A few years ago someone told me about a frustrating experience they’d had attending a Lean Six Sigma workshop.
This piqued my interest. They were a senior leader in the business and new to the world of Lean Six Sigma. I asked what had happened to make them feel this way.
This is what they told me…
In the workshop, the facilitator mentioned they were fresh out of their Six Sigma training course the previous week. They literally had their manuals and other books spread out open in front of them with post it notes marking up many of the pages. They then read verbatim about what needed to happen next, using the course manual as a script. It didn’t go well. Some people politely made their excuses and left the room midway through the workshop. The project eventually limped along and then quietly died.
When I heard this I felt sorry for the person running the workshop but they should never have got to that stage. They had not been coached. They had left the training with no guidance on how to position the project and applying the tools.
A ‘typical’ Lean six sigma project can last anything from 3 - 6+ months. When time is not a critical issue and the business is prepared to invest resources the results are extremely powerful.
However, in my experience, for most companies, time totally IS a critical issue and they just don’t have the luxury of time to go through all the full cycle of D.M.A.I.C. stages in a six sigma project and release people from across the business for the time investment that’s typically required.
Research from the Wall Street Journal suggests a whopping 60% of Lean Six Sigma projects fail to deliver what they set out to achieve. (My gut feeling is that its a lot higher, likely in the same 75% zone of change management projects failing). Today’s business leaders are looking for a faster turnaround in results.
There are many reasons for this but I reckon there are two big things going on here:
- The projects typically take too long to see tangible results.
- Most of the time a project is set up when it isn’t actually needed in the first place.
If you are not careful, things can quickly get complex when sometimes a simpler approach will often do the job.
So here’s the thing - you don’t HAVE to slavishly follow Lean Six Sigma and all of it’s associated methodology and use all of the tools in the toolbox.
Like Nessie, it’s a myth. And you don’t need to start a project each time you want to improve a process.
You can cherry pick tools and in some cases, completely remix them in a way to suit you. You won’t get in trouble with the Lean Six Sigma police knocking on your door at 3 in the morning and you’ll arguably get similar results in much quicker time.
So here are a few alternative ‘remixed’ approaches to keep things simple - use them when time is tight, you are really up against it and you don’t have time to start up a 3-month project to show results:
- Need to fix a problem fast? Start with the assumption that you don’t actually need to start another project by adopting some ‘guerrilla’ improvement tactics. Recruit an engaging sponsor, tightly define the issue that needs to be fixed and pull together the key players who are involved together for half a day and simply workshop it out. Make it fun - take everyone out of the office and decamp in a corner of Costa. Create a plan. Execute the plan. You’ll save masses of time and with some colleague goodwill and the right wind in the sails of the team you’ll fix the problem. Keep things simple.
- Want to quickly understand how something is done? You don’t need a marathon process mapping session to understand a process. Although this is the gold standard, often there isn’t time. So try this - meet with people in brief 1-2-1 meetings and sketch the process out - think of it like creating a patchwork quilt. When you’re done simply stitch it all together. Yes it won’t be perfect, but you’ll quickly get a rough idea of the process, key hot spots and where focus is needed. You can save people hours of time by doing this and get a picture very quickly. Don’t over-egg it.
- Need to prove the problem? Sometimes you need to understand just what is going on to assess how much energy you spend on solving a problem. You don’t need to create a mammoth statistical data model and have excel spreadsheets coming out of your ears. Try a simple data collection exercise like asking people to fill in ‘5 bar gate’ forms to understand what’s happening over a week. Don’t over-collect data.
- Managing the change needn’t be overly complex. Most of the time you don’t need change management theory. Keep things simple by creating a table in Word and list what needs to change, how it will happen, owner and timescales for each change (and who is going to drive the plan). Then drive and track progress. Yes, the devil is in the detail, but change management is often about managing relationships, reaching agreements and ensuring agreed changes are implemented. You don’t need theoretical change models to drive change. Ditch the theory, keep things simple and pragmatic.
Lean Six Sigma is great when you have both the time and the resources to do it properly. But here’s the rub. Most companies today have precious little of either to do projects in this time period. Leaders today are crying out for speed and pragmatism that deliver tangible, bottom line results without all the bells and whistles.
Starting a new project shouldn't always be the default answer. You can remix tools as you go, just keep focused on the outcome and the fastest way to get there.
Don’t complexify, simplify.
Guy Butler is a Global Business Transformation Consultant at Sage. He is an interim Transformation Consultant, with over 23 years’ experience driving transformation and change management programmes in a variety of industries with particular focus on global tech businesses.
Guy’s favourite quote is “Transforming isn’t about improving, it’s about re-thinking” (Malcolm Gladwell); here at the BTN we couldn’t agree more!