Getting Maximum Value from Lean / Six Sigma Processes

In today’s current economic climate, there is an increased focus by many companies on maximising cost savings through significant investments in Lean and Six Sigma programs. However a recent article in The McKinsey Quarterly (November 2008 From Lean to lasting; Making Operational Improvements Stick) estimates that many companies are achieving less than 50% of the potential savings from Lean and Six Sigma processes by failing to pay sufficient attention to the soft skills required to embed them into the organizational culture.

Part of the reason for this is that many Lean and Six Sigma initiatives are focused on production and manufacturing processes where there is a tendency to prefer quantitative, statistical results as the yardstick through which we measure success.

Clearly, these are the ultimate objective but a successful process of continuous improvement, which is the driving philosophy behind such kaizen techniques, requires us to drive organizational change at the same time; otherwise, what tends to happen is a series of short, sharp shocks which are initially successful but soon fade as the original champions move on. The reality is that if we ignore the ‘hearts and minds’ approach that is required to bring about lasting change, we’re only addressing part of the problem.

It’s worth being clear that Six Sigma techniques are the tools used to drive changes in the process; kaizen philosophies require a change in the underlying organizational culture.

Several of our clients, particularly in the manufacturing area, have commented that they suffer from a tendency to roll out big initiatives which are launched on an initial wave of enthusiasm but then run into the brick wall of organizational inertia and there are a number of reasons for this:

  • The organizational culture and the associated internal performance management system do not support the values that the process is designed to drive; it’s no surprise that many of these kaizen techniques originate (as the very word implies!) in the consensus-based, group oriented cultures of Japanese manufacturing companies. They require much more effort to make them last in cultures which tend to focus more on individual achievements, where it can be seen as your problem rather than mine;
  • Quite often, the people who are charged with responsibility for implementing these initiatives tend to lack the skills to influence what happens outside their immediate physical area of control; in many cases, they are trying to create buy-in to a global process where team members are based in different locations and operating in a variety of cultures.
  • A frequent complaint is that the people above them, particularly those in other locations or in functions, don’t have the same objectives and may even have conflicting objectives. There are also some companies where the simple fact that an initiative originates within ‘Head Office’ induces immediate resistance! Bridging this gap takes time, which tends to be the one resource we’re not given and also leads to burn-out for the individuals concerned – after all, how many two hour conference calls at 5:00 am can we tolerate?
  • The project-based nature of how we work often means that people are assigned to these initiatives for a fixed period of time and then move on once their term has been completed; this can lead to a natural focus on short term results on the part of the project leaders (because if I do well here, I’ll move on) and a certain amount of cynicism within the organization; how many of us have come across the idea that if you don’t like an initiative, just give it time to go away because there’ll be a new one along in a while.

The big issues we observe are whether we are equipping our Lean/Six Sigma champions with the ‘soft skills’ needed to turn an initiative from ‘my project’ into ‘our project’ and whether we have the ability to focus both on short term, measurable results and embedding long-term organizational change?

We increasingly find that our clients are using Speed Lead tools and techniques to complement their lean and six sigma activities and to extend them beyond manufacturing ads supply chain into people management.  Their attractiveness lies in part from the origin of the ideas: Kevan Hall, the author of the book “Speed Lead– faster simpler ways to manage people, projects and teams in complex companies, ” spent several years leading Manufacturing Operations in a global FMCG business, where he introduced and was exposed to many of the concepts of total quality now known as lean.

The underlying philosophies, applied to managing people in complex organizations and tested in over 300 major organizations, subsequently developed into “Speed Lead”. In the process they were refined and adapted to succeed in typical North American and European corporations with their accompanying culture.

Today the Speed Lead tools and techniques hark back to their Japanese total quality roots, but are readily applied to the people management challenges facing western businesses today. They also have immediate relevance to the many busy managers and leaders who have not been immersed in a manufacturing mindset, yet still require ideas for improving efficiencies, accelerating business activities and engaging an increasingly dispersed workforce.

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