Six Sigma's DMAIC methodology, Problem Solving tools and Curiosity
On this episode, Jeff Akin reviews Star Trek Deep Space 9, Things Past (Season 5, Episode 8). He will examine the leadership approaches of Captain Sisko.
Captain Sisko shows the value of being curious and asking great questions. Jeff also touches on Lean/Six-Sigma Process Improvement by talking about DMAIC:
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Welcome, everyone! Thanks for joining me today. We are going to Star Trek in one of its darker moments, especially for the mid-90’s. But even in the midst of assassination attempts and executions we learn the value of being curious. I even get to dive into DMAIC and some six sigma as we watch season 5 episode 8 of Deep Space 9, Things Past.
We join Sisko, Dax, Odo, and my favorite, Garak in a runabout heading back from a conference. Hmm, you’d think after the 2020’s they’d still have options for virtual conferences. Oh well, must have been a slow time on the station.
Garak is livid. It was a conference about the history of the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor and the future of Bajorans. Garak attended so they could hear “someone provide them with an opposing, philosophical view.”
Probably not the best idea. They even gave him a name tag that read, “Elim Garak, former Cardassian Oppressor.”
Attention shift to Odo, who was very popular at the conference. But we get the first seeds sown of what the rest of the episode will hold for us. “You should be proud of what you did.” “I have nothing to be proud of.”
As they continue, they approach Deep Space 9. They’re reading very faint lifesigns on the runabout and EM signatures on the hull. Worf calls for Dr. Bashir and they beam over.
We see the 4 from earlier, all passed out in the cabin of the runabout where they had been visiting. Bashir checks them and finds an excess of neural energy in them. He says he’s not sure what’s happening with them.
We cut, quickly, to Sisko, sitting in a dark, dank Deep Space 9. It’s full of downtrodden and oppressed looking Bajorans, and as the camera pulls back, we see armed Cardassians patrolling. They’re on Terok Nor!
We may have covered this before, I’m not sure. But Deep Space 9 is the name the Federation gave to this outpost when they assumed command of it. It’s actually a Cardassian construction that was built to process ore that was mined on Bajor. They called it Terok Nor. If you listen to the Starfleet Leadership Academy episode DS9: Emissary, you’ll hear about O’Brien’s work to convert the station from Cardassian tech to Federation tech. That’s also why all the viewscreens are oval instead of rectangles; apparently that’s the Cardassian way.
Bashir has moved them into the medbay. Worf says the runabout ran into a plasma storm and that that’s the only weirdness they ran into. “A common phenomenon has caused an uncommon reaction.”
The four, now on Terok Nor, are piecing everything together. They determine they are being seen as Bajorans. They recall the plasma storm as well and also remember hearing or feeling something as they passed it, just before they arrived here.
Odo is freaking out. He says they have to get off the station. Now, an important thing to know about Odo at this point, and this is a huge spoiler, so I’ll leave as much out as I can, but Odo can’t shapeshift; he’s a solid. Some stuff went down between him and the main Changeling society, called the Great Link, and they made him solid. That honestly isn’t too important through much of this episode, but there are a few times it would have made sense for him to shape shift, and he doesn’t. Plus, it comes up at the end of the episode, so, just something to know at this point.
As Odo is freaking out, Dax notices Gul Dukat up on the second level. Dukat was the Prefect of Bajor during much of the Occupation and his homebase was on the station. Garak and Odo recognize the Caradassian that was with Dukat as Thrax, the former security chief; the person Odo replaced. Also, played by the amazing Kurtwood Smith!
Dax figure this puts them at least 9 years in the past. As they’re talking, some guards come and take Dax as Dukat watches from above. “This one’s been selected.”
In the arrest, Garak takes a hit to the face which, back in the medbay causes his for real nose to start bleeding. So, it’s possible that if they die in this fantasy world they’re in, they could die in real life too! The stakes just got real!!
Garak, being Garak, stole a device from the Cardassian guards. They learn their identities from it. They are all Bajorans that actually existed. Bajorans that Odo remembers very clearly. As Sisko is going to ask more about it, they get a new assignment…from Quark! “Congratulations, gentlemen! 12 hours of work…”
Remember the last Deep Space 9 episode we had on the podcast? Return to Grace? Dukat got way super creepy with Kira. Well, here’s another chapter in the story of Dukat’s grossness. And, yes, that’s a technical term, grossness. Dax is delivered to Dukat. “I’m isolated from the people in my protection. I require a friend.” Gross.
Dax is so awesome! She…it, falls right into the role. Dax is about 355 years old at this point, has lived multiple lives in multiple walks and stages of life. It probably understands better than you or I can even imagine, how to drop into role. But, she nails it. Just the right amount of fear and awe, even trembles at the right moments. She does this in some other episodes too and it’s one of the things I’ve always really appreciated about Dax.
At Quark’s, while they’re cleaning Odo shares that the Bajorans they are inhabiting were executed for attempting to assassinate Gul Dukat; that’s why he remembered them so clearly. He went on to say that they were innocent but no one wanted to take the time to prove it.
A conversation Quark has with Thrax is overheard by Garak. The details of the discussion pinpoint their timeframe to 7 years ago, which is when Odo was in Thrax’s position. Garak is curious why Thrax is here when he shouldn’t be. Sisko redirects the speculation and says they’re going to reach out to the Bajoran Resistance for help off the station. He knows a way to reach out them from Major Kira.
They sit down for an exciting lunch of soup. Dukat, his entourage, including Dax, come into the lunch area. Then a dude quickly joins them. “You wanted a meeting? Don’t look at me, eat your soup.” They try to convince him to help them off Terok Nor when BAM!! A bomb goes off right by Dukat! Sisko chases into the explosion to check on Dax, she’s down, but alive, and then they are all arrested for attempted assassination. History is playing out.
Thrax comes in and starts reading off sentences to other prisoners. “You’ve been sentenced to 5 years hard labor. Trial tomorrow to confirm.”
He starts reading off the case against the three. Odo get passionately upset, pleading with him to actually investigate the case. “There is sufficient evidence for a conviction.” “All of which is circumstantial.” Thrax says they’ll be informed of the sentence tomorrow afternoon.
In Dukat’s quarters Dax is recovering. She seems to be ok “I don’t get to eat like this too often.” As he goes on and on about himself and his generosity, she gacks him in the back of the head, knocking him out! She starts poring through the computer.
In the cell, Sisko asks Odo to “tell me about Thrax.” He approaches Odo with deep curiosity trying to learn “why is he here now?” He continues questioning, but Odo doesn’t share anything helpful when, suddenly, Dax cuts through the wall, breaking them free! They’re on their way to Dukat’s personal shuttle!
There’s a weird scene where they’re intercepted by Thrax and his team. They fight in the corridor with Thrax eventually escaping by morphing, like a Changeling, into goo, and disappearing through the ceiling grates. Weird, because this is basically never addressed again.
They continue on and board Dukat’s freighter, which is actually their prison cell again; they’ve just returned to where they left from. There’s no way out! And perfect timing; the sentence is being delivered. “Your execution has been scheduled for 1900.”
Waiting for their execution, Odo is pacing, freaking out with growing anxiety. Thrax comes to the rescue, though! He takes Odo to his office where Odo continues to plead their innocence. He starts walking through the evidence of it, trying to convince Thrax. But no dice. “When your people resort to terrorism they’re fighting against the rule of law.” So Odo just does the only thing he can think of. He tells the truth. He says they aren’t Bajoran and don’t belong in this time. And Thrax says, “I know. What are you going to do, Odo?”
They are suddenly on the Promenade with Sisko, Garak and Dax lined up for an execution. Odo is watching, with Thrax. And then it all comes out! Odo was the one that shortcutted the investigation. Odo was the one that went for the easy conviction and execution instead of seeking out the truth. “I was too busy maintaining order and the rule of law.” He hid this for 7 years because he was so very ashamed.
At that, they all wake up in the medbay. Bashir discovered they were in some version of the Great Link. “The plasma initiated enzymes and had a telepathic response.” He had been thinking about the execution because of the conference and when the changeling goo activated in him, it pulled everyone together for him to live out his memory. I guess changeling Thrax was maybe a manifestation of his own enzymes…or something like that. “It would make a fascinating paper.”
The episode ends on a powerful, powerful scene. Kira confronts Odo. She can’t believe he would have ever done something like that. “I believed in you.” She says she has to know that this was the only time; that he changed after this and no other innocent people died under his watch. “I’m not sure.”
A great episode! People call Deep Space 9 the dark Star Trek, and this one was absolutely that! This is one of just a few times we get to actually see the Cardassian Occupation and what life was like for the Bajorans. And it wasn’t very good.
And, seriously, Kurtwood Smith!! Red Forman! Clarence Boddicker!! And, the President of the Federation! He’s such a great actor and has had so much involvement in Star Trek.
Quarks – Ads
Kurtwood Smith is a legend; he’s amazing in every role he plays. In Star Trek, he played the Federation President in Star Trek 6, Thrax in this episode, Annorax in Voyager Year of Hell and Clar Lower Decks Veritas. That’s a galaxy-class resume!
And he was in all that Trek because he’s great. He’s intense in this role. And there’s something about his makeup; he looks almost more Cardassian than even Dukat does. He added a ton to this episode.
And, wow. Dukat is a terrible and sick person. This episode, much like Return to Grace, added dimension to his character. He’s not just an arch-villain but someone with real motivations. He believes he’s helping these people! He sees himself as a protector! And he arrests women to come hang out and be his friend. Yeah…that’s terrible. Just like him. I love it!
So much of this episode lands on Rene Auberjonois as Odo. If he doubted the role Odo was playing in this, at all, it wouldn’t have worked. He played squirrely and anxious perfectly. His belief and intensity when trying to stop Thrax from doing the same thing he did was amazing. The writing and directing helped there too; having Thrax mirror Odo who then mirrored Thrax. It was kind of obvious where the episode was going, but the path their was played perfectly.
And the end. With Kira. Gut punching. “Anyone that survived the Occupation got their hands dirty.” She was disgusted, disappointed, but also understood. Awesome.
But, I think the best part of the whole episode is how ridiculous the whole premise was. It was so ridiculous they kept making a joke about it through the episode “I’m out of speculation; again, I don’t know…” They weren’t insulting enough to just have everyone accept that it was happening, I mean Sisko and Garak really started digging into Odo about it and Bashir and Worf brought it up in every scene. But I love that everyone is like, ‘yep, this weird, wonder how it happened…’ I mean, they stopped just short of saying ‘Star Trek magic’ a few times! Yeah, they kinda tied it together at the end with some new, made-up thing about the Great Link, but at least they didn’t just let it hang. Still…Star Trek magic.
Two really big lessons in this one for us. Sisko was curious and asked really good questions when they were trying to make sense of what was going on. That curiosity taps into the expertise and brilliance of the people around you but also helps focus everyone on the problem at hand.
And the Thrax/Odo interactions really demonstrated the danger in being rigid and overly focused on what they called the Rule of Law.
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The team finds themselves on Terok Nor and that is all they know. No idea how they go there, why they’re there or even when they’re there. As the leader in the situation, Sisko does two things that go a long way in helping them prepare for what all comes next for them.
First, he stays cool. He doesn’t freak out or start panicking. Nope, he just takes it in stride. This does a couple of things. First, it keeps his head clear so he can do the next thing we’re going to talk about but he can also observe what is happening around him in a much more objective manner. This is a lot more important than you may initially think.
In Six Sigma, the process improvement methodology we use is called DMAIC. It defines the 5 phases for process improvement. They are Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control. If you want more details on this, I wrote a short blog post just explaining these phases at a high level. You can find it at jeffakin.com in the blog section.
But here, we’re going to look at the Define phase; where it all begins. In order to improve something or solve a problem, you have to know what it is you are improving or solving. You must define it. You’ll sometimes hear this referred to as the scope or as the problem statement. Now here’s a bad problem statement that I’m sure we’ve all heard before: ‘It sucks.’ Period. Just, it sucks. Yeah, it does! But what about it sucks? Maybe it’s just going to suck and that’s how it is.
Like for me, one problem I’m trying to solve for myself is fitness. Working from home has not been great for me physically, so now I’m intentional about exercising. In fact, I do Tae Bo every morning! Have you done this before? Just hearing Billy Blanks is worth it alone, plus it’s fun to kick and punch while being intentionally active!
But my problem is that I hate exercising! So if my problem statement around that was ‘it sucks,’ well, tough luck, Mr Akin…it’s just going to suck.
No, you have to objectively define what the actual problem is. Going back to the person at work that just said it sucks. Well, what sucks? The amount of time it takes for a widget to get through 3rd stage processing is too long and, we’re sending it back for defect resolution 18% of the time.
Now that’s good. We can build in some targets and other pieces to refine it, but for this, that’s good. So, back to Sisko. He and his team are stranded on Terok Nor, a place that no longer exists. His ability to stay calm and cool allows him to objectively measure out the situation.
On one extreme you have Odo who is pacing, breathing heavy, seeing ghosts and generally freaking out. You also have Garak who is trying to argue his way out of the situation because he’s a Cardassian and can outsmart his way around this if someone would just let him. Then there’s Sisko. He’s watching, listening; observing. In the paradigm of DMAIC, this will allow him to develop a tight, specific definition of the problem.
But we really see this play out as uses his observations to form fantastic questions. He has a curiosity about the whole thing that helps guide their problem solving.
Like I said, Garak wants to argue or manipulate his way out of the situation while Odo just wants to run as far and fast as he can. But Sisko wants to understand what’s going on and why it’s going on. He wants to be sure there isn’t anything they’re missing.
“Tell me about Thrax.” He knows the people he is working with, Odo, specifically, know things he doesn’t. He sees his role as helping them uncover and verbalize those things so they can contribute to the solution.
I feel like this is an easy one to see in a work environment. But as easy as I’d like to think it is, my experience is that very few leaders actually do it.
A problem comes up at work, let’s say a process is consistently producing a high defect rate; we can all relate with that, right? So, now what happens? Like in your workplace, what happens at this point?
Does a supervisor swoop in and start looking for the person or the people that are making mistakes? Does a manager or a lead send an email with exhaustive instructions on how to do things better and different? Does an executive stand up in front of everyone and tell them they need to ‘step it up’ and do a better job?
I am positive that one of these things, or something close to it is exactly what happens for a lot of us. And if it doesn’t now, we’ve all been on teams where this is how things happen.
And guess what…none of these work. Ever! At best all they do is feed the ego of the people in leadership positions but not change anything and at worst, it demolishes morale because actions like these clearly communicate one thing to the people on the team: You Are Not Trusted!
So instead, be curious. Ask questions. Come from a place of not knowing instead of trying to be the expert or the hero. And assume, honestly, this one might be the big ah-ha for a lot of you, but start with the assumption the problem is because you have a bad process, not because any person is making an error.
Back to the subject of Six Sigma, or other methodologies like lean or TQM, we’ve learned that more than 90% of all errors are the result of bad processes. That you could put the most capable person into that process and you will still have a high defect rate. But you won’t know if it’s process or people if you aren’t curious or if you unleash the hounds looking for errors.
Dr Deming, the ‘Father of Quality’ that we’ve mentioned before on this podcast has some great quotes and thoughts on people performance. Two of my favorites that come to mind here are: “People work in the system. Management creates the system.” And, “Whenever there is fear, you will get the wrong figures.”
Meaning that in most workplaces, we create this weird, cognitive dissonance where we tell people to do work a specific way, they do it that way and it produces defects to we send supervisors to discipline the people for creating the defects that the process was basically built to create.
Wow!! Wild, right??
Ok, that was a tangent from where I was going with this, but, still super valuable and something I hope I get to talk more about in another episode.
Where I was going with this was to come from a place of curiosity, a place of not knowing. What is the defect? How often does it happen? Does it happen across all the shifts? Is there a time it happens more frequently? How many machines do we have running this job? How many of them produce this defect?
Questions, questions and more questions. Answers to questions should inspire more questions. When I do this, I ask questions until I find something that seems tangible, like it might actually be related to the defect or the problem. And then I employ my favorite problem solving tool: the 5 Why’s.
Are you familiar with the 5 Why’s? It’s super simple. But more powerful than you can really imagine. It is exactly what it sounds like. It’s literally asking the question, Why, five times. Now, I’ll own that this isn’t the best tool for determining root cause, but it’s a really good one. For me, simplicity every time.
Here’s what I think the best explanation of this tool is. And this is a, mostly, true story. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC was deteriorating at an alarming rate. Highly paid consultants were brought to determine why and to recommend a solution. The consultants gathered key Park and Mall employees and used the 5 Why’s. Here is the simplified version of how that went down:
Why is the monument deteriorating?
Because of the harsh chemicals and massive amounts of water used to clean it
Why are the chemicals needed?
Too clean the large amount bird droppings littering the monument.
Why are there so many bird droppings?
There are a lot spiders on and around the monument that the birds eat.
Why are there so many spiders?
Swarms of insects, food for the spiders, are drawn to the monument at dusk.
Why are they drawn to the monument at dusk?
Because that’s when we turn the lights on.
Bingo!!! We have it!! The consultants recommended waiting an additional hour before turning on the lights which reduced the bugs, which reduced the spiders, which reduced the birds reducing the bird droppings reducing the chemicals needed to clean and extending the life of the monument.
That’s like the there was an old lady song….I don’t know she swallowed that fly, she won’t say why….
But in this case, the curiosity of the consultants drove to a meaningful solution. They observed, they listened and they asked questions.
Now it should be noted that this example is based on an unpublished document written by Don Messersmith back in 1993. As it was unpublished a lot of the details have become the thing of myth, but it’s based on a true story. And in true government fashion, even after receiving this recommendation, they spent 5 more years studying the problem and ultimately decided against the lighting solution because photographers complained about the lighting. Ah, government.
But what if these consultants acted like most every other group out there? What if they took a bunch of time taking measurements, interviewing a few people and then selling some simple solution based on the first thing they found. ‘Oh, harsh chemicals! Our official recommendation is to use green, environmentally friendly products. Thank you, that’ll be $2 million, please and thank you.’
So think of times you were curious, or should have been curious at work. Did you ever go for the quick conviction, like Odo, and just blame stuff on a person when a little more digging, a little more curiosity would have provided you with better answers; better solutions? Honestly, what Odo did in this episode is almost the same thing as sending your supervisors after the workers that are just stuck in your processes.
And that leads us to the Thrax and Odo discussion. “When your people resort to terrorism they’re fighting against the rule of law.” I’ll be honest, there is a deep philosophical debate to had here. If a law is a law should it be enforced at all times or are there times for wiggle room. Is the law absolute or is it more guidance? We could go on and on debating those, and, honestly that would be super fun. We can do that in our Facebook Group, the link is in the show notes. But here, I’m going to apply that to the workplace and specifically the example we’ve been discussing.
If a person’s job is to produce a thing at a rate of 6 an hour with a defect rate of less than 1.5% then that’s their job. Less than 6 an hour or more than 1.5% and they aren’t performing to standard. For this example, let’s call our person Finn. Finn is a decent employee that meets and sometimes exceed these standards.
But, as we learned earlier, their shop has had a high defect rate recently. When asking questions, the manager learned that Finn had dropped to an average of about 4 per hour and a defect rate of nearly 6%! So that manager does what they should do. They send Finn’s supervisor down to write them up for poor performance. A week or two goes by and Finn is actually doing worse, defects are nearing 10%. So Finn gets fired.
Problem solved, right? Except it isn’t. The defect rate overall is still growing. Had the manager continued asking questions and not just hopped off the curiosity train at the first actionable bit of information, they would have learned there was a part that failed in one of their machines that wasn’t a part of their normal preventative maintenance. Learning that, they would have repaired the part and made it part of PMs but instead they fired Finn because Finn wasn’t meeting the standard.
Finn failed to meet the rule of law, so Finn was executed on the Promenade in front of all the other Bajorans. But three days after the execution, another bomb went off.
See how I transitioned that from the work example to the episode? Pretty smooth, right?
Still, what I’m saying, and what Odo learned, is that you can’t let the immediate violation determine your course of action. You must be curious. You must ask questions and you have to drive towards the truth, no matter how hard it might be. Driving to the truth would have saved Finn’s job, saved millions in cleaning a monument, and saved three innocent Bajoran’s lives.
I’m curious about times when your curiosity paid off. What was your role? What was the situation? What kind of questions did you ask? Let’s talk about it! Head over to our Facebook Group and share your story. The link for the group is in the show notes or you can search Starfleet Leadership Academy on the facebook.
You can also find me on Twitter: @ SFLA podcast anywhere on social media, @jefftakin Jeff, t as in Thrax, a k i n. Please leave a review for the Starfleet Leadership Academy wherever you listen to podcasts. It helps the show out a lot.
Computer, what are we going to watch next time….
From Voyager’s 4th season, the 25th episode, One. We get a deep dive into Seven of Nine in this one as well as some more great stuff from the Doctor.
And, I’m really excited about this. I’ll be releasing a special episode next Tuesday, off the normal release schedule. I had the opportunity to spend some time with a person that is recognized as a top 30 leadership expert by Global Gurus, is acclaimed by Inc. as a speaker, gave a TEDx Talk on little secrets for big success AND is a huge Star Trek fan. You do not want to miss my interview with Gordon Tredgold. You can learn more about him now at gordontredgold.com.
Until then, Ex Astris Scientia!