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Driving transformational change through Process Excellence and Lean Six Sigma.

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The right tools and assessment of organizational needs

Building on Chris’ recent post, I was talking with a colleague who shared a disheartening example of a retailer that was attempting to launch a new process improvement program with a very narrow approach. The deployment leader had determined that rather than focus on a holistic approach to process improvement or even focus on a toolkit such as Lean or Lean Six Sigma, they would focus on launching a single tool into the organization. While there is no doubt that a single tool can bring value, my challenge comes from the way in which the tool was selected and whether the approach actually fits the organizational needs.

While the leadership of the organization expressed some concerns as to whether the single-focus would work, they gave the go ahead to essentially invest over a million dollars to support the launch after doing a simple pilot that yielded only moderate benefits (and not even demonstrated through a scientific method). A scan of the organization revealed that the critical challenge faced by this retailer was much broader than what a single tool could enable. Rather than focusing on key failure and pain points in the value chain or fully understanding the organizational culture, the decision was made to deploy a tool which had demonstrated results in a prior deployment in a very different sector and with a very different organizational context.

In a subsequent conversation with another leader in a different retailer, a similar story was shared in which they decided to adopt a few key tools from Lean to drive transformational change. This leader expressed great concern that such a narrow focus would likely bring limited outcomes and become the “flavour of the month” program.

In both cases, shouldn’t one ask whether:

  • There was a solid assessment of the organizational needs and culture?
  • The challenges faced by the organization have similar underlying root causes and whether the treatment of these could benefit from a singular approach?
  • Thought had been placed on long-term sustainability of the program and the necessary cultural implications?

The recent work from Mike Rother (Toyota Kata) would tend to reinforce that the real impact of Lean is not from the tools but rather the overall underlying cultural focus on driving continuous improvement at all levels.

While I hope that these two deployments are very successful I’m very alarmed as it is examples like these that bring into question the validity and importance of investing in Operational Excellence programs.

Such examples also bring into question how organizations can ensure that in recruiting a new deployment leader they can ensure that they focus on a leader that has sufficient breadth of expertise to build a deployment that truly fits the organizational needs and culture while maximizing the likelihood of business outcomes rather than rely on a few past successes. I will explore this topic in greater depth in a subsequent post.

What other examples have you seen around a narrow tool focus and the associated risks? What successes have you seen despite this narrow focus?

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Introduction to the Holistic Toolkit

In our previous article “Process Improvement – Is it about the tools?” Eric suggested that the focus of a deployment should be on desired outcomes rather than tools.  This style of deployment focuses on leveraging multiple tools and customizing them to the realize business result we’re trying to achieve and this is core to our deployments.

Eric summarized some observed challenges that some organizations experience leveraging a tool-based deployment:

  1. A focus on finding the “right” problem to fix through a designated methodology as opposed to a business process challenge that needs to be addressed
  2. In a few organizations, it has manifested itself into two or more competing deployments focused on different approaches such as Lean or Six Sigma or successive programs due to prior inabilities to deliver meaningful value – contributing to a sense of “flavour of the month”
  3. A  narrow focus on a toolkit distracting from the most appropriate path to the desired outcome

The holistic toolkit seeks to address these challenges.

Focus on the Business

When individuals are sent away from training they typically come back energized and armed with new tools to affect change.  There is a desire to apply them immediately and to every challenge that presents itself.  But at the end of the day, attempting to address a business challenge from a tool perspective may be a barrier to addressing the business process challenge the right way.  This is similar for deployments as well.

Within the framework of a particular tool, it can dictate how conversations are conducted with a Sponsor or influence outcomes if the output of the tool doesn’t match the inputs.  By re-vectoring the discussion from approaches to the desired business outcome, we abstract away the details allowing us to strategically apply our arsenal of tools.  When getting from A to B, most just want to get there and place very little importance on how.  They just want it to work and the technical details should be reserved for the experts.  This will also allow you to tailor your messaging to key stakeholders as well by removing complexity.

Strategically apply the tools on your belt

Have you ever walked into a kitchen supply store?  How many tools do you see on the wall?  Colanders, peelers, presses and the list goes on; there’s a special tool for every task.  While we’re not advocating that hundreds tools are required to be successful but certainly a variety to tackle the wide array of business challenges that may need support.

No methodology is perfect when addressing a business problem hence requiring strategic application of them.  Some of the tools in our toolkit includes Appreciative Inquiry, WorkOut, Lean Six Sigma and Process Design where each successive tool addresses a different level of complexity.

Take for example you have two teams that simply won’t come together to work cohesively as a group as the relationship is marred with negativity.  In these cases, we may use Appreciative Inquiry and WorkOut to help people build relationships and leverage positive stories to identify themes that form the basis of new solutions.

In other scenarios, we’ve worked with teams that are culturally open to process improvement but aren’t quite ready for methodologies such as Lean Six Sigma.  In this case, we’ve incorporated various LSS tools into WorkOut to provide a soft introduction and build the foundation for future metric-centric process improvements.

While each methodology has strengths and weaknesses, it’s possible to marry specific elements of each to realize an even stronger impact on business outcomes.

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As part of the blogging partnership I previously announced, Chris Wan and I are pleased to be launching our newest sister site: The Collaborative Edge.  While the Process Excellence & Transformational Leadership blog is intended to be a reference for implementing and leading Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence deployments with the intent of driving transformational change, this new sister site is focused more specifically on the collaborative space from social influences to methodologies and tools that can be leveraged to drive improved business performance.

We believe that this is an emerging space to which little has been written so far and which will likely trigger a substantial opportunity for the process improvement practitioner. This is an opportunity for us to share our thoughts as a result of our broad experience in tandem with your ideas and strategies. We will touch on topics such as social media, leadership, time and geographical barriers, culture and collaborative ways to drive improved business performance.

We believe that engaging and exploring new avenues with you is the ideal way to share ideas and discover new approaches to achieve process and operational excellence. To that end, we want this blog to be a collaborative exchange of ideas and knowledge so please take every opportunity to provide your feedback and suggest topics for discussion. If you have thoughts as to how we can improve this site, please contact us as well. We will make every attempt to create a collaborative space to foster continued growth.

In addition to regularly checking this site for updates, I encourage you to visit!

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Come follow my second blog on – With a tighter focus on Lean Six Sigma deployments

Not so long ago, in conversation with iSixSigma, the opportunity to expand my blogging and start sharing ideas and insights on deployment leadership on the iSixSigma blogosphere came up.  In addition to this personal blog in which I’ll continue to touch on a broad range of process excellence topics, I decided to take on the opportunity to share thoughts that are more specific to Lean Six Sigma deployment leadership as part of the iSixSigma community.  I encourage you to also visit to see other Lean Six Sigma blogs in addition to these pages which I will continue to update.

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Are we under-leveraging process improvement as a lever to drive team member engagement?

Having reflected on the key themes that came through during the recent Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence Summit in Orlando, I was surprised by the few examples presented by process improvement practitioners discussing how process improvement can be actively leveraged to drive employee engagement.  There were discussions around employee suggestion programs and some examples of “voice of the employee” exercises but the theme was not apparent in most deployments presented and does not seem to be deemed a metric of deployment success.

One might consider that this is an automatic benefit of a process improvement program but that is not necessarily the case.  In fact, while the Theory of Constraints (TOC) and most Process Design approaches have strong merit, the impact on employee engagement is often a hopeful outcome if the new process improves the employee experience and these approaches don’t typically help evolve an organization’s culture.  On the other hand, Lean and Six Sigma will typically engage team members in the process of driving change but depending on the approach taken by the team, the benefits on engagement can be diluted if these improvements still have the appearance of being driven by “experts”.  However, when Lean is applied holistically (as opposed to as a tool), there are definitely strong engagement benefits (think: Mike Rother in Toyota Kata).  Additionally, when approaches such as WorkOut are applied with a focus on engagement, the benefits are quickly apparent.

Given the importance of team engagement to the financial success of an organization and to the quality of the customer experience, there is no doubt that a well-rounded process improvement program should have a significant positive impact on engagement, particularly around the questions that typically focus on “work processes”, “tools and resources to do my job” and “at work my opinion counts”. 

In fact, in a past role where we took a holistic approach to driving transformational process change within a specific value chain (leveraging tools such as WorkOut, the Cultural elements of Lean, the principles described in “Toyota Kata” as well as fresh leadership style), we saw engagement scores move from the bottom quartile to the top quartile within a year while significant costs were taken out and the Customer experience was dramatically overhauled.  In my current role, we’ve noted that where our team has been highly engaged with process improvement efforts leveraging WorkOut and a highly inclusive approach to Lean Six Sigma, key engagement drivers around “work processes” and “at work my opinion counts” saw significant improvements, quite a bit higher than areas that didn’t benefit from as significant a focus on process improvement initiatives.  There is no doubt that other factors such as leadership are at play, but it does however strongly illustrate the benefit of an engagement focused approach to process improvement.

So what can be done to ensure that the linkages to engagement are a strong focus of a process improvement program?  Some of the things to consider include:

  • Build a strong partnership with HR business partners to focus impacts
  • Include goals around driving engagement in key process improvement portfolio leaders
  • Focus on a holistic toolkit that includes tools that are specifically designed to engage team members in driving and owning process changes (think: WorkOut or Kaizen)
  • Ensure that process improvement is focused on evolving the organization’s culture (think: Lean, Fair Process, “Toyota Kata” concepts)
  • Focus on engaging team members through process changes (i.e. rather than measuring number of team members trained or number of projects completed, consider measuring the number of team members engaged in process improvement projects)
  • Include visibility around engagement metrics as part of process improvement team dashboards
  • Ensure that process improvement team members live processes as much as possible and are not perceived as an “elite squad of statisticians”

I welcome your thoughts and ideas around other approaches that can help ensure that process improvement efforts maximize the organizational drive to improve team member engagement.

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Appreciative Inquiry – The untapped opportunity to drive process change

In a recent interview, the topic of Appreciative Inquiry and the applicability to process improvement came up.  It definitely made me think as while Appreciative Inquiry is an approach to Organizational Development that has been around since the 1980s, it has regrettably been underutilized in the process improvement community.

Essentially, Appreciative Inquiry is a process by which the participants within an organization are consulted to help drive change.  While such engagement approaches in the process improvement space typically look at deconstructing the critical failure points within a process to then identify causality prior to implementing the proposed changes, Appreciative Inquiry take a very different approach.  Teams are first asked to share through story telling some of their best experiences.  From this story telling exercise, the teams start looking at all the critical themes that are present when things are working at their best and then start working on ways to improve overall performance by doing more of what needs to be present to improve overall performance.

So while this approach is not ideal to directly drive process change, there are definitely cases where a similar model can help shift the dialogue to a more constructive one.  The approach brings particular value when dealing with sensitive topics or where some of the challenges result from poor relationships between teams.

In the past, I’ve successfully seen this process work to complement WorkOut events or even Lean Six Sigma project teams where relationships between teams were a critical cause of the process failure.  In one case, we encountered a very strained relationship with a supplier which was starting to impact overall process performance.  A traditional approach of finding all the challenges with the supplier would have alienated the two parties even further whereas Appreciative Inquiry was able to focus on the components that worked well between the two teams in order to help drive the overall process performance.

In a second example, the approach was used between two teams within a critical process.  Both the upstream and downstream teams blamed each other for all the process failures and refused to talk to each other to solve the problems.  Using a model very similar to Appreciative Inquiry as part of a WorkOut event, the teams were brought together to focus on the key elements that were present when the two teams worked well together to improve the process performance.  This approach helped surface the key ingredients needed to improve the relationship and made the subsequent dialogue on improving the process performance much easier to complete.

While I’m not advocating the addition of yet another approach to our process improvement tools, I do think that the philosophy and key attributes of Appreciative Inquiry should be considered when addressing process improvement issues that are directly linked to the relationships between teams or to help shape the change process.  At a later date I’ll post more on the Appreciative Inquiry approach and the opportunity to link these with the process improvement toolkit.

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LIVE from the Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence Summit

Coming up in just a few days, I will begin my live Twitter feed from the Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence Summit in Orlando to share some of the key thoughts and insights from the event.  In addition to taking part in the conference to capture the key themes that are emerging in the process improvement space, I will be conducting a workshop for Lean Leaders on the topic of Accelerating deployments and results with 100-day improvement projects (more details in the Upcoming Speaking Engagements tab) where I will cover some of our key successes in leveraging 100-day improvement projects to engage team members in driving rapid improvements across the organization.

Additionally, our team is up for 3 awards at the summit:
– Best Process Improvement Project Under 90 Days: Broadband Build – Test & Turn-up/Migrations
– Master Black Belt of the Year
– Deployment Leader of the Year

Stay tuned for regular updates from the event!


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