The business improvement phenomena of Lean and Six Sigma may not be right for all of us. We can invent the game-changing program that is right for our own team or business if we create the right environment and provide the right leadership. Here is a formula reverse engineered from Lean and Six Sigma.
The Rest of the Story:
The business improvement and process improvement methodologies of Lean and Six Sigma have swept through business around the world for their effectiveness and because consultants have developed ways to pass on the knowledge and skills. However, they don’t always fit every business or team. If we reverse engineer how they came to be, though, we can create an environment in which our own powerful methodology can be conceived and developed.
If we reflect on Lean and Six Sigma, we find that they are fundamentally innovations in process design, control, and improvement. Innovation occurs when there is sufficient pressure to find another way to do something and when resources are invested in doing so.
It’s easy to make excuses why we don’t have both halves of the innovation formula, especially the resources part. However, if we look at our two model programs, we can see that it may be easier than we think. It will take some leadership, though.
A few individuals, who observed how Toyota so effectively drove production operations and were able to put what they saw and learned into a structured, transferrable methodology, brought Lean to the United States. Lean was not a Toyota program per se. What Toyota had was a way of doing things developed over a long time.
Toyota’s methods for optimizing production processes were born out of a time of Japanese economic stress where Toyota needed to make every yen count. It’s leadership made a directive that everything everyone did must be focused on getting the next product out the door on time and without error. Further, everyone was made responsible for changing his own processes to meet that directive.
An important thing to note is that the pressure to do production differently was extreme, but the resources to innovate were not surplus, they were already over allocated. Still, the innovation took place, over time.
Motorola invented the Six Sigma method in an environment of severe industry competition. Motorola recognized that if it was going to distinguish its business from competitors, it would need to do things significantly differently. Motorola’s directive was focused on understanding process performance, and making data-driven decisions based on that understanding, while systematically eliminating the elements that drained precious time, energy, and money from the business.
Both Toyota and Motorola operated with a common behavior. Each identified an enemy to the business and made it everyone’s job to eliminate that enemy.
For Toyota the enemy was waste in production. As a result, the Lean methodology is primarily focused on identifying and eliminating waste and the tools and skills are likewise appropriate for that mission.
For Motorola the enemy was process variation that caused so many resources to invest time and energy in preventing errors, loss, or disaster driven by uncontrolled variances in process. Therefore, the Six Sigma methodology is built upon tools and skills that identify, analyze, and eliminate process variation.
So, with that quick look at the environments involved for the innovation of Lean and of Six Sigma, and if we combine our observations with some basic change leadership tactics, we arrive at the following basic formula for creating an environment in which we may develop our own business improvement phenomenon. I submit the following action list.
- Establish a business prime directive
- Declare war on an enemy
- Ask, “How goes the war?” every day
- Enable and expect everyone to fight the war
- Communicate progress of the war frequently
Seem too simple? The formula is simple, but some strong leadership will be required to see it through. Let’s examine each step with a little more detail.
1. Establish a business prime directive
Toyota’s directive was that every business activity must contribute to getting the next product out the door, on time and without error. Any activity that didn’t directly do that was a secondary priority. Motorola declared that every process owner should know his/her process performance and be improving it toward the 3 defects in 1-million opportunities target.
A prime directive gives focus, and it aids your people in making the right decisions when direction is not provided. The prime directive of U.S. soldiers in World War II was, “When in doubt, win the war.” This directive enabled U.S. soldiers to act intelligently, without direction, at critical times when opponents were waiting for orders from headquarters. Several victories throughout the war can be attributed to this directive and the empowerment to act on it.
In your own team, you want the same war-winning behavior. Provide a clear directive that is the focus for your business decisions. Make sure everyone knows it and is expected to drive toward it. It is a powerful tool for driving focus and appropriate decision making.
Determine what your business needs most to excel and build your directive around it. For Toyota and Motorola it was business effectiveness and efficiency, particularly in production. Is yours better customer service, or growth into new markets? Identify it, put it into clear direction, and communicate it to everyone.
2. Declare war on an enemy
Lean’s enemy is waste. Six Sigma’s enemy is variation. What is your business’ or team’s enemy? Is it ineffective communication? Is it insufficient safety? Use some root-cause analysis techniques and identify what is standing in the way of phenomenal success for your team. It is important to get to a cause and not just a symptom.
Once you know your enemy, declare war on it. This is very important! Make it clear to everyone you lead that the war will go on until the enemy is eliminated. Surrender will not be acceptable and refusing to fight is not an option. Everyone is conscripted.
Declaration of war provides focus, just like your prime directive, and gives your personnel something to blame for their frustration. When everyone is conscripted, then everyone in your business is involved in fighting the enemy. Now your business is set to become really good at battling that enemy.
3. Ask, “How goes the war?” every day
Your army must know that you are serious and that this is not just a passing thought. Also, you want the war and the enemy to be on the lips and minds of everyone, all the time. You start this by behaving that way yourself.
If you start getting a repeated, canned answer to your questions, or if you begin to feel like your quest is not being taken seriously, investigate. Walk around and ask people individually what they are doing to fight the war. Ask them what they think about the war and the prime directive.
As you do this, allocate all of the energy that wants to operate your mouth to your ears. Listen only. Do not respond except perhaps to ask more questions. Resist the temptation to educate or persuade. If your team member feels in any way foolish for their opinions or punished for answering your questions he/she will never do it again.
Take your information and digest it. Use it to determine where you need to adjust the leadership of your new culture or if your program needs some new tools or skills to progress or get on track. It takes work to get everyone focused on the war. Push hard, but be patient.
4. Enable and expect everyone to fight the war
Think about it. Pick one thing that you are particularly good at performing. It may be business related or just a hobby. Chances are the reason you are good at it is that you are passionate about it and you do it every day, or nearly so. For phenomenal success that makes your program a true game changer, your business needs to have everyone passionately doing it every day.
You have provided a focal point for your army’s actions with the prime directive and by declaring war on the enemy. Now you need to equip your people with the tools they need to fight the war and empower them to do so.
Focus on empowerment first. Make it clear that you expect everyone to battle the enemy in his/her own work and that you expect them to take the initiative to make changes to they way they work to eliminate that enemy. To allow your people to meet this expectation, you may need to adjust current beliefs or structures surrounding who is responsible for the processes and performances in your business.
If people need to ask more than one leader for permission to change the way something is done, the change won’t happen. Put responsibility for a process’ performance at the lowest possible level and give that level the authority to experiment and change that process. This is critical.
If you or your team members know of some basic tools that will help fight the enemy and can share them with the rest of your army, then do so. In the mean time, give your soldiers in the war the freedom to develop their own methods. This is where the innovation comes from. Action 5 will facilitate sharing successful tools and ideas throughout the rest of your army.
It is often unnecessary to hire consultants or experts to teach your personnel expensive or specialized tools for you to be able to fight the enemy. If you do need these things, let your people demonstrate what they need and get the specific skills required for your team. Remember, you are developing your own methodology here, not shoehorning someone else’s.
Neither Lean nor Six Sigma really invented anything especially sophisticated. As much as Six Sigma may employ some advanced statistical methods, those methods existed in statistical practices long before Six Sigma was coined. Most of the problem-solving methods are plain common sense standardized in some format. Your own team can and will develop tools and methods that work for your culture and your challenge, especially if you encourage it to use what it already knows and to shop around for tools that are already available.
5. Communicate progress of the war frequently
Communication is the key to driving change and establishing a behavior. You begin the communication process of change by asking about the war every day. The rest of the communication is to report back what you learn as often as possible.
Leverage the communication events and opportunities you already have. Use your weekly team meetings to communicate findings and results. Use your all-hands reports to personnel to do the same.
Reporting back to your personnel does two very important things. First, it re-enforces your commitment to the directive and the war and encourages theirs. Second, it serves to battle the overwhelming sensation of having declared a potentially never-ending war on an enemy that may never be “eliminated.”
It is a phenomenon of declaring that the battle will be fought until the enemy is eliminated that your personnel will feel doomed to never ending combat. Surely it’s an overwhelming and demoralizing sensation. We combat this by showing what progress we are making. When you win battles, communicate it.
In addition to communicating your victories to give your team hope, communicate what is working and what isn’t. It is essential that as your people find successful methods to seek and destroy the enemy that they share these with everyone and pass on the newfound weapons. Likewise, share lessons learned so others can avoid rediscovering the same pitfalls.
Finally, here are a couple of basic guideline thoughts. Simple is best. Throughout the development of your own program, numerous methods and tools will be tired and tested. Try to gently nudge your teammates toward those solutions that are simplest. They will be the easiest to repeat and reproduce.
Let people challenge or re-write the rules. Let everyone know that this is OK. Do not let legal or ethical lines be blurred or crossed. Preserve them absolutely.
It’s plain how a business owner or CEO could drive a major cultural change by applying this formula. It is also effective for teams buried within a business. I have had great success driving this approach with more than one of my teams.
For example, a small team I led within a large corporation was tasked with deploying a new methodology for product development. We knew that internal resistance was our enemy. We declared war on it with a directive that no product development resource would be left behind.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of pushing a new method on people we could not direct, but could only influence, we were charged and actively discussed ideas and successful victories almost every day. We didn’t change industry, but we were very successful for as long as the team existed. It works.
Lean and Six Sigma are proven to be very effective when appropriately employed. However, if you need something unique, you don’t need to despair. You can recreate the environment and leadership from which Lean and Six Sigma were germinated and invent your own industry-changing phenomenon.
Even if your own innovative program doesn’t change industry, you can and will succeed in driving significant business or team performance improvement by taking the five actions listed above, and leading your team through the behavioral changes. Whether yours is a small or large business or just an engineering or project team, there is no reason why you can’t also create a phenomenal improvement methodology that fits your unique needs.
Stay wise, friends.