Gained in Translation: What Six Sigma Can Teach Us About Communication in Higher Education

As I am continually looking for ways to improve educational organizations through a variety of methodologies, theories, and approaches not usually associated with the field, I recently decided to pursue a long-standing interest and learn about Six Sigma. For those unfamiliar, Six Sigma is a widely used methodology that identifies, measures, and statistically analyzes salient problems in business processes, products, and services with the goal of affecting a company’s bottom line. It aims to drastically decrease errors and defects to minuscule levels and improve customer satisfaction.

Based on this very brief outline, you may wonder what all this has to do with communication in post-secondary institutions, as the title of this article suggests. After all, despite what many of today’s educational policymakers proclaim, education is a complex and—so I firmly believe—ultimately qualitative endeavor with the primary goal to foster students’ growth and intellectual enrichment and to prepare them to be informed and engaged members of an increasingly global society. In contrast to such aspirations, the quantitative approach of Six Sigma means that only specific and measurable procedures, processes, and outcomes in the educational would lend themselves to be selected for this rigorous performance enhancement process. However, while Six Sigma in its entirety may not apply to post-secondary institutions throughout, it is one of its key concepts and its applicability to higher education in particular that thoroughly intrigues me.

Enter the Voice of the Customer (VOC).  

VOC is based on the premise that the needs and expectations of customers can and must be translated into what Six Sigma calls Critical-to-Quality (CTQ) requirements, that is the characteristics and performance metrics of a process, service, or product of crucial importance to customers – or, in other words, what a process, service, or product must have or be like to satisfy customers. I argue that it is the very concept of translating the needs and wants of individuals (i.e. customers) to the organizational language of a service provider that provides a wide array of opportunities applicable to institutions of higher learning.

Years of experience have taught me that there is often a glaring disconnect between what members of the upper administration consider to be important information as it relates to the strategic mission of the institution on one side, and how such information is perceived at the department level on the other. At the same time, specialized subunits in a college’s or university’s administrative structure are accustomed to using specific lingo, terms, concepts, and ways of presenting information that is, at times, utterly alien to staff outside of those units. I have witnessed repeatedly how unfiltered information from, for instance, the financial services office, grants and contracts, or human resources are passed ‘down’ to departments with the expectation that front-line administrators know how to decipher the message and act accordingly. 

Such expectations, however, often clash with the realities, needs, and expertise of departmental staff. What frequently happens is that said messages are either deleted or filed for ‘later’ (that is, ultimately forgotten); in a worst-case scenario, they cause such concern among administrators that people panic and desperately scramble to figure out what to do. I, too, am guilty of all three. To use a somewhat quirky analogy, it is like receiving a bottle of freshly pressed grape juice with instructions to file a report by the end of business the next day to evaluate the quality of the wine. While some experts may be able to discern such qualities from the raw and unfiltered product, expecting the average consumer to live up to those standards is likely going to lead to disappointment.

This brings me back to the idea of translating customers’ needs—expressed in and through the Voice of the Customer—to specific performance characteristics. How would this apply within the context of communication and information flow at institutions of higher learning? What would happen if we replaced the ‘customer’ with front-line staff in departments and asked mid or upper-level administrators to listen to those employees? How would knowing the informational needs of lower-level staff then impact the ability of specialized administrative units to articulate their quality metrics in a way the ‘customer’ (i.e. said staff) can understand?

Naturally, the customer-provider dichotomy on which Six Sigma is based does not perfectly align with intra-institutional communication strategies at colleges or universities. Yet, I believe that many of today’s complex educational organizations would benefit from a more deliberate and mindful approach to disseminating information across units in ways that allow recipients both to understand and act appropriately. The fundamental idea is simple and far from revolutionary: Know your target audience and how to articulate what you have to say so those for whom the information is meant can act as you envision; and then make sure the message has been received as intended. In a nutshell, help them help you.

recent blog post by Tim Jones in response to a Call to Action: Marketing and Communications in Higher Education by Inside Higher Ed addressed the very idea that “good marketing considers audience above all else.” Although Jones only alludes once to who this audience is (primarily students, it seems), I would argue that the same holds true when applied to internal communication among employees. Most notable about Jones’s piece is, however, that he cautions against the use of unnecessary jargon, acronyms, and expert-speak which only makes much of the information to be conveyed inaccessible to the uninitiated.

At the same time, however, it is worth reminding ourselves that the tone of the messages we send also matters, not just in communicating with our students but across all levels of our institutions.

While such an audience-centered approach sounds intuitive, it is also important to stress that it must be a proverbial two-way street. In 2020, my colleague and former department chair, Dr. William Nichols, and I published an article about academic department leaders “learning to speak the language of upper administration.” We argued that chairs, center directors, and the like need to know what factors, metrics, and strategies are important to an institution’s leaders so they can devise ways to ‘sell’ a unit’s offerings to those with the power to support or curtail said programs. Again, the idea is to know your target audience and find ways to ‘speak their language.’ 

Catering one’s message to those in charge may seem like a straightforward strategy for securing precious resources. I argue, however, that it is front-line administrative staff charged with implementing institutional strategies who would particularly benefit from a careful consideration of form, content, language, and tone of messages so that they may realize a college’s or university’s goals, no matter whether they are broadly strategic or simple and minute changes to policies and procedures. What I propose sounds simple enough: Before hitting Send or going into a meeting with non-expert staff, take a breath, make sure you have translated your thoughts and requests into a language your recipients can understand and act upon, and perhaps consider changing the message (tone, content, lingo) so that it won’t simply be ignored, misconstrued – or even met with resentment and resistance.

It goes without saying that the ability to modify one’s message for it to be received as intended requires not only familiarity with your target audience but also a degree of empathy and understanding often lost in 21st-century educational institutions driven by performance and graduation metrics, external funding, and the need to enhance one’s image and reputation through college rankings. In short, it requires the type of people-centered leadership skills essential for success in today’s infinitely complex world. Organizations that aim to thrive within such complexities must consider not just the quantitative side of running a business but also ensure that they establish and then carefully maintain transparent lines of intelligible communication that allow all members of the organizational ecosystem to be fully engaged.

In closing, it is worth reiterating that Six Sigma may be a primarily quantitative performance improvement philosophy. However, I believe there is still much to learn for educational leaders concerned with the very human desire to grow student’s minds and acquire knowledge and skills to navigate the world around us.

This article was originally published on August 6, 2019, on, and may have been updated since its original publication.