Category Archives: Book Reviews

A High-Quality Academic Book Review

qmj-coverexampleI’ve recently been assigned the role of Book Review Editor for ASQ’s Quality Management Journal starting with the second issue in 2013, under the guidance of new Editor, Larry Fredendall of Clemson University. As we are preparing our book reviews for this issue, Matthias Thurer (who will also be preparing regular reviews with me) asked me for guidelines and what constitutes a “good” review. Here is my message for Matthias, as well as for any of you who are interested in preparing a book review for an academic journal.

In my opinion, the book review should be 500 to 900 words and discuss some or all of the following, as appropriate. These questions, which have been adapted from wendybelcher.com, are consistent with the excellent structure adhered to by the late James Kohnen who served as the QMJ Book Review Editor for many years:

  • What are the 1-3 main messages of the book?
  • Does the book achieve its stated goals?
  • Is the book a contribution to the field or discipline, and if so, what is that primary contribution? 
  • Does the book relate to a current debate or trend in the field and if so, how? 
  • Is the book well-written? What is the writing style and who would it appeal to?
  • How accurate is the information (e.g., the footnotes, bibliography, dates)? Who would benefit from reading this book? 
  • How does the book compare to other books in the field? 
  • If it is a textbook, what courses can it be used in and how clear is the book’s structure and examples?

If you know of a recently released (or pre-release) book that is relevant to academics and practitioners in quality management, or would like to prepare a book review for our pipeline into the QMJ, please let me know by email (at myfirstname dot mylastname at gmail)! We will be including 3-5 book reviews in each issue of the QMJ.

I invite you to add to this discussion – as a reader or writer, what are your criteria for a high-quality book review? Please share in the comments.

The Secret of (High Performance) Teams

I confess, I wasn’t very enthusiastic when I first picked up this new book by Mark Miller, VP of Training and Development from Chick-Fil-A. The Secret of Teams: What Great Teams Know and Do was kind of thin and reminded me of Who Moved My Cheese? – at least by touch. I’ve read tons of books about cultivating successful teams, many of which were banal and uninspiring (in addition to saying the same things as all the other “yay team” books). Does the world really need one more?

After reading Mark’s 144-page parable, I think the answer is yes. Yes, the world did need one more book about high performance teams, and it’s this one. And I’m glad he took the time to share the story with the world.

The Secret of Teams is the story of Debbie, a manager who has a track record that includes turning one particularly less-than-stellar team into a powerhouse. Her reputation precedes her as she moves into a new position, where her team (although well intentioned) just isn’t coming together like she’d envisioned. Debbie carries a slight air of defeat as she struggles to recover her sense of self-worth. She convinces her boss that it might be helpful to go interview some high-performance teams, to extract some themes that could help improve her own management approach (as well as other team leaders in similar positions in her company) – and she sets off on her journey.

As you read through Mark’s book, you find yourself reflecting on your own personal experiences to uncover the drivers for great teams. It is the easy and natural way that his prose draws out self-reflection that, I think, is the greatest strength of this quick read.

To me, I realized that there are characteristics of individuals as well as characteristics of the collective that must be in place for a high-performance team to emerge. You can have high-performance people that work well alone, but just don’t gel while working together. Each of the team’s members must want to be there. They have to have the skills and capabilities to function within the team, and make a contribution that the other members value, rather than riding the coat tails and momentum of their teammates (and in general, dragging things down). Team members have to be approachable, willing to share information and support. There has to be a feeling of camaraderie and enjoyment for a team to truly be high-performance… because then they will seek out time and opportunities to do more with the work, catalyzing the productivity of inspiration.

Miller echoes many of these findings through the characters in his story. His “Top 3” drivers turn out to be Talent (intrinsic motivation/fit), Skills (capabilities that can be developed through experience and training), and Community (an “emotional grid” where the team’s members can at once be vulnerable to one another and fully supportive of one another). In fact, the only driver I might add to his list is Inspiration, because I’ve observed it in every truly awesome team I’ve had the privilege to observe. You’re going to have to read his book to get more context – but it’s an enjoyable and worthwhile read, one that would be excellent as the basis for a team to read together and discuss how to get on a track towards collective self-improvement.

An Unorthodox Tip for Improving Productivity and Eliminating Writer’s Block: Listen to the Earworm

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

The other day I read a news article or blog post (or something; I can’t remember) that explained one reason we get irritating songs stuck in our heads. The post was based on a research paper by Williamson et al. (2011) in the journal Psychology of Music. Usually, when we catch one of these “earworms” because we’ve heard a snippet of a catchy and familiar song, we’ll walk away or turn off the song in the beginning or the middle of it.

The tune, however, like a rapid flesh-eating organism invading our very soul, continues without compunction. Because we stopped the song in the middle, our unconscious becomes fixed on the task of finishing it. And so it continues, on and on, all day!

The solution, we’re told, is to listen to the annoying song until it’s over… our unconscious, at that point, will be content that the tune is complete and will be happy to move on to other topics.

I didn’t think too much of this piece of trivia until I was reading an interview with Erik Larson, author of the fantastic 2003 novel The Devil in the White City. His book provides an amazing account of the technology development and social context that went into organizing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago – it’s a totally satisfying read. When asked about his discipline for writing, and for avoiding writer’s block, he described a method that might actually leverage the same hold on the unconscious that earworms grab:

And I try to write a couple of pages. I’m not firm. I don’t have a specific goal. But the one thing I always adhere to is that I stop while I’m ahead. If I’m going to take that break for breakfast, I may stop in the middle of the sentence or the middle of the paragraph. Something I know how to finish. Because as any writer knows, it’s — that’s what kills you is when you just don’t know what to do when you come back. And all the demons accumulate. And then you go out for a cappuccino, that kind of thing.

If you want to avoid writer’s block, leave your unconscious a hook – an easy way back in to your writing productivity!

If you want to avoid ramp-up time (or context switching time) to get your head back into a problem – which has been estimated, for software development at least, to be on average a full 15 minutes for every interruption – leave your unconscious an easy way back in to productivity! A half written module or subroutine… or a half written sentence on your notepad!

These are just hypotheses, but they’re definitely testable. I’m going to try testing this out in my own life immediately.

Collins and Hansen’s Great By Choice: A Story of Quality Consciousness

Jim Collins, author of Built to Last (2004) and Good to Great (2001), released a new compendium of his research this fall entitled Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck – Why Some Thrive Despite Them All. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these authors have also stumbled upon the importance of quality consciousnessawareness, alignment, and selectively focused attention! These are the keys to developing a highly successful “ten-X” (10X) organization (one that outperforms its industry index by at least ten times, especially during times of great volatility in the business environment).

Collins and his co-author, Morten Hansen, don’t call it quality consciousness, though – they call it “Level 5 Ambition.” And Level 5 Ambition consists of three traits: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia. Each of these traits demonstrates one or more aspects of quality consciousness. Here’s how (using excerpts from p. 35 and 36 of the book):

Fanatic discipline: 10Xers display extreme consistency of action – consistency with values, goals, performance standards, and methods. They are utterly relentless, monomaniacal, unbending in their focus on their quests [emphasis added].

Consistency of action is enabled by awareness of quality standards, and unrelenting attention towards achieving them.

Empirical creativity: When faced with uncertainty, 10Xers do not look primarily to other people, conventional wisdom, authority figures, or peers for direction; they look primarily to empirical evidence. They rely upon direct observation, practical experimentation, and direct engagement with tangible evidence. They make their bold, creative moves from a sound empirical base.

By aligning the actions of an organization and its players with what the evidence shows will work, everyone is more confident and able to engage fully in the pursuit of shared goals. A data-driven approach, familiar to anyone who understands quality improvement practice, allows an organization to test its ideas on a smaller scale before committing to major changes.

Productive paranoia: 10Xers maintain hypervigilance, staying highly attuned to threats and changes in their environment, even when – especially when – all’s going well. They assume conditions will turn against them, at perhaps the worst possible moment. They channel their fear and worry into action, preparing, developing contingency plans, building buffers, and maintaining large margins of safety.

Hypervigilance is heightened awareness of the external environment, even during times of peace and productivity. The aspect of productive paranoia that I think is most instructive, however, is that it involves a choice of where to focus your attention: instead of harboring worry and panic about what might happen, the productively paranoid manager will focus on understanding failure modes, developing contingency plans, identifying backup strategies, and planning to branch off on alternative paths, if necessary. The attention is purposefully and positively diverted from unproductive emotions (worry and panic) to productive emotions (the positive feelings associated with being prepared).

Even though nearly 40% of the end of the book is an “Epilogue” containing more detail about Collins and Hansen’s research methodology and results, this is still a very substantial read, and one with very practical advice for businesses aiming to succeed through a challenging economy. My graduate students in technology management enjoyed it too.

How to Pass Your ASQ Certified Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB) Exam

[IMPORTANT NOTE! As of April 20, 2015 I now have a NEW FAVORITE introductory statistics textbook… the one I’ve always dreamed of having, but it just never existed before. But today it does!! <3]

[Note: On February 9, 2015 I added my Top 10 Statistics Topics for the CSSBB Exam]

[Note: On October 4, 2012 I posted the notes I brought into the exam. You might want to check them out.]

* * * * * * * *

(Or more appropriately maybe… how I did it, and what I wish someone had blogged about before I sat for the exam! This is the chronicle of my CSSBB experience.)

I just took my ASQ Six Sigma Black Belt (CSSBB) exam… and PASSED! On the FIRST TRY!! (My reaction upon hearing the news was… “I am a statistics NINJA!!!” A very academic friend corrected me, and said no – not quite – the CSSBB is more like a learner’s permit for a PhD in statistics. OK, that’s cool too.)

My intent in this post is to share with you what I believe helped me get through this very daunting 150-question, 4-hour, heavy-on-the-math multiple choice exam. (Relevant superstitions and helpful snacks are described elsewhere.) This was a particular achievement for me, because although I had been doing small scale Six Sigma projects for several years, I originally intended to take the exam in the fall of 2008… and just didn’t get around to it. I had, at that time, recently completed a couple of doctoral level statistics courses and so I felt super powerfully capable at the time. But what inevitably happens is that as the days go by, and you don’t use the knowledge for practical problem solving, you get rusty and you forget.

Fast forward three years, to the fall of 2011.

When I took the plunge and signed up for one of the most recent offerings of the exam, I knew I had a lot of ground to re-cover before sitting to take the test. I knew I’d have to order some books or flashcards and spend a lot of quality time with them. I knew I’d have to refresh my memory on the nooks and crannies of all those statistical tests, especially the ones that are most frequently used in manufacturing situations. So my first step was to search Google to see if anyone had posted their personal experiences studying for – and hopefully succeeding with – the ASQ CSSBB exam.

I wanted to know: What resources helped? What resources didn’t help? What books were the most useful references to you as you were studying? Are the flashcards useful? I searched and searched all over the web, but couldn’t find any useful advice. I used search terms like “cssbb advice,” “how I passed my Six Sigma Black Belt exam,” “best resources for the Six Sigma Black Belt exam” and “best study guides for the Six Sigma Black Belt exam.” No luck. Everything led me back to companies trying to sell their training sessions. I didn’t want a training session… I wanted practical, free advice from someone who had been in my shoes not too much earlier than me.

So here it is! Feel free to post some comments if any of this advice is helpful, or if you want to add information about what you found useful when you were studying. (Remember, personal experiences with CSSBB prep are hard to find on the web, so anything you contribute is bound to be helpful to people who are actively preparing to be certified.)


#1 CSSBB Primer from the Quality Council of Indianahttp://www.qualitycouncil.com/cssbb_p.asp

BEST. Book. Ever. I ordered the CSSBB Primer as well as the CD with the practice exam questions, and although I was daunted by the sheer heft of the book, the large fonts make this reference a pleasure to get to know. It feels like someone is giving you all the essential knowledge you need for the exam, along with a cookie, a glass of milk, a hug, and a heartfelt “you can do it!!”

I read through the entire book, underlined definitions or phrases that I thought were important, and used post-it notes to tab topics that I thought I’d want easy access to during the exam.

Do ALL the questions in the blue part of the CSSBB Primer. It will take time… for me, it took about 3 weeks, working on about 10 to 20 questions a day. Understand not only what the right answer is for each question, but also WHY THE OTHER OPTIONS ARE WRONG. You won’t be able to take any of the blue pages into the exam with you, so make sure you take notes about the key facts, formulas, or techniques when you have “a-ha” moments doing the practice problems. YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.

The real ASQ CSSBB exam is actually EASIER than the questions in the CSSBB Primer, but the question styles and formats are very similar. The reason that the real exam is easier is that there are a lot of questions in the Primer where at least two of the multiple choice options will tempt you into believing that they are both correct. The multiple choice options on the real exam seem to be much more distinct – that is, you’ll have an easier time distinguishing why the wrong ones are wrong.

I think the number one reason that I passed the exam was because of the time I spent on the practice exam questions in the CSSBB Primer. The practice questions on the CD were useful too, but I think the ones in the book were the most useful.


#2 (NEW) Statistics (The Easier Way) With R by Me (Nicole)

SECOND BEST BOOK EVER. Disclaimer: I am biased.

In 2014, I wrote the book that I wish had been written previously… to help people understand the fundamental statistical concepts that you NEED to know before the more advanced Six Sigma concepts. Although I did not take this book with me into my CSSBB exam in 2012, I did take the NOTES that became this book 🙂


#2 (OLD)  The Certified Six Sigma Black Belt Handbook, Second Edition by Kubiak & Benbow

This is the second book I took with me into the CSSBB exam.

This book has mixed reviews on Amazon because apparently the book made it into print with a bunch of calculation errors in it. I didn’t lean on the calculations in this book, though, because I had the CSSBB Primer for that – and as a result, I thought this book was a great reference. Some of the concepts aren’t covered in enough depth, e.g. TPM, but there were several problems on the real exam that I wanted to double check in the references before I shaded that scantron circle with my #2… and this was the book that helped out the most in that regard.


#3  An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Data Analysis by Ott & Longnecker

This was the third book I took with me into the CSSBB exam, and I think I needed it for 3 questions, 2 of which had to do with arcane aspects of DOE. However, it’s also the book that helped me get all my hypothesis testing straight, AND understand the assumptions for all of those tests.

I also LOVE LOVE LOVE this book, and think it should be a required book on the bookshelf of every Six Sigma aficionado out there.  I was first introduced to this awesome, awesome book as a student in STAT 451 at Penn State… an upper level applied stats class (which I believe is now STAT 460). In addition to providing great explanations of the concepts, Ott presents every statistical test as a recipe… what assumptions to check, how to set up the null and alternative hypotheses, how to calculate the test statistic, and how to interpret the calculated and critical values of the test statistic depending upon what alternative hypothesis you selected.

I have a hard time trying to remember whether your calculated test statistic has to be greater than or less than the critical value that you look up in a table… and this is the reference that helped me keep all those important details straight.

This book is expensive, but it’s worth it. If you can find an earlier version, these are usually much more affordable and JUST AS GOOD. Thank you, R. Lyman Ott, for making me love statistics, want to use statistical tests all the time, and want to teach college students how to do it too. You have been one of the most influential people in my life.


#4 Six Sigma for the Next Millennium: A CSSBB Guidebook by Kim Pries

I really tried to like this book, but it’s big, heavy, and there is a lot of whitespace on many of the pages (very unlike the CSSBB Primer). The amount of information per pound is relatively low. HOWEVER, I like the way it consolidates notes by topic with one topic per page. For example, there is one page with Deming’s 14 points. There’s one great page on Project Scope and another great page on Scope Containment Ideas. I’m definitely going to use some of the one-sheeters for teaching my statistics and quality classes.

Unfortunately, the book just didn’t help me as I was studying for the certification exam.


#5 The Six Sigma Handbook, Third Edition by Pyzdek & Keller

Great book but HARD TO FIND STUFF QUICKLY. I’d say read this before your exam instead of bedtime stories, take it with you when you lay on the beach, bring it to the coffee shop while you’re gently relaxing over synthesizing your Six Sigma knowledge into your blood and muscles. This is an excellent book for getting a deeper, more thoughtful understanding of Six Sigma related topics, but was not one I chose to bring into the exam with me.


#6 Statistics for Six Sigma Made Easy by Warren Brussee

This was the LEAST useful book to me for my exam prep (but it might just be as result of how my brain is wired). I find that whenever an author writes very conversationally, trying to simplify the concepts by writing long explanations of the topics (as if he or she were sitting there with you trying to explain them to you), it just confuses me. I need recipes, like what Ott provides in his book.

I can definitely see how this book might help you if you’re totally new to statistics, or if you’re starting off on the path to becoming a Six Sigma Green Belt, or if you just need someone to explain to you what in the world the meaning is behind these statistical tests.

However, IF YOU’RE CLOSE TO BECOMING A BLACK BELT, you should have a lot of this material under yours already. As a studying resource, Brussee’s book won’t be as useful to you.

Hope this helps! If you have any questions, please post them as comments below, and I will try to respond to all.

Zen and the Art of Social Media Blackout

In May, when I decided to disconnect from checking social media and email over 500 times a day to write Disconnected: Technology Addiction & the Search for Authenticity in Virtual Life, I had no idea how contemporary the idea of disconnecting from social media would become.

Give me your Droids, your iPhones, your Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates, your text messages, your Google Chats! Let’s see what happens to life as we know it if we take a time capsule way back into the mid-1990’s, stop clicking on our mobile devices, and start engaging more with the real world and real people around us. It sounds like such a trite experiment, and yet it’s one of those compelling exercises that can really help us understand the concept of mindfulness – the ability to live in the moment, slow down, and appreciate all that is for what it is. At least that’s what it did for me (as soon as I could compel myself to actually follow through to see what would happen – technology detox is NOT easy and I am a self-admitted addictive multitasker).

Like the experiment being run at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania university that’s garnered so much press this month, my personal exercise was more of a brownout than a blackout. Face it – life totally without technology can be impractical and unproductive in many ways, especially when you have a job that relies on it. But how much is too much? That’s the trick I wrote about in my book… avoiding technology asceticism (blackout) while setting pertinent Rules of Engagement that limit social media technology use (brownout) to promote mindfulness. It results in you using technology rather than it using you.

So what’s going on in Harrisburg? According to Paige Chapman at the Chronicle on September 9, 2010:

Professors have experimented with assigning technology fasts for their students—by discouraging gadget use for five days, for example, or rewarding extra credit for a semester without Facebook.

Harrisburg University of Science and Technology is going one step further with a “social-media blackout.” Starting Monday, the Pennsylvania institution will block Facebook, Twitter, AOL Instant Messenger, and MySpace on the campus network for a week. Faculty and staff members will be affected as well as students.

“Telling students to imagine a time before Facebook is like telling them to imagine living in a world with dinosaurs,” said Eric D. Darr, Harrisburg’s executive vice president and provost. “It’s not real. What we’re doing is trying to make it real.”

Here are some more of the links I’ve found over the past few days on the social media blackout concept. I’m listing them here for personal reference, and plan to grow it as I find more interesting links on the topic, but you might find the list useful too.

By the way. many people have asked whether my 42-day experiment resulted in a long term behavior shift… and the answer is YES, it did. Now, I only check my Droid, Facebook, Twitter, email and the rest about 50 to 75 times a day. This might still be considered a problem, but I’m pretty happy that I reduced my habit by a factor of 10. So are most of the people who have to interact with me on a daily basis.

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