Mark’s Note: Thanks to Sam Selay for today’s guest post. Although he’s writing about the government and the military, I think you’ll find this post interesting regardless of your industry. Read an excerpt from Sam’s chapter of Practicing Lean.
Sam Selay is working at Optimize Consulting, where he is an on-site consultant for the Defense Logistics Agency. The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is an agency in the United States Department of Defense, with more than 26,000 civilian and military personnel throughout the world. Located in 48 states and 28 countries, DLA provides more than $34 billion in goods and services including repair parts, acquisitions of weapons, food, fuel, energy, uniforms, medical supplies and construction material.
After practicing Lean and Six Sigma in the United States Marine Corps for six years, it became apparent that there were current behaviors and practices that were preventing the organization and the Department of Defense, as a whole, from realizing enterprise excellence. From my perspective, some of the prevalent thinking around Six Sigma had heavily influenced these behaviors and practices.
As I was finishing my tenure with the Marine Corps in 2016, I was approached and offered the chance to work as a Continuous Improvement consultant within the Department of Defense.
“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always got.”
The Same Old Approach
From my experience, traditional Six Sigma thinking and practices have failed to delivered true transformations across industries. I personally think Six Sigma can complement Lean or other improvement methodologies, but when the focus is on training belts and experts doing projects, the initiative is doomed to fail. This approach does not engage employees and does not focus on developing problem-solving capabilities in others. Quality improvement is not the experts’ responsibility, it’s everyone’s responsibility. At the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), where I’m currently consulting, training belts and experts running projects had always been the status quo, until now.
Prior to me joining the organization, approximately 1,800 belts had been trained. The results of this training was miniscule. Today, the improvement practice has completely shifted with the focus on developing a community of problem solvers with a heavy focus on coaching. The main role of the improvement experts has now shifted from leading projects to developing problem-solving capabilities in others through coaching.
Why conduct training? Why spend limited time, money, and resources on traditional training? After 1,800 trained belts and minimal return, why continue to do the same thing and expect a different outcome? Today, Lean Six Sigma green belt and black belt training is outsourced. If an organization within the agency wants to send their employee to training, they are provided a list of recommended training institutions. They should then own the responsibility of selecting and supporting those employees. In addition, it’s highly recommended that they start practicing what they are learning with the oversight of a coach as soon as possible, preferably while they are still going through the training.
The focus now at DLA is delivering results, not conducting classroom training. We’ve come to the realization that improvement experts are better utilized as coaches versus being classroom instructors. However, if during a coaching session with the learner it’s evident that a necessary tool such as a fishbone diagram, Pareto Chart, control chart etc. is needed, and the student is unaware of the tool, the coach will shift into teaching mode. From my perspective, this is the best type of training. The student should learn the tool, think how to use the tool, experiment with the tool, reflect, and adjust how the tool is used next time.
Traditionally, there has been a heavy focus on tools for any number of reasons. However, at the core, tools are simply countermeasures to problems.
At DLA, we have shifted away from checklists of required tools and heavy requirements to the thinking behind the tools. Why are you using that tool? How will that tool help you solve the problem? The focus now is having the coaches force the learners to think deeply and critically through the problem-solving process.
For projects, the only requirements now are a charter, A3, and executive summary. Why use a 50-page power point presentation when you can present the most vital information on a single A3? To clarify, it’s not about the A3 document, but the thinking behind the document. We are concerned that people are demonstrating root-cause problem solving through the use of the A3.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
I strongly believe that the cornerstone of this shift in the practice is coaching. I’m paraphrasing John Shook from the Lean Enterprise Institute, who said, “When you give an employee an answer, you rob them of the opportunity to figure it out themselves and the opportunity to grow and develop.”
We have to help people by taking a completely different approach. People will not develop problem-solving capabilities when you tell them what to do or what tools to use. People will develop problem-solving capabilities by thinking, experimenting, learning, reflecting, and adjusting.
The role of the coach is to guide the learner by forcing them to think critically through the problem-solving process. This is done through the use of Socratic questions. Some sample questions that can be used are:
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- How do you know it’s a problem?
- How big is the problem?
- What is the data telling you?
- How can you visually display that data?
- What causes that to happen?
- Why do you think that countermeasure will address the problem?
- How will you know if that countermeasure has been successful?
- How will improvements be measured? When? Who?
- What new problems have surfaced? Are additional countermeasures necessary?
- What will you do next?
However, if it’s clear that the learner doesn’t know what to do, is unaware of a tool, or has a misunderstanding that needs clarifying, then the coach will shift into teaching mode.
The journey to shifting the improvement practice at DLA has just begun. There are many other elements that also must be addressed, such as influencing leadership’s beliefs and behaviors, driving out fear, clarifying the most important improvements to do, focusing only on the vital few improvements, building the practice through a disciplined approach focused around developing others problem-solving capabilities, and engaging everyone in improvement work at all levels.
As new leaders and employees join the organization and challenge the direction of the improvement practice we must pause, reflect, and ask ourselves do we want the same results that we have always got? Do we want to train belt and lead projects or solve problems and develop internal problem-solving capabilities? We have chosen the latter, and the path to get there.
Sam Selay has been involved in Continuous Improvement since 2010, and has been using Lean and Six-Sigma methodology in the military and the federal government. He worked in the United States Marine Corps in supply chain, logistics, quality, and continuous improvement for 13 years. Currently, he is working at Optimize Consulting, where he an on-site consultant for the Defense Logistics Agency. He has a BS in Management Studies from the University of Maryland University College, a MBA in Management and Strategy from Western Governors University. Sam is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt from the University of San Diego.
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