Box Paradox

Thought leadership should reign supreme

by Mike Carnell

Without any data to support this, I’m willing to wager that anyone who has been employed in a manufacturing or transactional environment for five years has either been directed to or heard someone direct others to "think outside the box."

Whenever I hear this phrase being tossed around by managers in meetings, I often want to raise my hand and say, "Excuse me. I don’t understand what you want me to do. Could you please explain to me exactly how you think ‘outside the box?’"

The phrase has become another tired cliché. If this box—that most of us seem to spend our lives thinking inside of—is such an undesirable thing, how has it become such a common thing?

I remember working with John Evelyn of Trident Leverage Group, a quality consulting firm, when he asked a table of executives what their jobs were. There was the litany of remarks about strategies, initiatives, leadership and vision. In other words, very management-sounding responses.

"No," Evelyn said. "There is something you were all hired to do that is the same." Silence.

"Think. Weren’t you all hired to think?" Evelyn asked.

Well, who would disagree? Evelyn asked them to define thinking. More silence. The job most of us were hired to do, and we cannot define it. I would assume that at some point, it could be career limiting. Since that time, I have seen this same scenario many times.

This might be a high-risk extrapolation, but with thought underlying almost all human actions, and the fact that we pay people large sums of money to do it, it seems as though a large percentage of us can’t define it. But we do prefer thinking be done outside the box, even though most of us don’t know how to do it or what it means. We still, without hesitation, direct people to think outside the box.

If you Google the phrase, "Think outside the box," you get 150 million results. A common definition seems to be, "Think creatively, unimpeded by orthodox or conventional constraints."

There’s that word "think" again. Assuming we know what that is, it seems the whole idea is to avoid "conventional constraints."

Six Sigma and the box

So what does the box have to do with Six Sigma? Basically, Six Sigma is a large box inhabited by a lot of different tools, methods, theories and hypotheses. Because it is a large and diverse box, it doesn’t provide much of a conventional constraint. You can roam around the Six Sigma box with very little in the way of restriction.

Often, people are trained to be a type of belt by learning the define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC) method—a smaller box inside the large Six Sigma one. People have argued that the DMAIC process kills innovation and is just a knock off of plan-do-check-act. In reality, both are versions of the scientific method (Figure 1) that most of us learned at some point in elementary school.

Figure 1

All these methods constrain us to some extent, which is really more an issue of rigor than constraint. They are structured thought processes that reduce the risk of a wrong or inaccurate conclusion.

It’s after you’re inside the DMAIC box that you begin to have constraint issues. Now, you create separate design, measure, analyze, improve and control boxes. When you’re taught about those smaller boxes, you frequently learn the tools rather than the box.

In the analyze phase, for example, the thought process is to analyze the data to determine which sources of variation (causes) have a significant impact on the process output. Figure 2 shows what this phase looks like with its respective tools.

Figure 2

Now, the big Six Sigma box has been reduced to a DMAIC box, which has shrunk to a list of tools. In many cases, the list of tools even has a sequence. That has really begun to create conventional constraints.

As you progress through the tools for each phase, you are frequently given a step-by-step process to properly use the tool. The box is now significantly smaller. The focus of training has moved to a step-by-step approach, which once again applies the conventional constraints. At this point, the entire focus has left Six Sigma greater than the DMAIC box, and it’s only concerned with the proper execution of steps.

Just when you think you’ve been mentally driven into this minute box, a hand goes up in the back of the room, and a voice says, "I cannot understand this without an example. Please give us an example." Wanting to score well on the instructor reviews, of course, you provide an example from your last deployment.

"How’s that?" you ask.

"That example isn’t from our industry. I need an example from our industry to be able to understand," the voice answers.

 Rather than explain that there will be a session after class for lazy learners, you comply again in the name of scoring well on the instructor reviews.

What has now happened is that maybe someone has had an a-ha moment. What has really happened is the class has been mentally driven into such a small box that after they leave the class, the particular tool application has become so constrained that finding a specific application is virtually impossible.

The entire concept of site support for Six Sigma projects was created to ensure there was someone available as a resource to help draw people out of those minute boxes so they can think freely enough to create value for the organization.

Somewhere along the line, organizations have taught themselves to value the person who can regurgitate dogma and formulas. Those things can be easily recited by a person who has never progressed beyond the knowledge and comprehension stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy (see Figure 3), an adult learning model. Value to the organization comes from application, a level higher in the model.

Figure 3

Staying relevant

We have created this conundrum for ourselves. Frequently, our classrooms are inhabited by people unwilling to put any effort into learning. They were raised in a system that rewarded memorization. We have handicapped our trainers because they now know there is an evaluation at the end of each class that is more concerned with entertainment than knowledge transfer. The entire learning environment is driving in a direction that does not deliver the product they desire: a belt that is free-thinking and competent in solving problems.

The way we train belts to become experts in the application of Six Sigma is designed to drive them into the box. The classroom is where the boxes are created. It complicates learning and executing application within a project.

It is incumbent on Champions, deployment leaders and Master Black Belts to ensure the people they mentor understand knowledge that should be created within the context of what W. Edwards Deming refers to as a system of profound knowledge.

Learning to think outside the box should be priority. It is the key to innovation in problem solving. Perhaps it is even more: It is the key to staying relevant in the 21st century.

© Mike Carnell, 2013.

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 in Tempe. Carnell is a member of ASQ.

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