The Foolishness of the Five Senses

At least once a week I hear from some poor employee who's been told to investigate Six Sigma. They lament that it's their job to find and fix problems in the business. The business is already successful. Earnings are already up for the year. Why would they need Six Sigma to do what they already think they're doing well?

I call this the foolishness of the five senses. Just because your five senses let you detect problems and patterns at one level, you think that they'll work at ever more subtle levels of detection. They won't. As patterns and problems become more infrequent and more subtle, they become less and less detectable.

For your five senses to detect all of the varying levels of problems in your business you would need:

  • The mind of a world champion poker player to detect all of the "tells"
  • Eagle eyes
  • Bat radar
  • Dolphin sonar
  • Dog ears
  • Shark smell
  • Surgical feel
  • Gourmet taste

Here's my point: 
Your normal sensory apparatus isn't up to the task of finding and fixing the more subtle problems that affect your job, department or business. Like a doctor using an EKG or MRI, you need the right kind of tools to help you detect patterns you cannot detect with the naked eye.

Sure, every once in awhile a problem will happen frequently enough with sufficient unpleasantness to trigger some action. You'll feel good about that, but you'll have missed the huge opportunities that lie just below the surface of your detection capabilities.

That's why you need line graphs, pareto charts, histograms and control charts: to help you detect hidden patterns and problems.

Line graphs are like an EKG; they show the pulse of your business processes over time.

Pareto Charts are like an MRI; they help you slice the problem into clearly observable patterns.

Control charts and histograms have the added benefit of showing expected variation that allows you to predict your performance.

Just because you can't see, hear, feel, smell or taste a problem doesn't mean that there isn't one. It just means that your sensory system isn't precise enough to detect the problem.

Did you know that there are dogs that can smell cancer? They don't need any fancy equipment because they've got a nose that's 10,000 to 100,000 times better than ours.

Humans, however, have the ability to create tools to extend the five senses. The tools of quality can give you eagle eyes and dog ears, if you let them.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537,"

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