Six Sigma Blackbelt in Empathy

I thought recently about my Six Sigma Blackbelt days at IBM Global Business Services. Six Sigma was born in manufacturing industries and is a statistical modeling approach to process improvement that attains an error rate six standard deviations from the mean. In other words, for every million parts produced, 99.99966% will be error-free. If that tranquilized you to read, just know the bottom line is… Perfectionists unite!

This might look sterile but there is a profound humanity in Six Sigma. The whole of Six Sigma is predicated on what’s called the Voice of the Customer (VoC). Otherwise, you have a factory full of a million perfectly unsold products. If you are closely attuned to your customer and know her/his needs, the products will not only sell but be of greatest use, benefit and service to this “customer”.

The Voice of the Customer process is about curiosity and deep listening. Listening to what your customer really wants and needs. Not what you think they need or you want them to need. How often in life do we get deeply curious and truly listen - quieting the ego and our internal chatter, becoming undefended, hitting pause on formulating our response while the other person is still talking? In VoC, we listen and capture what we hear, share this back with the customer and say - Did I capture what you want me to know? Is there more? What else can I know to most fully understand what would meet and wildly exceed your requirements?

Outside of manufacturing, we can consider these same processes and questions. Who are our “customers” and what are we “producing”? Who and what are we in service to? Can we look closely and honestly at the “errors” or limitations in our own processes that interfere with what we bring into this world? Can we get quiet, curious and listen?

I work as a coach, consultant, teacher, parent and writer. Most of the time, I am figuring it out as I go. The shifts and openings that happen for the people I work with, either individually or in organizations, are alchemical.  It seems that being truly present with another human being (and with ourselves) alone can hold the alchemy for transformation.  (If my clients or business partners are reading this, don’t worry. I have certificates and degrees which prove I absolutely know what I’m doing.)

I got curious about what a Six Sigma approach to my work looks like now – helping people in their earnest desire to live and contribute in this world more fully. In Six Sigma, we look at Ishikawa to understand the root causes of defects. Where are our own recurring patterns where we stumble or fall off the assembly line? Where can we take a step back and look at the root causes of deeper patterns?

I began to wonder what a six sigma approach would be to working with developing self awareness and whether there are default customer requirements that appear on every list, regardless of industry.

Voice of the Customer

  • Be Seen

  • To Belong

  • Made Whole

  • Love and be loved

  • Meaningfully contribute

  • Be fully human in and out of work

  • Cause no harm

 What if every business meeting required us to investigate our compliance with any one of these customer “requirements” such as causing no harm? As with any good Voice of the Customer engagement, we explore and define what the requirement means. For instance, what does “Cause No Harm” even mean? . No harm from environmental impact, (un)conscious bias, discriminatory practices, reinforcing systems of privilege or oppression. What about not asking people to work until a stress-related health event reveals deeper imbalances? How would our products, work, interactions, and experience shift? Could companies still be competitive meeting these requirements?

Or is this the very list of requirements that would allow innovative companies with courageous cultures to revolutionize their entire industry and outpace any semblance of competition?

Ashley Gibbs Davis