One of my favorite pieces of music is Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.” In it, Britten decomposes then reconstitutes a fugal work for orchestra based on a much older tune by Henry Purcell. The work is somewhat unusual in that at Britten’s request, a friend wrote narration that describes textually exactly what Britten was doing musically throughout the piece. Listening to a performance thus becomes not just pleasing, but also explicitly educational. You can learn more about this piece of music here, and elsewhere on the Internet.

Now don’t worry – I’m well aware that the business-as-a-symphony, leader-as-a-conductor, team-as-an-orchestra, and related similes are hackneyed and tired. In fact, as metaphors and allegorioes, they have been done to death. But in Britten’s work in particular there is something new that caught my ear relating specifically to Six Sigma deployment.

As the narration for “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” explains, each section of the large musical ensemble is approached separately at first, and asked to play a simple tune in their own way. The narration continues:

“After the whole orchestra has been taken in pieces, it is reassembled using an original fugue which starts with the piccolo, followed in by all the woodwinds, strings, brass and percussion in turn. Once everyone has entered, the brass are re-introduced with Purcell’s original melody while the remainder continue the fugue theme until the piece finally comes to an end after building up to a fortississimo finish.”

To fill in some context, the dictionary defines a “fugue” as “a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices and contrapuntally developed in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts.” The term “contrapuntally” refers to the technique of counterpoint, whichis defined as“one or more independent melodies added above or below a given melody” or “the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture.”

So, putting all that together,the fugue form involves approaching distinct subgroups within the larger organization and giving them a basic template to follow in their own way. Each embellishes and innovates as necessary according to their unique character, while still staying true to the template. This is done throughout the organization to develop and flesh out the basic framework in each place. Once this is done, some of the subgroups come together and repeat the exercise in larger groups. Finally, all groups play their individual variations as one, uniting to form the cohesive whole. The finale is beautiful and powerful, far more than the sum of its individual parts.

The preceding paragraph could, of course,also be describing one way of deploying Six Sigma (or any other program) in a large organization. You don’t even have to change any of the words to make the description fit. Any company big enough to have distinct silos, functions, units, regions, or other identifiable groups could deploy in this manner. It’s not hard to imagine (or find examples of ) deployments where a simple program is rolled out repetitively, with the same thing happening many, many times for various groups within the whole. The nice thing about such a modular or “fugal”approach is that it can go as fast or as slow as necessary – indeed, a very large deployment can literally be done by one person given enough time – and provides tight control over how much of the organization is involved at any time. Of course, if you need to get the whole company on board fast, this might not be the way to go.

Regardless, we have something to learn from Britten about Six Sigma deployment. And if the “organizational fugue” is an easy and apt metaphor and can teach us something about deployment, why not the “organizational symphony” or the “organizational tone poem”? Stay tuned for more on those ideas, and in the meantime, track down and check out a recording of “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”.

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