When Five Sigma Trumps Six Sigma

[This is the first blog post at tp.com, by special request from Tom, by Cool Friend Jeff Angus. You may remember him as the author of Management by Baseball. Hence, this blog entry.—CM]

A week ago, Tom posted an entry about a recent book by an adoring courtier of Jack Welch, though reading it suggested to Tom … “a self-serving picture of an organization run by a misogynist egomaniac—you’d have to be nuts or a former male Navy Seal to want to have worked there. Welch comes across as a brutal, soulless, foul-mouthed boss who revels in putting people down in the most demeaning ways.”

And yes, it’s inarguable, as one of my favorite MBA ex-clients who wishes he could have been a courtier in Welch’s operation has said, that Welch’s combination of vision and execution made him “Six Sigma” as an organizational operative. Stats nuts know that Six Sigma represents the 99.99999980268th percentile, and it’s no coincidence that to get there he achieved soullessness.

But, you don’t have to commit soullessness to achieve excellence. A Five Sigma (the 99.99994266969th percentile) talent like former Major League baseball player Doug Glanville achieved extraordinary, one-in-1,744,000 excellence, making it through the perfect zero-sum competitive crucible of the minor leagues, getting into the majors, and sticking for over 1,100 games. Unlike a Six Sigma, however, Glanville relentlessly held tight to his humanity, resisted the urge to do “whatever it takes” to devour that last 0.000057133, judging it wasn’t worth his soul, even if he could have closed that imperceptible (at least in the business world) gap.

In spite of the hysterical tone of the reports of supplements and performance-enhancing drugs, there is no Enron in baseball; the sport is fully accountable, the books always balance. Unlike in business, there can be no juicing the books—to perform successfully, you must perform in a demonstrable way, with the true outcomes visible to all watching. So, the temptation to close that last gap is as understandable as it is potentially damaging, at least the way Glanville described it in his wonderfully insightful op-ed piece in the New York Times, “In Baseball, Fear Bats at the Top of the Order“:

A healthy amount of fear can lead to great results, to people pushing themselves to the brink of their capabilities. … Yes, baseball players are afraid. Not just on opening day and not just because of the 400-page Mitchell report and not just because of a Congressional hearing on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball … but because they always have been afraid. A player’s career is always a blink in a stare.

In this game, change happens fast.

Human nature wants to put the brakes on that rate of change. There is a tipping point in a player’s career where he goes from chasing the dream to running from a nightmare. At that point, ambition is replaced with anxiety, passion is replaced with survival. It is a downhill run and it spares no one.

If that doesn’t sound to you exactly like the Welch-ian drive so many worship, you aren’t listening very closely, because that style of leadership relies on fear.

Glanville is not one of those who dabbled in the substances that are now under scrutiny. As competitive as he is, he kept his ambition to be the best in control, enough to resist the temptation. Because he leads—and has spent his adult life leading—a balanced life, with avocational interests outside of work, plus active charity work, continuing education, and all the things that earning over $11 million before the age of 35 can give you the affordances to do (background here).

True, he isn’t going to the Hall of Fame (the sixth of those sigmas), but note, that like most of the people who strive for Welch-like soullessness, most of the players who tried to close that last gap didn’t succeed any more than those who didn’t commit to “whatever it takes.” As Glanville said:

We’re scared of failure, aging, vulnerability, leaving too soon, being passed up — and in the quest to conquer these fears, we are inspired by those who do whatever it takes to rise above and beat these odds. We call it “drive” or “ambition,” but when doing “whatever it takes” leads us down the wrong road, it can erode our humanity.

The game ends up playing us.

Jeff Angus posted this on January 23, 2008, in Brand You.
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