posted 8 Mar 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 6
Unisys’ SiLK stirs
Can KM and Six Sigma really sit comfortably side by side? Not everyone is convinced.
By Jerry Ash
The SiLK approach at Unisys, a blend of Six Sigma, Toyota Lean and knowledge management (KM) described in our November 2006 case report in Inside Knowledge, unleashed a torrent of acrimonious debate in the January (2007) AOK Star Series Dialogue, a two-week follow-up discussion moderated by Robert M. Taylor, the KM leader and Six Sigma black belt at Unisys, who designed the cross-over experiment.
Six Sigma was characterised, as generally applied, as ‘plain wrong’ – inhumane at best and pure evil at worst. Furthermore, the quest to make KM into a process was viewed by some with complete disdain. Marrying what one called ‘Six Stigma’ with KM was inconceivable to several correspondents.
Opponents portrayed Six Sigma as having a horrid reputation among those who began to think differently in the 1980s about the coming century bringing a major shift from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy.
The violent reaction against Six Sigma reminded Fred Schoeps, a former KMer at IBM, of his own prejudice relative to a good friend who had dedicated his life to quality.
“I admire his skills, knowledge, experience and wisdom,” Schoeps said, even though he didn’t embrace his friend’s methods. “Six Sigma is one of many tools in his tool kit. Its relevance as a field of knowledge with applicability in business is profound.”
Yet Schoeps admitted that the “automatic voice” inside his head pulled up an old conversation based on bad experiences with Six Sigma 15 years ago. “Amazing how old stuff – information and knowledge – can poison the well,” he mused. “A very wise woman said to me a couple of years ago, ‘You can say anything to anyone as long as you don’t make them wrong.’”
The right to be wrong
Thought leaders and practitioners are passionate about their KM and, in debate, often react to attacks on their beliefs as personally as attacks on themselves.
Everyone has the right to be wrong (especially in a knowledge-sharing setting) and opponents of linking KM to Six Sigma Lean (SSL) may be wrong in simply defying or ignoring Six Sigma’s continuing favour among corporate executives. While Six Sigma began to wane in the 1990s, many companies are still locked into the approach and in the past five years, Six Sigma has made something of a comeback due, in part, to the initiative of one major consultancy.
No one knows exactly how widespread Six Sigma is but Dennis Pearce, KM applications manager at Lexmark in the
“One, my company (a Fortune 500 enterprise) has a director of Six Sigma, but not a director (or even manager) of KM of a full-fledged KM programme. Two, when I look at the language of job postings on the internet, I see a tendency for the view of Six Sigma to be broadening (‘Sales director wanted – must be familiar with Six Sigma concepts’).”
On the other hand, Pearce sees the role of KM narrowing in job postings: “Knowledge-management experience required, including knowledge of Advanced Business Application Programming (ABAP) and Java stack technology as used in EP”.
You don’t know what EP is? That’s enterprise portals, of course…
“If I’m a manager,” adds Pearce, “even if I don’t understand all the statistical mumbo jumbo, it’s clear there is a specific set of tools one can use to learn to make business improvements on a project-by-project basis. Plus, General Electric, Motorola and IBM use it so it must be good, right?”
He was speaking for ‘the mythical manager’, but his next statement was on behalf of himself. “Almost by definition, SSL is more quantitative than KM, which makes it much easier for executives – who don’t know much about either – to figure out what they’re getting when they fund an SSL initiative.”
Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president of consulting organisation the Delphi Group, disagreed with Six Sigma’s leanings toward process-oriented KM.
“Too many advocates get far too academic and fuzzy,” he said.
“It is this very attitude that led to the demise of many a knowledge management effort. KM for the good of all mankind, to make us smarter? Sure, okay. But for those of us who have to earn a living in an environment that holds us accountable to results, measurable results that lead to – dare I say – increased profits and competitive advantage, it is not enough to espouse the merits of storytelling, the building of communities and the heightened levels of intelligence in the community.
“In a business community, processes are a critical component of the organisational ecosystem. Process-oriented KM is a valuable execution model. Delivery of knowledge through process (just-in-time delivery) as well as proactive capture of experience and decisions via process execution, is a powerful KM model, one that has worked not to the exclusion of other models, but in tandem. In the real world, KM must be a little bit people-oriented and a little bit process-oriented.”
It is this kind of ongoing debate that drives the best KM dialogue where two ‘rights’ don’t necessarily mean one must be wrong. It is an exciting time for knowledgework-thinkers who are in the middle of a caldron of deep thought worthy of the evolution that is next-generation management. It’s not all contradiction. Agreement is emerging from these debates.
Please go back to page 20, Next Generation Knowledge Management II: Keeping abreast of the latest stages of KM development, where you will find a growing body of knowledge growing out of 120 days of debates just like this.
Jerry Ash is KM coach, founder of the Association of Knowledgework, http://www.kwork.org, and special correspondent to Inside Knowledge. He is the author of the ARK Group’s latest major reports, Next Generation Knowledge Management and Next Generation Knowledge Management II. To order either of these, contact Adam Scrimshire at email@example.com. Jerry Ash can be reached at