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Quality Transformation With David Schwinn

Quality Insider

Telling the Truth

No matter what<br><br>Opinion

Published: Monday, July 16, 2007 - 22:00

We recently lost two great American authors, Kurt Vonnegut and David Halberstam. I liked them because they told the truth. At least their truth agreed with my truth, and it seems like the truth of a great many other people.

I first became aware of Kurt Vonnegut in my late teens, a time when I seriously began wondering what was happening to the “God is love” world I believed in during my earlier years. Vonnegut seemed to be asking the same kinds of questions I was asking, like what are we doing here, why do we treat each other so badly, and why does this God I grew up with permit so much pain and suffering? His answers frequently didn’t help much, except to know that I wasn’t the only one struggling with these issues. Maybe that’s one of the reasons his critics were frequently as loud as his admirers. It was years later that I found what I most cherish him for:

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outset, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’” That comes from his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Dell Publishing, 1965). I think he got it right.

David Halberstam, on the other hand, was as much a reporter as an author. Like Vonnegut, Halberstam had his detractors. His Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting that preceded The Best and the Brightest (Ballantine Books, 1969) drew severe criticism from the U.S. military and administration for his accusation that they were lying to the American public about the Vietnam War. The Best and the Brightest helped us all understand how Vietnam could have happened with brilliant, well-intentioned leadership. He again helped us understand leadership failure when he described in The Reckoning (William Morrow and Company, 1986) the failure of the domestic auto industry to stay competitive in a global economy. I was at Ford world headquarters when he researched the book. I think he got it right.

Readers appreciated it when those two told the truth, and I think there’s more to it than that. The late Kathy Dannemiller, an organizational-development consultant colleague of mine, became famous by stating that everyone’s truth is their truth. By not softening the edges of her own truth, Kathy sometimes greatly offended other people. The resulting push-back was painful to her. Although I sometimes questioned how she said it, I think she got it right. A final example of truth-telling arrived just a few weeks ago.

Every year the traditional leaders of Michigan get together for a summit at Mackinac Island to discuss the state of the state. You may know that General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are the primary economic drivers of the state. And you probably know that they’re not doing so well these days.

The news from this year’s Michigan summit that most struck me came from comments by Bill Ford, CEO of Ford Motor Co. and great-grandson of the fellow who started the company. Mr. Ford shared a wish that he had stayed the course. You see, when he took over the reins of Ford a few years ago, he wanted to turn Ford green. He was roundly criticized by his industry peers and privately counseled by his new subordinates that he had a bad idea. They convinced him that his truth was wrong. He backed off. Ford now has much catching up to do in producing fuel-efficient, low-emission cars.

The message for me is this. Tell your truth. Do it thoughtfully as Vonnegut did. Do it with due diligence as Halberstam did. Do it with passion as Dannemiller did. And do it with courage. If your idea is important, and especially if it is new or different, people will naturally resist it. If you yield to their resistance, you may be sorry, as is Bill Ford. Telling the truth is dangerous territory. I think it is worth it to you, to your organization, and to your process-improvement effort.

This article was originally published in PQ Systems’ newsletter.

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About The Author

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn’s picture

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn

David Schwinn, an associate of PQ Systems, is a full-time professor of management at Lansing Community College and a part-time consultant in the college’s Small Business and Technology Development Center. He is also a consultant in systems and organizational development with InGenius and INTERACT Associates.

Schwinn worked at Ford’s corporate quality office and worked with W. Edwards Deming beginning in the early 1980s until Deming’s death.  Schwinn is a professional engineer with an MBA from Wright State University. You can reach him at support@pqsystems.com.