Implementing Lean and Lean Six Sigma

The most frequent question we are asked by clients these days is how to get started with Lean or Lean Six Sigma.

The second most frequent question is some variation of: What is Lean Six Sigma anyway?

Let’s answer the second question first and then dive in on how to get started.

What is Lean And Lean Six Sigma?

Lean & Lean Six Sigma are really continuous improvement problem solving methodologies. They share a common foundation of being evidence-based (using a scientific process model) and engaging teams of people in the purposeful effort to improve performance.

There is a lot more detail to each approach but that is what Lean and Lean Six Sigma are all about, once you strip away the consulting talk. As simple of an idea as this is, however, the implications, including the cultural implications for organizations, are huge. The evidenced-based approach, for example, requires discipline in method, an ability to work with data and a decision making model that emphasizes process knowledge over position or authority. Engaging teams of people means giving them the tools to tackle problems (training) as well as the freedom to act (team chartering, project management). So as simple as introducing a new problem solving methodology sounds, both Lean and Lean Six Sigma may lead to profound changes in your organization.

So in answering the question of what is Lean or Lean Six Sigma, we start to define the first steps in implementing either – dropping the label and understanding the thinking behind each approach. Ultimately, this is system thinking and developing an understanding of systems thinking as applied to organizations and business performance improvement is the necessary foundation for moving forward.

How to Get Started

So, let’s assume you want to introduce a scientific problem solving approach to your organization that will engage your people. What next? Well first, read a little and make sure you understand what you are in for. Browse the Internet. Wikipedia is good for an unbiased overview. Converge’s own website www.operationalexcellence.ca is also a good place to look over as are, we hope, the ever increasing posts to this website.

Once you are committed to pursuing Lean or Lean Six Sigma, we have found it helpful to think of implementation as requiring three components: (1) Defining Your Way, (2) Providing the Training and (3) Supporting the Effort.

1. Defining Your Way

Success requires that Lean or Lean Six Sigma becomes the way things are done around here. In short, they must become part of the corporate DNA – hardwired into the organization.

This requires some thinking and for some decisions to be made. Who will lead the effort? How will improvement projects be managed? Who decides what projects will be taken on? Who is the customer for this work? Are we going to use a push or pull deployment strategy? What are the organizational expectations of the program?

At the end of it all you should have:

  • An implementation plan that details expectations and ensures the program fits with existing operating organizational structure, operating realities and business imperatives.
  • Establishment of a program infrastructure including development of a program ‘office’ as a focal point for knowledge sharing, project management and support.
  • Identification who who will be in the first wave of training in the program. Their role in the organization, level of training and initial project tasks should be defined as well.
  • Identification of change management issues with preliminary countermeasures to address the people, cultural and related issues that act as barriers to program implementation and success.

Most importantly, you will have a clear idea of how things are going to work around here, you will have defined your way.

2. Provide the Training

When your way has been defined we can begin to engage our people. This starts with training. The things you must pay attention to:

  • The training materials. They should be customized for your organization and industry. Training materials with unlimited site use rights for your oganization are best. They enable you to take control of your program. Anything less and your consultant/vendor controls the program and the costs will come back to haunt you.
  • The people doing the training. It is a sad fact of the industry that those that sell the program are not always the people in the classroom delivering the training. The people delivering the training should not be full time trainers, they should be the people that have actually been there and done that.
  • The training program should be consistent with what we know about successfull adult education. This includes linking all learning objectives with the cognitive levels of understanding required.
  • Programs that are entirely e-based are of very limited effectiveness. With Lean and Lean Six Sigma absolutely nothing beats in classroom training. If you can’t afford it, use a blended approach.
  • Try to support a train as you go approach where the training and a specific project are pursued congruently by the trainee. This provides a real world element to the training that is invaluable.

At the end of the training, you should have a group of people with the skills and knowledge to begin leading improvement initiatives within your organization.

3. Support the Effort

Unfortunately, training is not enough. Train them and turn them loose never works. Your people will need help and support along the way. Your organization needs to support those it has trained through the project office or through whatever provider you have selected to provide the training. Some things that help:

  • On-line knowledge base resources. This is one area where licensing your materials really comes in handy. Training materials and related information concerning your way should be made available on-line. If placed on a wiki, selected individuals can update the knowledge base, providing additional information on what works and what doesn’t. new examples and case studies can be added and blended into the knowledge-base as the organizations experience grows.
  • A program office with a help line where recent graduates of the training can access real time help when they need it.
  • Mentoring and support to those recently trained including on-site assistance from the program vendor or qualified internal resources.
  • Communication and information sharing among those trained. Forums to discuss problems and issues as well as as successes really help. Some of our clients have instituted regular monthly meetings among black/green belts to facilitate this. Using collaboration software can help here as well.
  • Publish! One of the best new ideas in Lean and Lean Six Sigma is creating blogs to describe project successes and failure — the real (warts and all) learnings that have occurred. The blog will quickly become an integral part of the on-line knowledge-base. The use of blogs is also becoming a primary means of sustaining the program.

Conclusion: Do It Right, Do It Your Way

Lean and Lean Six Sigma isn’t really quite as easy as 1,2, 3. Keeping focus on these three essential elements will help, however.

As mentioned, both Lean and Lean Six Sigma are disciplined approaches to continuous improvement. As much as you may like to, you can’t pick and choose what you do and do not like. The pieces need to fit together to create a consistent and comprehensive methodology.

At the same time, the program must fit within the organization. Change will be required of course. As we said, the implications of Lean or Lean Six Sigma are significant. But it still must be implemented in a way that will either minimize the disruptions or provide for a smooth transition to the new way of doing things. Ultimately, this means you must do it right and you must do it your way. The trick is combining the two.

One last hint at successful implementation. All this can be fun. Contributing positively to something, making a difference is a fundamental human desire. Your people want to contribute to the success of your organization. Lean and Lean Six Sigma is about giving them the tools and the freedom to do just that.

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