February 18, 2016

Done Lean - Six Sigma? Didn't really work?

We hear from a lot of companies that they’ve ‘done’ Lean, ‘done’ Six Sigma, and with this there’s very often an associated ‘and it didn’t really work for us’ attached. When we probe a bit further, it soon transpires that whilst they had a go at it, there were lots of required ingredients that weren’t in place, and naturally, rather like baking a chocolate cake without the chocolate or cocoa, the result didn’t meet expectations.


So where are the pitfalls?


The top ones we come across time and time again include:

  • A sole focus on removing waste (non-value adding activity, Muda in Japanese) from processes. Many people start here because it’s easy, and the results can be impressive. But the benefits are not always sustainable, particularly if there’s no focus on the two other very important strands of Lean: Muri (having to work hard to get the required results, which results in errors/unsustainability or results) and Mura (uneven demand: when there’s a spike in demand it’s all hands on deck in ‘save the day’ mode, which typically brings lots of Muda (waste) and Muri (too much effort) into the system. Working on Mura (uneven demand) can be tricky to start with, but is so important. It generally involves working closely with the whole supply chain, and perhaps most importantly, needs an executive team who are OF ONE MIND about their desired future and the strategy needed to bring it about. This is often rather a rare commodity.

  • ‍Training lots of Yellow/Green/Black belt practitioners, with insufficient focus on all the other ingredients needed to ensure they actually get to use their valuable knowledge. Things like:

  1. ‍ Do we have enough projects for people to apply their learning to?

  2. ‍Can we afford to have x number of people working on projects (rather than performing their normal role)? If not, how long will it be after their training that they can actually apply the learning? We’ve come across several organisations who’ve trained up huge numbers of ‘belts’ only for them to have to wait 6 months to apply the learning, by which time they’ve forgotten most of it.

  3. ‍Do we have the coaching capacity to support them as they apply their learning (as they will potentially struggle at times)?

  4. ‍Do we have sufficient capacity for facilitation: it’s one thing to learn about a skillset; applying it effectively (with potentially cynical/negative groups) requires an entirely different skillset.

  5. ‍Do managers understand what we want to achieve? In many cases they don’t. The whole arena of Lean-Six Sigma can appear to be a rather (scary) dark art, which can detract from support. However usually it takes no more than half a day to help deal with this.

  6. ‍Does the focus on Lean-Six Sigma have sufficient sponsorship? At board level? At local level? Many organisations appear to have sponsors, but the reality is they’re sponsors in name only, leaving practitioners without real support or political clout.

  7. ‍Does the organisation actually need the level of expertise of a Green/Black belt to make the required improvements? Very often the answer is no, making it overkill to train people to that level (in itself a waste). And because the skill set doesn’t get used, people feel like they’re having to jump through hoops for the sake of a qualification.

  • ‍‘Keep up with the Jones’ effect, without sufficient link to overall strategy. If competitors are doing it, some organisations embark on Lean-Six Sigma as the latest fad thing to do. But it’s not a core component of their overall strategy, rather a bolt-on that can be jettisoned if needs be. And when the going gets tough, such as when other urgent needs arise in the business, Lean-Six Sigma is left to flounder. For it to be successful it needs to be an integral part of overall strategy, something that becomes intertwined in the organisation’s DNA.

  • The need for leaders and managers to solve crises. Let’s face it, there’s often a great buzz from averting an impending disaster, and some of us love this so much that to embed systems and processes which minimize the likelihood of crises arising may go against the grain. This is often unconscious, and sometimes it’s a misunderstanding of purpose. A recent example includes working with a unit of psychiatrists whose purpose (generally speaking) is to help their patients deal with their crises and to minimize stress. Yet the way they are set up to work frequently places huge stress on the psychiatrists, resulting in a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ culture. The leader’s mindset is to discount inefficiencies in systems and processes because of a belief that ‘we are here to deal with crises’. Yes, the team’s role is to help others deal with their crises, but not to create crises for the team members, who are already extremely stressed out with overwork and very wasteful processes.  For leaders like this it’s time to wake up, or move to a different ‘fire fighting’ role.

    Another example comes from the world of migration, in itself a very hot topic at the moment. Many people involved in working with migrants are fire fighting experts: they demonstrate huge bravery and commitment to the cause, working in very challenging, often extremely dangerous conditions. Yet once the crisis has been averted, many find it very difficult to switch to the more mundane work involved in more every day aspects of migration, such as working on migration policy with government officials, which ultimately can help stop the crises from emerging in the first place.

    Then you only have to look at the world of flooding for another example. Governments are pouring huge amount of resource into flood defenses, yet they’re looking at symptoms, not cause. The fact that farmers only get their EU subsidy if they clear land of trees and, in the case of hill farmers, increase numbers of sheep, resulting in trampling of soil and extreme levels of runoff should be enough for them to realize that that a significant amount of the cause is upstream. But there’s an adrenalin rush (and potentially local political kudos) from diving into tackling symptoms, rather than taking time to fully analyse cause, minimizing the need for expensive solutions in the first place. Tax payers in flood zones are already paying increased tax and insurance premiums, yet little is being done on dealing with the contributing factors upstream. A close contact is an expert in this domain at the Environment Agency (UK), and is constantly finding the (UK) government’s eyes and ears are closed to this. Here’s hoping that will change following the bad flooding this winter (2015-16). Sadly, given the repeated behaviours of various governments, it seems there’s more political kudos from acting in fire fighting mode and leaping in with expensive flood defences rather than tackling the problem more holistically.

Over the years we've learned a lot about what makes for successful application of Lean - Six Sigma in a wide variety contexts, and have often been called in when an initial attempt has going wrong. So if you'd like to know more about how to maximise your likelihood of returns - and as a result get the best from your investment - do get in touch for an informal chat. We'd love to hear about your experiences, and to share what's worked for us with other clients.

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