Smart Talk

Use common language to communicate Six Sigma effectively

by Mike Carnell

When you examine the success of Six Sigma at Motorola, one characteristic that is frequently listed as a critical success factor is the common language it created. That attribute meanders its way into all types of Six Sigma conversations.

Speaking a common language seems to be one of those speculative assertions people proclaim with everybody nodding his or her head in acceptance and nobody raising a hand to ask, “What does that mean?” It seems odd that common language would even be mentioned when wave after wave of Green Belts, Black Belts and Master Black Belts have attacked business issues after having been empowered with a method that employs a group of statistical tools. How can something as simple as words be of any importance?

Perhaps it isn’t just a common language. Maybe common language enables common understanding—when someone says or writes something, and someone else understands exactly what that person intended for them to understand.

Understanding sounds more credible when you are faced with the daunting task of transforming entire corporations. It seems more plausible that common understanding is the primary avenue through which value is delivered in the transformation process.

I need to convey information, knowledge and ideas using a common language to create a common understanding. Therefore, I will use a process we call communication. Maybe that is where the value comes from. The common language reduces variation in the output of the communication process; the message is understood exactly as it was intended. That sounds very Six Sigma-ish.

Reducing variation in the communication process makes sense in terms of transforming organizations. When was the last time you saw an organization conduct some type of morale survey, and communication wasn’t on the list of issues employees had with management? You would think with the technology we have today that communication volume would not be an issue. In fact, many clever vehicles are employed for delivering messages to people in an organization. But how annoying is it to hear the same message over and over?

More isn’t always better

Maybe the issue isn’t the volume of communication, but rather the quality of the communication. When we deploy Six Sigma, the common language supports common understanding. Common language reduces variation in the way messages are understood. Consequently, communication becomes more effective. We get the financial benefits of a Six Sigma deployment as we resolve the chronic communication issues, which are unquantifiable.

As true believers in the Six Sigma method, we should recognize this possibility as a hypothesis worth testing. The null hypothesis would be that communication before and after the Six Sigma deployment is the same. The alternate hypothesis would be that communication is not equal. It would be interesting to see how that turned out. Would communication get better, stay the same or get worse?

At this point, I would be willing to bet that Six Sigma makes the communication process worse. Why would we believe that training a portion of the population of an organization to speak in a plethora of three letter acronyms (TLAs) will reduce variation in the communication process? Using the language of Six Sigma does allow us to speak with more precision, especially to someone who has also been trained in Six Sigma.

Audience awareness

One of those things that seems to stick in our brains from our college days, when we were trained, or at least exposed to public speaking, was to know your audience.

As a practicing belt, who would be your audience? Of course, in a collegial sense there would be your fellow belts. More important to your success as a belt would be your team and, of course, anyone associated with the implementation of the solution to your project. How many times do we stop to ask ourselves, before we speak, “Who is my audience?” Do we even ask ourselves that question when we address our process owners, stakeholders and Champions?

Perhaps some of the issues with sustainability of solutions really aren’t issues with management support. Maybe the effects of our communication aren’t optimal because we are employing what we have been led to believe is a common language.

Maybe the success of lean throughout the years is attributable to its use of common language because it is a bottom-up approach. Is that really true? Granted, lean conveys some concepts that are perhaps more intuitively understood without a lot of statistical terms. Is the audience more receptive? There may be potential for that. But what is it we do to enhance our communication when we are working with lean?

We use a plethora of Japanese words to convey things to people who don’t speak Japanese. Why do we insist on using the word muda—the one we seem to use most often? We frequently substitute it when we want to refer to waste. What does substituting the Japanese word for waste do to enhance the communication process? The concept works conversely. You certainly would not enhance your communication with a Japanese audience by using English words when there are Japanese words more universally understood.

Recently, one our facilitators was preparing to run a kaizen event when he overheard a conversation between a couple of employees. One person remarked, “We are supposed to be getting a kaizen next week.” The other person asked, “What is a kaizen?” The first person responded, “I don’t know. But when they got one in the locomotive shop, they had to clear out the entire shop. It must be really big.”

As humorous as that may sound, it is that lack of precision that creates confusion and stress. Neither confusion nor stress is conducive to creating a receptive or supportive environment.

When was the last time someone said something to you that you did not understand, so you asked them to translate it to a language you were not fluent in so you would understand it better? It doesn’t happen that way because it does not make any sense. In spite of this self-evident truth, you hear people doing this daily—people who expect to deliver a precise message.

Clear communication

This is not about some ethnocentric protection of the language. Communication is an essential skill for belts. The most difficult part of any project is the implementation and institutionalization of a solution. That is not a process that happens in a vacuum. It is a process that happens with the active participation of a lot of people who are willing to be engaged in the solution.

If they don’t enroll and the solution doesn’t become institutionalized, then the project and everything associated with that project are just another form of the cost of poor quality (COPQ, for those who don’t understand). More precisely, it could easily be the cost of poor quality communication.

The value that Six Sigma brings to communication is in its precision—assuming all parties engaged in the conversation are privy to the language. For decades, those in the business of quality and quality assurance have struggled for acceptance. Perhaps the language we have spoken for years isn’t comprehensible to the people we are trying to enroll. The message is a good one, and some people listen. The Japanese listened, and they showed us the value of the message.

We now have an audience that is more receptive than it has ever been. To take advantage of the receptive audience, we have chosen to communicate with them via a lexicon that includes the language of statistics mixed with terms indigenous to quality and seasoned with some Japanese words to spice it up.

Why do we do this? So we can look at them condescendingly when they don’t understand? Or is it because we need to confuse them to make them believe that our vapid contribution brings value because our existence is not readily justifiable otherwise?

In the communications process, whose responsibility is it to ensure that the recipients of the message understand what is being delivered?

It is ours.

The value that comes from the concepts behind the quality discipline is not in creating an elite group of people that are enlightened in ways others do not understand. The value comes from understanding, helping others understand and, as a result, delivering positive, visible and quantifiable change.

If we apply a basic concept of Six Sigma, we need to reduce variation and simplify the process of effective and efficient communication rather than continue to drive complexity and protect our tenuously elitist turf.

Mike Carnell is president and CEO of CS International in New Braunfels, TX. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Arizona State University.

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