Some experiences stick with you. For me, the stickiest ones are usually linked to some sort of transition.

A long time ago, I worked at a large company when it was just starting its Six Sigma journey. I was a subject matter expert working at the corporation level. My role was to support the many business units (mostly manufacturing businesses) that did the real work. At the start of the Six Sigma project, they needed support.

At one business unit, the first wave of Black Belts completed their first projects, and newly anointed Master Black Belts set the agenda for the first report session for the leadership team. They invited me to attend and support their report. The stated objectives of the report were to demonstrate knowledge of the process, demonstrate use of the tools, share learning, and show clear benefits. But those were the wrong objectives.

The meeting started with little fanfare, and the first Black Belt started to present. From the opening bell, there was a flurry of technical questions intended to trip up the Black Belts and find gaps in their knowledge. Under the banner of shared learning and demonstration of the tools, the higher-ups were simply looking for weakness.

After watching the first presentation, the next Black Belts knew their fate, and their heads hung low. After the report was over, I went over to talk to one of the Black Belts, but before I could say anything, he said, “I’m never going to do that again.” He was angry, and he had every right. I supported them poorly.

I didn’t have enough experience to know I should have spent more time prepping the Master Black Belts and leadership team on the real objective of the report. I should have told them the objective of the first report was to help the Black Belts feel good about their new work. I should have told them the first report would be a success if the Black Belts looked forward to the second one. It was a time of transition, and I didn’t recognize it. When the Black Belts needed me, I let them down.

I felt terrible because their anger was completely justified, and I had hand in it. I learned a strong lesson that day, a lesson that serves me well to this day. I learned that it’s difficult and important to recognize times of transition, and, once recognized, it’s important to use a delicate hand.

Just this week my hard-earned learning shaped my behavior. A new engineer held a report of a new technology, and I was one of the customers. I recognized it as a transitional time for the engineer and the company, and I behaved accordingly. Where there was uncertainty, I added positivity and passion. Where there was lack of statistical significance, I praised the promising results. The technology wasn’t perfect, but it was far better than anything I’d seen before. It needed more work, and my objective was to help the engineer to feel good about taking on the next bit of difficult work, and to look forward to the next report.

 I will always remember the visceral rage of that Black Belt so many years ago. If I could, I’d tell him I’m sorry I let him down that day. Then, I’d thank him for the deep learning he gave me. When you ask people to do things that haven’t been done before, those are times of transition. During those times, it’s not about efficiency and productivity; it’s about effectiveness and positivity. It’s not about exposing weaknesses; it’s about developing strengths.