual people at that time of my life.   It was only after I left college and worked in the city of Chicago that I had colleagues who were black, and I lived in an area that was predominantly black rather than predominantly white that gradually “black people” became “people.”   How did this happen?

Through observation, I saw their personal characteristics and they became individuals to me.   And then through experience, I could see that I had interests in common with some of them.   This process continues today in my Toastmasters club, where our club has a mix of black and white members, but we are all there for the common purpose of improving our public speaking and leadership abilities.   I don’t care whether a new member is white or black, but whether he or she is committed to improving him or herself.

But if you have a narrative which says “black people are …”, or “white people are …” based on some narrative you have been handed to you in a prepackaged form, then you are cheating yourself of the experience of meeting real individuals.  There will be some individuals you meet of any race whom you will like more than others but that will be based on their personal qualities or values, not the color of their skin.

But to be fair to myself, I know that whenever I meet a new person, I have to fight against the tendency of prejudging people based on superficial characteristics.   I know that brains like wrapping the myriad impressions they receive into a package which makes simple to comprehend.    But if it is too simple, it becomes … simplistic and robs one of the variety lying underneath that surface.

When you truly experience the variety that exists in the other, then you naturally create connections based on correlations between the elements in their make-up and those same elements in your own.    But when you label them with a narrative, you aren’t really seeing them at all but a projection of your own self.   How many times have I heard a white person say “black people make me nervous”?    If that were true, one way to solve their problem would be, “well, then make sure to avoid black people.”   But I know that’s not the problem.

When I hear that phrase, I automatically translate it into “my idea of black people makes me nervous.”   The solution to that problem is obvious:   “well, then make sure to change your ideas about black people.”

In the end, it reminds me of saying #113 from the Gnostic Gospel according to St. Thomas:

His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” 

Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”    

The kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth in the guise of other people.   Your job is to see it.


Parable of the Sower: 10 Ways of Healing a Fractured Nation

I was planning to write a series of blog posts last week, but I was sandbagged by two events, 1) the decisions by grand juries not to prosecute anyone for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the ensuing protests, 2) the revelations of the so-called Torture Report that our government condoned the torturing of prisoners.

It seemed in both cases that both the values and the institutions of this country were somehow broken, and it was very disheartening.   I had no mental energy to blog, and in this lowly state I caught a cold which dug in and refused to dislodge itself for several days.   So the theme of “healing” had been on my mind earlier this week when suddenly the phrase “the parable of the sower” came to me while I was warming my body in the shower.

It was interesting because that phrase has a double connotation for me.   The phrase “Parable of the Sower” reminds me of the Biblical parable told by Jesus which most scholars think is optimistic in outlook, in that despite numerous initial failures of the seed to take because of the unreceptive ground on which it is cast, eventually the “seed” cast by the sower will be successful, take root and produce a large crop.   

The other connotation of the phrase “Parable of the Sower” for me is the science-fiction dystopic novel written by Octavia Butler.   It is set in a future where the government has collapsed and society has reverted to anarchy due to the extremes of economic inequality.   Lauren Olamina, a young African-American woman, develops hyperempathy, the ability to feel the pain and sensations of others, escapes with some survivors after her community is destroyed and her family murdered.   On the route north with some survivors, she tries to start a community where her religion called Earthseed which espouses the central tenet

“whether you’re a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true:

All that you touch,

You Change,

All that you Change

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is Change.”

I am inspired by Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” to write about trying to heal a fractured community.   However, it is not as grand as Lauren Olamina’s vision of a new religion which recreates a new community in the collapsed remnants of the old.   What I want to do is write about those ways in which I personally plan to try to “light a candle in the darkness” in order not to start a new community per se, but at least to make life in this little corner of the community a little bit better for those around me.   Some of my efforts will not bear fruit, so I have to focus on my actions themselves, and not the fruits of those actions.   I have to have faith in the “Parable of the Sower” from the Bible in that most of my efforts will not be successful, but the ones that are successful … will have an effect.

Here’s the series of posts I plan on writing as part of the series.

1.  Experience the Other, not the Narrative

2.  Choose:  Pay it Forward or Break the Chain

3.  Find a Balance between Compassion and Tough Love

4.  Increase your Relationship-Wealth

5.  Empathize with Your Enemies

6.  Come out of the Shadow

7.  Adjust your Attitude and your Altitude

8.  Communicate in a Sacred Manner

9.  Learn a New Language:  Become a Mapmaker

10.  Follow the Hero’s Journey: Become a Mythmaker

This is a series of personal posts that I plan to write until the New Year arrives, and I hope to reflect on what I have been able to learn in the past year and a half since I have moved back here to the Chicagoland area from Southern California.   Of course, I write out of my own experience in the hope that some readers will find some echo of their own experience in what I write.   Hey, I’m just planting seeds, after all!

Six Sigma–Preparing an Organization’s Culture for Change

The last two chapters of the book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations, by Mikel Harry, Ph.D., and Richard Schroeder, contain some very interesting material.

Most of the book is concerned with how to get the physical results changed through a Six Sigma process run by Black Belts.    Both of these are external phenomena, meaning that one deals with the physical environment, and the other with the social environment in the form of a Six Sigma project team.

The last two chapters deal with internal phenomena, namely, the psychology of Six Sigma (chapter 14) and the culture of Six Sigma (chapter 15).   A culture is a series of shared values, and the authors talk about how to prepare an organization’s culture so that Six Sigma can effectively change the organization.

Mikel Harry’s belief is that, rather than trying to change a company’s culture to adopt Six Sigma in order to achieve hard, unmistakable results, the adoption should be done first with an eye towards achieving hard, unmistakable results which then force an organization to reassess values and beliefs.

And yet … and yet I wonder if there has to be some sort of psychological and social priming that has to occur first.  It must become apparent that old practices no longer work.   This gives people a sense of being open to new solutions.    A very telling anecdote comes in the beginning of the section called “Results Change Cultures; Cultures Don’t Change Results.”

Joseph Juran was one of the masterminds behind the Japanese approach to quality.   Its focused efforts to recover after it lost in World War II made it more receptive to change than the Western world which had won the war.   It made the phrase “Made in Japan” go from being synonymous with shoddy goods prior to World War II to meaning world-class quality as it does now.  The words he and Dr. Edwards Deming were NO DIFFERENT than the ones they had been telling American audiences for years.   The difference was that the Japanese audiences heard and interpreted them.   It was only after economic shocks had rocked the Western world in the 1970s and 1980s that Americans started paying attention to what they had been saying.

You have to create success stories with your first Six Sigma projects that will break the resistance of others to its power to change the organization.   In retrospect, this is why the selection of Six Sigma projects has to start with those that have the greatest impact in terms of reduction of defects that are critical-to-quality and which impact the bottom line.

In fact, this is analogous to the success story of Six Sigma, but on a global scale.   Companies like GE and Motorola whose company culture has been transformed through the success brought about by Six Sigma cause other companies, first in similar industries, and then in industries totally unrelated, to think “maybe we can have a similar success?”   It is in the posing of that question of wonder that the mind becomes open to the possibility of it happening.   Unfortunately, like many great ideas, it doesn’t necessarily take hold in an organization like wildfire.   Why?  Because there are many “wet blankets” who are willing to put out that fire because the methods are new and are outside their comfort zone.   Well, you know what else is outside one’s comfort zone?   Having one’s company go out of business?

In the tumultuous economic times we now live in with global competition, one can literally not afford to be aware of Six Sigma.   That’s why in the first month of the new year coming up, my first New Year’s resolution is to obtain my Green Belt certification.   In today’s world, it is a vocabulary you need to learn in order to be able to converse fluently with those who speak the language of quality!

Toastmasters District 30 (Chicagoland) Winter Toastmasters Leadership Institute

to be continued on Sunday, December 7th

Toastmasters District 30 (Chicagoland) Winter Toastmasters Leadership Institute

to be completed on Sunday, 12/07/2014

Six Sigma–The Psychology of Motivating Black Belts

In explaining the psychology behind Six Sigma, the authors of the book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations, Mikel Harry, Ph.D., and Richard Schroeder use a familiar figure from the psychology of human motivation, Abraham Maslow.

Maslow pointed out that human needs can be placed in a hierarchy as follows:

  1. Physiological–hunger, thirst, shelter, sex
  2. Safety–security, protection from physical and emotional harm
  3. Social–affection, belonging, acceptance, and friendship
  4. Esteem or ego–self-respect, autonomy, and achievement; status, recognition, and attention
  5. Self-actualization–stretching to do things one hasn’t done before, learning new things, play

The basic idea of the hierarchy of needs is that if you don’t have category 1 fulfilled, you’re not going to really care about the needs at higher levels.   Only when the lower-level needs are fulfilled, will the human being crave those needs from the higher levels.

This is just a great ordering principle that I use it for my planning diary.   Here are the twelve categories I use:

1.  Health (physiological)

2.  Organization (safety)

3.  Finances (safety)

4.  Work (social)

5.  Family (social)

6.  Networking (social)

7.  Spiritual Community (social)

8.  Professional Development (esteem or ego)

9.  Toastmasters (esteem or ego)

10.  Reading (self-actualization)

11.  Language Learning (self-actualization)

12.  Games (self-actualization)

The twelve areas I organize my daily, weekly, and monthly goals in are arranged in the order of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.   How does this fit in with the author’s discussion of motivating black belts?

It is a given that black belts need compensation (physiological/safety needs), and that they need written and verbal recognition (social needs), and the promise of promotion (esteem or ego needs).   But they also need support in the sense of not worrying about the failure of a single project as long as they and the organization LEARN from the failure through a lessons learned process.   Punishing failure assures that no one dares to stretch, to “dream the impossible dream.”   It is in this area, of the willingness of Black Belts to pursue stretch goals (self-actualization needs) that the company can really motivate Black Belts to keep learning and to inspire others through teaching.

Don’t just worry about the company’s bottom line; if you get Black Belts to start feeling passionate about their projects and learn to be self-motivated through stretch goals, the financial needs of the company will be met, now and in the future.

Six Sigma–Key Metrics for Project Selection

In the thirteenth chapter of their book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations, the authors Mikel Harry, Ph.D., and Richard Schroeder discuss how to select and prioritize Six Sigma projects within a corporation.

Here are the various metrics that can be used to select projects.

1.  Defects per million opportunities (DPMO)

The total number of defects per unit divided by the total number of opportunities for defects per unit, multiplied by 1,000,000.  Let’s say there are 10 defects per unit that has 100,000 opportunities for such defects per unit.    This means that there is 1 defect per 10,000 opportunities, or 0.01%.   If you multiply this percentage times 1,000,000 you get 100 defects per million opportunities.   This is somewhere between 5 sigma (233 DPMO) and 6 sigma (3.4 DMPO).

2.  Net cost savings

Reductions in variable or fixed costs.

3.  Cost of poor quality

The cost of repairing defects once they are detected, or the warranty and product liability costs of defects that are not detected in the factory and get in the hands of consumers.

4.  Capacity, cycle time

The number of units a process is able to produce in a given period of time, and the length of time it takes to produce a product or service.

As you could probably guess after reading the book so far, the authors think that a focus on “capacity and cycle time” is the least fruitful approach.   Why try to increase capacity if you are not trying to increase quality?   So that MORE defective parts can fly out of the machine?

The focus on cost of poor quality and net cost savings is a good one to show how defective quality impacts the bottom line.  However, the one most easily adaptable to the world of Six Sigma is the first one, the focus on defects per million opportunities or DPMO, and this is what the authors recommend as a key metric.

Another good metric for project selection is customer satisfaction, but the only problem with this is to make sure it is actually measurable.   Once the characteristics of the product are identified as critical-to-quality, then you can be sure that the efforts you make in reducing defects are going to translate to greater customer satisfaction.

There are other metrics possible, but the ones mentioned here are the key metrics towards making quality improvements have the greatest possible impact on the bottom line.

In the next chapter, the authors focus on an interesting topic:   the psychology of Six Sigma.

Six Sigma–Project Selection Should be Top-Down, not Bottom-Up

In the thirteenth chapter of their book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations, the authors Mikel Harry, Ph.D., and Richard Schroeder discuss how to select and prioritize Six Sigma projects within a corporation.

There is a top-down approach, where a senior manager called a Senior Champion considers a company’s major business issues and objectives and proposes a series of strategic improvement projects.   A Six Sigma Champion then takes this strategic vision and identifies processes, CTQs (Critical-to-Quality Characteristics), and specific opportunities for improvement.

The bottom-up approach is where production managers make suggestions for projects on their needs to achieve budget reductions, resolve specific quality problems, or improve process flow.

Which of these two approaches do the authors favor?   Not surprisingly, given the word “Strategy” in the title of their book, they recommend the top-down approach.   This is because the focus should be on Six Sigma projects that offer the greatest financial and customer-satisfaction leverage.   Although the authors don’t explicitly say so, I believe part of the reason for that is practical, in that you want to get the best bang for your buck, especially if you are paying for the salary of the Black Belts and their training.   But I can see where another reason is political.   Whenever you decide to make a sweeping change in an organization, as is required with the Six Sigma Breakthrough Strategy, you are going to get some resistance from the “old guard”.   This is not a reference to chronological age, but psychological flexibility.   For some, a new way of doing things gets people out of their comfort zone, which by definition is not a comfortable place to be.   But let’s say you are trying to implement a Six Sigma Breakthrough Strategy as a Senior Champion, and yet face resistance from senior managers.

When your first projects are those that are designed to create the greatest financial and customer-satisfaction improvements, those first results will also be political leverage to use in senior management circles to convince those who are skeptical of the Breakthrough Strategy.   It gives people who are skeptical a way to save face by saying, “well, I was skeptical, but I can’t argue with the results.”   It makes it a discussion about progress and principles, and not about personalities.

And that is yet another reason why a top-down approach is best.   The reason why a bottom-up approach will not work is that, although production managers may identify possible Six Sigma projects, it is up to the Six Sigma champion to choose which of those projects most align with the vision proposed by the Senior Champion.

That’s how you get the entire company working as a team, which is the fastest way for a Six Sigma Breakthrough Strategy to be implemented.

This is all good in theory, of course, but there must be tangible, objective criteria used to prioritize Six Sigma projects.  Those key metrics used to compare Six Sigma projects will be discussed in the next post.

Six Sigma–Application to Commercial Processes

Of course, the authors of the book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations come from the manufacturing sector, but in the twelfth chapter of their book, they talk about the application of Six Sigma to the service industry.

In retrospect, the suitability of Six Sigma for the service industry should have been obvious, because 90 percent of those employed in manufacturing are actually doing service work:   finance, marketing, sales, distribution, and purchasing.   In this post, I review the authors discussion of commercial as opposed to industrial processes, and how Six Sigma applies to them as well.

In the case of an industrial process, the unit of manufacturing is the “part”, but in a commercial process, the unit is the “transaction.”   However, just like with a part in a manufacturing process, there are many ways for things to possibly go wrong, which are called “opportunities for defect.”   To show how the Six Sigma process works with a commercial process, the authors talk about the company Foxboro, a process automation control company.   For fifteen months, the company found that its domestic delinquent accounts were costing the company over $7 million each month.   This defect rate for the commercial process involved was the equivalent of operating at roughly two sigma.

A Black Belt team identified the metrics that should be used and designed graphs to track their process.  That $7 million loss per month quoted earlier was their baseline.   The defect rate, defined by delinquent accounts against the total accounts receivable balances, was 15%, meaning that the accounts receivable yield was 85%.

In analyzing the root causes of the disputed invoices, it turned out that commercial delinquencies were responsible for 65% of all the defects.  Out of these commercial delinquencies, there were several root causes revealed by their analyses.   One Black Belt, supported by nine team members from a range of departments across the company, took three months to execute a Six Sigma project which improved the root causes of the problem.   Although the Sigma level was only raised to 2.5, the delinquent account receivables were reduced by $3.6 million.

As a result, new corporate policies were implemented and funds were made available for better computer systems that would lock in the gains made during the project to make them permanent.

This is a good example how the same Six Sigma methods used in manufacturing can also be used on commercial processes using the same Six Sigma Breakthrough Strategy outlined by the authors, with similar positive results for the bottom line of the company.   That’s what’s great about Six Sigma:   it’s an equal opportunity tool!

So your company is eager to use Six Sigma to improve its bottom line.   Once you’ve identified a number of areas to improve upon, how do you choose which Six Sigma projects to do first?   That is the subject of the thirteenth chapter of the book, which I will cover starting with the next post.

Six Sigma–Application to the Service Industry

Of course, the authors of the book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations come from the manufacturing sector, but in the twelfth chapter of their book, they talk about the application of Six Sigma to the service industry.

This application of Six Sigma was not immediately recognized, however, in retrospect it should have seemed obvious.  The reason is that 90 percent of those employed in the manufacturing sector are not doing manufacturing itself, but rather service work, such as finance, marketing, sales, distribution and purchasing.   Industrial organizations that first apply the Six Sigma Breakthrough Strategy to design, engineering, and manufacturing will find an opportunity to further increase market share by applying the strategy to the service portion of their company.

Two areas of improvement in the service industry are cycle time, for example, the amount of time it takes to admit a patient into a hospital, and customer satisfaction.

In fact, the application of Six Sigma to transactional processes is even more straightforward than it is for manufacturing and engineering processes.   Also, critical-to-quality characteristics are easy to gauge when you consider the customer’s standpoint, who expects reliability and consistency.   Improved cycle time improves quality because it improves customer satisfaction.

The “unit of product” can vary tremendously–a line of code in software, a guest registration form, a cash register receipt, to give a few examples cited in the chapter.

In the next post, I discuss how the authors suggest applying Six Sigma to a commercial process such as the processing of an invoice or purchase order.