Guest Post: Continuous Improvement’s Continuous Mistakes
I recently attended the IQPC's 12th Annual Lean Six Sigma & Process Improvement Summit in Orlando. The summit is spun as drawing “together everything your organizational team could need in 2011 to accelerate and progress Business Process Transformation.”
The summit strives to provide attendees with the opportunity to network of over 800 experts “on the front-line in process optimization”, the chance to harness the knowledge and experience from the most inspirational leaders from across the Lean, Six Sigma & BPM communities, the opportunity to address the opportunities of tomorrow, not the problems of yesterday and an opportunity to connect the dots between the Process Excellence landscapes.
However, what I heard in private and public conversations about many Lean Six Sigma programs was very concerning. It seems that many of the same Lean Six Sigma deployment and project mistakes that have been made in the past continue to be made.
For example, unfortunately, many companies continue to:
- engage in big bulky bureaucratic deployments
- place an emphasis on certification and not results
- have projects that are completed in quarters not weeks or months
- squander money on Lean Six Sigma project management and tracking software, more non value added bureaucracy
- justify the cost of the deployment by including cost avoidance and soft benefits as financial benefits.
- have a haphazard approach to project selection. Many improvement efforts seem to be, “a project here and a project there”, rather than a targeted improvement effort
- omit Financial and Strategic training in Black Belt and Green Belt training
Hugely bureaucratic structures
Over and over, I have seen massive Lean Six Sigma deployments with huge governance structures get fewer projects and benefits than smaller more nimble deployments. In my experience, the big bulky deployments actually slow down LSS deployments. It creates a situation where too many people need to approve projects, tollgates and etc. A classic case of too many chefs in the kitchen.
So why do organizations continue to think they need huge bureaucratic structures to deploy Lean Six Sigma? What value do these bureaucracies add to Lean Six Sigma projects? Some argue that they ensure that LSS projects are strategic and that projects continue to move foreword. Spare me. But, what I have discovered is that most organizations don't have a real strategy that anyone is following – surprise, surprise. Why then do so many projects continue to languish for quarters? Psst, the senior leaders helping influence project selection are also ensuring the projects selected are in areas of little importance or in areas that will not reflect poorly upon them.
My take — start with small project teams working on a few mission critical projects. Keep them focused and moving, by staying out of their way. And, stop having the teams creating PowerPoint fluff for senior leaders. Don't out drive your headlights.
Certifications or improvement?
I repeatedly heard deployment champions talk about the importance of certifying staff as Black Belts or Green Belts to develop a culture of continuous improvement throughout their organizations. However, to meet the Belt certification targets, many deployment champions openly admitted they had to “find” projects for Green Belts and Black Belts to do. Do you think these “found” projects are strategic or just another useless project selected to meet a useless certification target?
To make matters even worse, there are companies who, in lieu of completing a LSS project, are using case studies, yes, “case studies”, to certify Green Belts and Black Belts. I don't know about you, but, I haven't had a case study yell at me, sabotage the project data (to protect the innocent), tell my boss I was an idiot and so on. Oh, I forgot to mention, in addition to the case study, the Belt had to pass a written exam to “earn” their certification. Oh boy, having the certified Belt complete a case study and exam gives me more confidence that the Belt is competent and ready to tackle my most pressing needs.
My take — focus on business results and customer success and not certifications. In my experience, most people after getting certified never complete another six sigma project nor use the tools and techniques that they learned during their training.
Slow cycle time improvement
Another interesting mistake, or flashback, is how long these supposedly strategic projects being led by certified Belts who are being governed by huge bureaucracies of the companies senior leaders are taking to complete. Many champions and Belts openly admitted that projects are taking quarters, in some cases a year, to complete. I'm glad to hear that companies are in no hurry to complete these strategic projects and that their customers are willing to wait around for faster, cheaper and better service or products.
When I asked why projects were taking so long to complete, I wasn't surprised to hear the answer. I actually expected it, at this point. The project teams were having difficulty getting data and the data gathered frequently didn't pass a Gage R&R or Measurement System Analysis. Hmmm, I have heard this a thousand times. If no data existed prior to the project, do you need pristine data to identify and make improvements? Just asking. And the bulky bureaucracies are okay with this?
My take, don't use a micrometer when a yardstick is good enough. Unless of course, the need for pristine data is a CYA strategy in the event the improvements don't turn out as expected.
Too many slow projects?
To track all the strategic projects that are taking quarters, if not years, to complete and to keep track of the number of Belts being giving certifications, companies are spending tons of cash on projects, certification, and process management software so that accurate LSS status reports are available to the large bureaucratic LSS governing bodies responsible for ensuring projects are moving forward, at a snail's pace. I wonder if a Gage R&R was conducted on the data that creates these reports. Nah!
My take — if you need software to manage your projects, you have too many projects. And given that most projects have no linkage to strategy, refocus your efforts on the vital few projects.
Where is the financial acumen?
Everyone knows the language of money is the language of management. And what better way to demonstrate to the organization's leaders and entire organization the significant impact of LSS than highlighting the massive amounts of money the organization is saving via LSS projects. So to fluff up the project savings, many organizations have become fond of including avoided costs and soft benefits as actually financial savings. I'm not even going to describe some of the quantified soft benefits that have become common. It makes me sick to my stomach when I think about it. Unfortunately, it appears calculating soft and avoided costs is being routine.
My take — its said that Income tax has made liars out of more people than golf AND, perhaps, Six Sigma has. Enough said.
Lastly, I've always believed that Black Belts should have a strong financial and strategic acumen and subsequently, be provided with formal finance and strategy training. Unfortunately, I guess I'm in the minority.
I find it difficult to believe that after so many years and so many Lean Six Sigma deployments that the same mistakes made 20 years ago are still being made. If companies are really interested in improving their processes and customers' experience, they should create smaller, more nimble teams led by a person with deep expertise. Companies should forgo the massive training efforts, forgo the big bureaucracies, forgo the expensive tracking software, and forgo the urge to fluff up project savings.
About Dan Feliciano:
I have over 20 years of experience and deep expertise as a Business Improvement consultant and Strategy & Change consultant. I've used my expertise to assist a broad range of companies including the Medical College of Virginia, CIGNA Healthcare, Travelers Insurance, AETNA Healthcare, IDX, GE Healthcare, US Navy and US ARMY, to develop and execute strategic plans with a focus on driving down costs and driving business growth.
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