The Faces of Six Sigma

The Rise of Quality

The Corporate Days

The Essence of Leadership

Lessons from the Marines

Ask any seasoned Marine Corp officer about leadership, and he will tell you that you keep your men moving forward when every fiber in your body screams against it. The platoon leader sticks his butt out farther than any of his men. There is fear of death, and there is the positive reward of making it alive for just one more day. But whatever they fear, or don't fear, the men trust in the ability of their leader to provide the greatest probability of survival.

When a corporation's destiny is on the line, there is no time for slow, gradual improvement. The only viable option is rapid breakthrough, and breakthrough is painful and noisy. The game of breakthrough is like the game of musical chairs; when the music stops, fewer seats are left. It is in this sense of constant motion that "change is not the occasional clash of symbols - it is the melody." (as quoted by Dr. John Anderson)

An effective senior Champion creates an environment in which people are focused on meeting their numbers and objectives, and ensures they get the support and tools they need. This way, if they do not perform, they have no legitimate excuse for missing their numbers. And the corporation gets the added bonus of getting rid of its moss-backed generals and deadwood troops. Should such people fear losing their jobs? You're damn right they should. This is what should happen when key people do not make the effort to change, shed their old and ineffective ways, acquire new knowledge and get with the new program.

Generally speaking, the opportunity to create breakthrough doesn't fall in your lap; you have to create it, and sometimes from next to nothing. You sweat blood, you sweat tears, you sweat fear, but you don't find an excuse for mediocrity or reason to sustain the status quo. You take on an enormous amount of work, and you embrace the risk that comes with breaking into new territory. You say, "follow me," and you brave the bullets designed to take you down.

Deming and Juran didn't talk about this kind of person - because they were in the business of quality. But the Six Sigma Champion is out to make a profound change in the quality of business, and that requires a much different mindset, value-set and knowledge-set. Reflecting back on his days as a Marine Lieutenant, Dr. Harry remembers a critical training event benignly called something like "the confidence course." It was a set of exercises designed to test and develop the ability of new officers to adapt and overcome. A small group of officers were taken out into the field and given an objective in the face of several seemingly impossible obstacles. For sake of argument, you might be given a couple of planks, a strap and a 55-gallon barrel, and your objective might be to get everything over a 30-foot wide river of rushing water.

The training exercise was run such that the new lieutenants had no idea of their objective - or the obstacles - until they found themselves in the middle of a "situation." This was the great thing about the Marine Corp: it gave Dr. Harry a belief in himself, so strong that he felt very positive about figuring out any situation on the fly, adapting and improvising, calling upon the power of others to participate and solve the problem.

In the Marines in Dr. Harry's day, they called a Private First Class (PFC) a "mosquito wing," because he only had one stripe on his arm. If you ask a mosquito wing in the garrison what his organization looks like, he will draw something like a child's mobile. We have a captain, who has lieutenants, who have staff sergeants, who have sergeants, who have corporals and so on. If you ask that same PFC the same question in a fox hole in an area of conflict, he will draw a box with a circle intersecting the top line of the box. We have a captain, and then there are the rest of us.

A good leader knows when to create and utilize a hierarchical organization (child's mobile) and when to collapse into a very organic structure (box with circle). In the heat of battle, there isn't as much a formal hierarchy of leadership as there is a network of leaders with one super-ordinate leader. That's how it is in an organization built for survivability. In a dog-eat-dog environment, leaders remain leaders because they confidently produce results when and where needed, consistently. That's how it is in a Six Sigma organization. There is a Champion and some Black Belts, and there is everybody else. Sometimes an organization must be arranged hierarchically to operate and report in a very rigid and vertical manner. Other times, the organization must be capable of collapsing into a lean machine consisting of one super-ordinate leader and many strong leaders who will execute according to plan - faithfully and religiously.

The Black Belts must be organized for speed and maneuverability in the heat of battle -for the ability to quickly strike at objects of priority called application projects (design or process oriented). Champions deploy Black Belts, who fly in to implement the tools of their trade and quickly hit their targets, maintain accountability and get out so they can move to the next objective. They don't linger around and have coffee. They conquer the ground, not occupy it. They, and their Champions, are corporate conquers in the truest sense of the word.

You've heard the phrase "love is blind." Well so is Six Sigma, and those who lead Six Sigma. They are zealots to the extent that they can't see anything else. But what great achievements have been made without such zeal? What significant breakthrough has ever sprung from casual commitment? None. The job of a Champion simply requires a super-ordinate level of commitment.

As an example, Dr. Harry literally went for years without a vacation while he was working out the math and statistics, and the management aspects, of his love: Six Sigma. He would take his vacation time, but work at home. He worked most weekends and, many times, would get in at five in the morning and leave at midnight. Yes, he was obsessed, or maybe possessed — by the thrill of developing new tools and methods, working on Six Sigma projects, hashing out plans, building relationships and influencing others. He accepted every speaking engagement he could, no matter when or where it was, even though he often he had to pay for travel expenses from his pocket.

Heck, Dr. Harry wasn't paranoid because most often the organizations he worked for were out to get him. There was always a very strong contingent in these organizations that hated change agents and made it their business to make them stumble and fall. They wanted Dr. Harry to fail as decisively as possible because, if he fell, then Six Sigma would not be far behind. Once Six Sigma went away, then business life would be back to normal.

Talking It Personally

Extracting cash is the most difficult and painful task a corporation can tackle. It's far easier to design a new product than it is to identify and extract wasted cash in an organization. The need for not extracting cash is always "justified" by smart people everywhere in a corporation. But the minute you identify it and carve it out, and it has to come out of someone's budget, then you will most likely have a fight with the executive from whose budget the money comes. So the advice to the Six Sigma leader is to be ready for a fight or two, probably more. The minute you take the money, you are the hated one, so you better get used to dealing with a lot of rejection.

But what do you think happens after a few months of implementing Black Belt projects, when the cash register begins to loudly ring from the transactions of Black Belt projects? Suddenly, you are on every top executive's social list. You are the popular one, not the hated one, the one who everyone wants to know. Everyone suddenly wants your advice and wants time to pick your brain. The realization hits in mass that Six Sigma taketh money away, but it also giveth lots and lots of money back. Yes Mr. plant manager gets his budget cut, and the corporation makes more profit. But Mr. plant manager also gets rewarded in the form of increased bonus pay as, of course, do Six Sigma Champions and often Black Belts (in a variety of forms). And we shouldn't leave out that shareholders get their fair share as well, not to mention the added value as perceived by the customer.

In this manner, a Champion has to learn quickly to live with the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. When a Champion is defeated, she gets back up and tries again, just like world-class athletes who set their sights on gold. They are the ones who push themselves another mile forward, another lap, another practice run. They are relentless, ferocious, tenacious, unrelenting, obsessed. They will go far beyond reason to do what they are tasked to do. This is why they are called "Champions" - because they are the last ones bailing water out of the boat as it sinks, and the last ones to stand for the medals when victory is secured. They are the true leaders of change.

And when victory is secured, a Champion is quick to give credit to those who followed. Leadership is a very lonely place in this sense, because the leader takes most of the risk but distributes much of the reward. That's why the best leaders are motivated not so much by worldly gain but by the beat in their hearts that makes them do what they do simply because it is right. Their mission is transcendental, and their challenge is to make quality and breakthrough as personal as they can - a lesson well taught to Dr. Harry by Bob Galvin.

Talking It Personally

Dr. Harry tells another story about his Marine days when he was a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant. Morale was low among his first platoon of men. They wouldn't display esprit de corps during training exercises or daily runs. They were disorganized in their field operations. They weren't very good on the rifle range, and they were generally lethargic. Just 42 Marines, with no direction, no sense of themselves and no motivation.

Yet the other platoons in the company sang when they ran, were well organized and had a sense of camaraderie and morale. After about four weeks of observation, on his way to morning formation, Dr. Harry, Lieutenant Harry at the time, ran across his Battalion Commander on a sidewalk. Dr. Harry saluted him as he approached and said, "Good morning sir." The Colonel saluted back and greeted Dr. Harry by name, even though they had never met. Then he asked Dr. Harry how things were going with his new platoon.

"They're a bunch of lazy troops from the bottom of the barrel. I got the worst bunch of Marines you can imagine, Colonel." The ranking officer listened very empathetically. You could see it in his eyes and in the way he would shake his head every now and then. Suddenly, the Colonel noticed the time and said he had to go, and he abruptly cut off the conversation. "I'm sorry but I have an obligation," he said, then saluted and turned to walk away. But before he walked too far, the Colonel looked back and said very scathingly, "Oh by the way Mike, have you ever thought maybe the problem isn't your troops? Have a good day."

Dr. Harry froze in his steps. For the first time he realized he wasn't leading. He was trying to manage his Marines into a better state of morale and performance. Leadership wasn't about the bars on his shoulder, his official rank. It was about who he was and what was inside him. It was about his ability to project what was inside in a way that created organization, desire and better morale. It was about his willingness to do what was necessary to bring about a good, sound fighting unit that was always in high spirits.

No one taught him how to do that in the officers training program. They told him he would lead, but they didn't tell him how to lead. Not the real stuff that works when you are engaged in a conflict overseas, and when the need for political correctness is as far away as your family. / had to lead - there is no other option. That was the revelation that changed Dr. Harry's life that day. It was a defining moment, not just in terms of his military career but in terms of his life. One thing is for sure when it comes to Six Sigma: you better choose people who have had a similar defining moment, or you better create that moment for the ones you choose.

Dr. Harry did go back to his platoon and began to think, and act, like a leader, not just some college kid on which they pinned the gold bars of rank and privilege. In the process, he figured out that his dress blues and gold bars had nothing to do with what lied ahead. The formal wear and the salutes were a minuscule part of his role as an officer. The real weight was in providing clearly defined objectives, engaging in concise communication and selling hope when hope was bare. Leadership, he realized, was about dangling a carrot and threatening the boot. It was, in short, about earning respect by direct example — not just by talking and issuing orders.

Protecting the Troops

When Dr, Harry was commissioned as an officer and a gentleman, he was never promised respect. Respect is something you earn through your actions, which are always consistent with the values you espouse and the rank you carry. Slogans are OK, like the one that says a good leader is firm, fair and consistent. True, but how do you translate that slogan into action where the rubber meets the road? You draw a line and design your consequences such that no one crosses it. You are steadfastly fair even when many perceive your actions to be unfair. You always set very high standards and establish stretch goals, and you are there for your troops in the most inventive, adaptive way, even if it means personal sacrifice.

As foolish as it may sound, one time Dr. Harry's men ran out of toilet paper, and there was no money in his budget to get more. So he invented ways of raising money so he could go into town and buy supplies. That's what a leader does. A leader even covers for his troops when they are a little wrong, knowing that they are basically good and valuable men. Of course, a leader also knows when not to cover, exposing and expunging the bad apples in his bunch.

If you are a Champion, you have to cover your Black Belts with a military kind of fervor, fairness and consistency. You guard them from those who want to shoot down Six Sigma, and when they get shot you tend to their wounds and bring them back to active status. You do anything and everything you can to make them succeed.

For example, once there was a Black Belt who was working his first project, and it looked pretty clear that it was going to fail. Dr. Harry remembers this case in particular because he was in a high-level leadership position at the time. He remembers that the Black Belt really did "have the right stuff," but he was a quiet individual who still hadn't bloomed. Well the project that was dumped on him was too large in scope, even for a seasoned Black Belt. He became a victim of a poorly selected project, and he didn't have the wherewithal to make that known and fight for what was right. He had not yet empowered himself as a strong leader.

Dr. Harry went to management and argued that the project should be changed or scaled down, but management held its ground and said "the project stands, we need it." There was a dilemma to be solved. A new Black Belt was given a next-to-impossible project. The only solution in Dr. Harry's mind was to perform a little magic. He could have just as easily written off the Black Belt and left him on the battlefield of variation to live or die by his own devices, or lack thereof.

Instead he had a different plan. He personally made a few trips to Germany where the Black Belt was located - under the guise of conducting other business of a management nature. But instead of doing that, he spent time with the Black Belt helping him structure and execute the larger-than-life project. He wasn't afraid to step in, manipulate perceptions, suffer a bit of cost damage and give the Black Belt the support he needed to be successful. Several months later, the Black Belt was prospering in his role, and later became a Master Black Belt.