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Bull Wranglers

Quality Insider

Turn Down the Cognitive Dissonance

It’s deafening to people trying to think

Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 - 11:29

Today, ordinary Americans are being stuffed with garbage.Carl Bernstein

Every form of media inundates us with information, most of it misinformation, scams, lies, and foolishness. The quality industry is by no means exempt from the flood. In this column we will attempt to expose the foolishness to help organizations discover the most effective paths to improvement. Sometimes, as you will see, this means just going back to basic theory and author intent.

A few weeks ago, Quality Digest asked us what we thought were the major advances in quality. We said that rather than advancing, quality has gone backward. Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, could have been talking about quality management today when he said, “If everyone is thinking the same thing, then no one is thinking.”

People are often uncomfortable when they have to toss treasured but flawed thinking and set their compass to “true north,” so to speak. That discomfort results from holding two conflicting beliefs and is called “cognitive dissonance.” When there is a discrepancy between beliefs and information, something must change to eliminate or reduce the dissonance.

In the case of media misinformation, solutions might include throwing a rock at the monitor or sending an insulting comment. We hope that readers will consider instead the solutions that we, the Bull Wranglers, present and use them to improve quality in their organizations.

The process of eliminating the bull can increase cognitive dissonance. When everyone else, including the boss, believes it, you know it’s going to hurt to stand up and point out that the emperor is stark naked. Business consultant Margaret Wheatley calls this “disturbance,” and points out that “much more is possible if we can be together and consciously look for the differences, those ideas and perspectives we find disturbing. What if, at least occasionally, we came together in order to change our mind?”

A variation of this is attributed to economist John Maynard Keynes when he responded to changing his position on monetary policy criticism during the Great Depression:

When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?

The best way to confront cognitive dissonance is simple: Do the obvious. Apply the scientific method, DMAIC, PDCA, PDSA, 8D, or whatever problem-solving method you are familiar with to determine why this dissonance occurred. Consider the suspect idea, understand the context or situation in which you now find yourself, collect data about it, analyze and chart the data, and decide whether the idea—and your belief in it—are foolish. Unfortunately, being convinced of the truth might not lessen how much the truth can hurt.

It will come as no surprise to some readers that the Bull Wranglers’ biggest and most obvious target is Six Sigma™,” the quality program registered with the U.S. Patent Office in 1987 by Motorola as a Trade and Service Mark.

The ideas that have derived from Six Sigma are also prime targets, such as those proposed in a recent Quality Digest  article by John Flaig on rational subgroups and process capability that we found irrational. The article made no mention of Six Sigma, despite, in our opinion, having Six Sigma at its core. More on this later.

But everyone knows that Six Sigma’s fundamental metric of 3.4 defects per million opportunities (DPMO) is manufactured—you might even say reengineered—bull, don’t they? Actually, everyone doesn’t know this. Motorola doesn’t know it. You will still find this nonsense at the heart of the Motorola University website:

“The term ‘Sigma’ is often used as a scale for levels of ‘goodness’ or quality. Using this scale, ‘Six Sigma’ equates to 3.4 (DPMO). Therefore, Six Sigma started as a defect reduction effort in manufacturing and was then applied to other business processes for the same purpose.”

Motorola’s 3.4 DPMO certainly hasn’t helped it lately. Its global market share in the mobile device market plummeted  from 21.9 percent in 2006, to 1.7 percent by 2012.

The American Society for Quality (ASQ), the “global voice of quality,” also puts its weight behind the foolishness: “Six Sigma quality performance means no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities.” Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given that the organization pockets $10,995 from each quality neophyte who takes ASQ’s Lean Six Sigma Black Belt course. Linking John Krafcik’s “lean” theories to Six Sigma is another topic we’ll be discussing in future columns.

We’ve written about some of the origins of the 3.4 DPMO previously, and we’ll have more to say about it in future columns. Despite the hyperbole from its adherents, Six Sigma, the program that was supposed to “revolutionize” corporations, has been in steady decline for the past decade. The hot spot for Six Sigma is now in India, where it appears few have even heard of W. Edwards Deming, and as a 2007 Bain & Co. survey found, Six Sigma is losing favor in both usage and satisfaction. China’s use of total quality management (TQM) rather than lean and Six Sigma is also telling, as reported in the 2007 Industry Week article, “Special Report: Manufacturing in China: Taming the Dragon.”

Six Sigma is one of the world’s largest applications of pseudo-science, to the benefit of its hawkers and the detriment of its users. Of the 18 million Six Sigma web links, only a handful spells out its many failures, deficiencies, and blatant baloney. Millions of links merely perpetuate the foolishness or attempt to find new ways to prop up its ridiculous claims. In this column we aim to take one small step to correct that situation.

Opportunities to eliminate bull are endless. You’ll find particularly good hunting in alternative medical cures and weight loss, the environment, get-rich-quick schemes, many charities and spam offers, psychics and the paranormal, and, unfortunately, quality. The most common drivers behind the baloney are fortune and fame. Why people believe the nonsense is more complex, but some of the reasons include:
Asch effect. This is described in Anthony Burns’ Quality Digest article, “Six Sigma Psychology.” People genuinely believe in nonsense because they think those around them also believe in it.
Fraud. One example is the widespread belief that immunizing children can lead to autism. This common viewpoint is based on an elaborate fraud detailed in a now-retracted 1998 Lancet study.
Charismatic leaders. Throughout history, millions of people have adopted all sorts of political, religious, and technological beliefs put forward by charismatic leaders and speakers.
Placebo effect. This is well known in medicine. It can also explain the belief in a technology’s nonexistent effectiveness.
Availability heuristic. This is attachment to a belief based on how readily examples about it come to mind. If you can think of it, it must be important. The easier something is to remember, the higher the likelihood that we will believe it.
Ignorance. When it comes to statistics, less than 30 percent of people understand what an error is. No wonder simply counting defects is so attractive to millions.
Superstition. Research into how our brains work has led to the discovery of several areas that allow people to believe almost anything, particularly when some form of mystery is invoked. We can develop beliefs about something by subconsciously remembering only the events that reinforce those beliefs.
Intuition. Intuitive thinkers, often referred to as “right-brain thinkers,” don’t need or aren’t able to understand the scientific quantification for their beliefs. They are prime targets for pseudo-science.
Irrational escalation. If you believe in one farce, you’ll believe any related thing that may follow it.
Availability cascade. This is a self-reinforcing phenomenon where a new idea, such as 3.4 DPMO, is seen to be the key to something complex, such as quality. A “cascade” of belief ensues because people’s need to be part of the group, and the apparent sophistication of the new insight, overwhelm critical thinking.
Consensus. This is best suited for politics. For technology or science, it’s utter nonsense. Spectacular examples abound, such as Galileo’s proving against consensus that the sun doesn’t revolve around the Earth.


The final group of true believers includes those who could perhaps simply be described as nuts. This group includes the 3 percent of people who believe they have been abducted by aliens.

Unfortunately, critical thinkers often encounter another psychological effect: the ostrich response. When confronted with evidence that exposes their nonsense, many people react by strengthening their beliefs and hiding their heads in the sand by refusing to see any other viewpoint. Our hope is that when we expose quality myths, readers will carefully consider our arguments in order to help them follow a more rational path for managing quality.

A final word: We strongly encourage readers to check what we say. Don’t just believe us; investigate for yourself. Googling takes just seconds. We will of course be happy to provide references if you get stuck.

This column will appear every two months. In our next we will discuss “short term” and “long term” process capability.


About The Author

Bull Wranglers’s picture

Bull Wranglers

The Bull Wranglers are Anthony D. Burns and Michael McLean speaking their minds on quality.

Anthony Burns, Ph.D., has a bachelor of engineering and a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He has 36 years of experience and his company, MicroMultimedia Pty. Ltd., is responsible for the development of the e-learning quality product Q-Skills and its support tools.

Michael McLean is the founder of McLean Management Consultants in Australia. He is a thought leader in transformance: the alignment of strategic, tactical, and operational plans to unlock transformational performance at every level of an organization. His passion is to help organizations achieve the holy grail of both stakeholder satisfaction and the highest possible levels of return on investment. He co-developed Q-Skills with Anthony Burns.


Comment -Turn Down the Cognitive Dissonance

A good article. However I find it to be a generic attack. Replace the six sigma specific terms of the article with any concept you hate, it will still make sense. Six sigma is a simple problem solving methodology and why one should bother much about the hype created around it. It is just like a language spoken and understood by many. When an entire organization is able to understand or reciprocate to a common systematic problem solving methodology it becomes easy for the organization to control and direct actions towards common objectives. I think the article would have been more mature if it had raised awareness about the right way of using a methodology and alerted people not to fall for the hype around it rather than calling the methodology as simply foolish.


Uma V

I Love It!

Great article.

With reference to:

"Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, could have been talking about quality management today when he said, “If everyone is thinking the same thing, then no one is thinking.” ''


"Business consultant Margaret Wheatley calls this “disturbance,” and points out that “much more is possible if we can be together and consciously look for the differences, those ideas and perspectives we find disturbing. What if, at least occasionally, we came together in order to change our mind?”

I believe we don't do it because we don't have a tool with which to do it. Back in the 1980s, while working for Bell Northern Research and Nothern Telecom, a tool was developed and it was surprisingly effective and simple. Ironically it was based on one of the main causes of group think, namely Brainstorming, which despite its intention of 'breaking the mold', often would fall far short. The twist was that after the generation of ideas, regardless of how obtuse, followed by a polling of candidates to take forward to the next step, the facilitator asked then each of the protagonists for the ideas not selected to explain their reason for the idea before discarding it. The logic here was that conventional wisdom, (probably and oxy-moron) would invariably dismiss new ideas and keep them suppresses (a la Galileo), so why not go look in the 'rejects' pile rather than in the 'popular vote' pile. - Brilliant! and in my own experience it led to several very significant breakthrough technologies that helped fuel Nortel's success in that period.

Similar ideas were also expressed by Edward de Bono - his 'po' (provocative operator) concept was to intentionally steer 'thinkers' off the well-trodden path in order to create breakthrough ideas by what he termed 'Lateral Thinking'.

Google it for more.

Serial change-agents (Ford, Jobs etc..) all knew and practiced this kind of contrarianism.

Keep up the good work!



Iin other words: what messages or information file or throw in the trash bin first? But the truth is still in the eyes of the beholder: when one's head's hammered with ever increasing number & intensity of messages, sooner or later one'll get to believe them. We are not so far from our pets, in this, too. I've myself pushed forward the idea of quality, if not "ethical" communication: Maria Teresa Giannelli, lecturer of Groups' Techniques at Rome University, published in 2006 with Raffaello Cortina, italian leader in Humanistic Sciences, her book "How to communicate ethically - and effectively". Years before, I argued with a friend of mine working in the ads business, how would the billions-budgets yearly spent in ads be evaluated for effectiveness. For instance, why does the automotive industry make pay the car buyers tenths of the car sales price, when every year this industry turns out a new, or apparently new "model year", to keep sales alive?  Something really doesn't sound right. Thank you.