Guest Post: Continuous Improvement’s Continuous Mistakes


Mark's Note: Today's guest post is from Dan Feliciano (@DanFeliciano on Twitter), a lean six sigma professional and former candidate for Governor of Vermont.

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:

  1. engage in big bulky bureaucratic deployments
  2. place an emphasis on certification and not results
  3. have projects that are completed in quarters not weeks or months
  4. squander money on Lean Six Sigma  project management and tracking software, more non value added bureaucracy
  5. justify the cost of the deployment by including cost avoidance and soft benefits as financial benefits.
  6. 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
  7. 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.

Final thoughts

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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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. OMG! These were the most irresponsible comments I have ever read on the Lean Blog!!!! Dan Feliciano obviously has never had any experience performing Six Sigma projects, or never learned how to do them properly. I am a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and can prove hard savings of $33,617,045.00 from doing Six Sigma projects, all of which are still sustainable. My Soft Savings are probably closer to the one hundred million dollar mark. It has been proven since the 80’s that Six Sigma works. If you listen to this guy, you will be throwing money out the window!! What happened Mark? Why did you post this guy???? Please feel free to contact me.

    • Gary – hard for me to respond as I can’t tell if your comments are sincere or if you are being sarcastic in some way.

      Dan is not saying Six Sigma doesn’t work. He is pointing out possible dysfunctions that could occur – same types of problems could happen with lean too, in the wrong setting.

    • Gary,
      Just like Mark is saying, I think you misunderstood what Dan is trying to say here. I think Dan wants to point out what happens when companies don’t define the strategy properly when implementing Lean or Six Sigma. I’ve seen the same issues many times, and in fact I could add a couple of more examples that I have experienced. I do believe Six Sigma and Lean work, when there’s good deployment strategy, and not when it’s only implemented as “the flavor of the month”.

      • Yes I would totally agree. I was being too sarcastic, and that is something I have learned you cannot do on these blogs, because they might just get posted and taken wrong. I’m a lot more understanding and try to post more intelligent ideas on blogs these day. Thanks for all your understanding, to everyone who commented.

    • Gary, congratulations on the performance of Six Sigma projects.
      I’m not sure what you found so offensive. I’ve seen and led successful Six Sigma deployments that dwarf your organization’s savings. I know Six Sigma can work. However, as a person with more than a passing interest in continuous improvement in all things, I’m interested in improving Lean Six Sigma as a whole. In my opinion, based on conversations with hundreds of LSS practioners, I stand by my comments. My comments are simple summary of many conversations I have had over the years with LSS practioners and C-suite executives in both public and private sector businesses.
      If your organization and LSS amigos haven’t experienced or heard of any of these issues, your in a small, very small minority.
      Rather than personally attacking me without knowing me, you could have simply mentioned you have yet to hear of or experience these issues. I would be very interested in understanding the challenges you overcome in your LSS program and your suggestions to further improve LSS.
      I’m glad that I didn’t mention my perceived commoditization of LSS as a whole and the continued decrease in expertise and competencies of LSS Belts in general. You may have had a heart attack. LSS practioners today, look very differently than those of 10 years ago.

      Once again, congratulations on the success of your program.

  2. Mark,

    I think you’ve explained Dan’s intent accurately. At least, that’s what I took away from his post. I think the underlying problem is not with the 6 Sigma methodology, but with the prevailing culture in most organizations that is preventing 6 sigma, or any other process improvement methodology or change management initiatve, from succeeding.

    I most organizations, change initiatives appear to be undertaken by following some some other company’s path to success, without fully understanding WHY that initiative succeeded THERE. Without that understanding, there’s a shortage of knowing why and how a similar initiative can succeed HERE.

    My opinion, when it comes to LSS, is that it is seen as an “implementation” that can simply be imposed upon an organization. These sort of top-down driven, demanded, and delegated change initiatives seem to repeat the problem rther than solve it – distant, disengaged management making declarations and issuing directives, rather than complete and total engagement across the enterprise aimed at genuine, cultural transformation.

    I have to wonder – Perhaps some of the Six Sigma successes, as Gary describes, took place in organizations that were ready to make a culutral leap, or already had many of the cultural enables in place, for Six Sigma success? Also, the failures that Dan describes may have been undertaken in organizations where the prevailing behaviors necessary for transformation were desired, but not instituted, creating poor soil for growing the LSS transformation?

  3. Carlos and David,

    If you re-read Dan’s article from the perspective of someone living a Six Sigma career that saves lives, I am sure you will see how negative his comments could be taken. Yes, I agree with you that implementation needs to be done correctly, and the culture of an organization needs to be properly aligned before beginning, and this is a cornerstone of Six Sigma training. However Dan does not mention that the majority of Six Sigma implementations around the world are very successful and have saved many billions of hard (proven) dollars. Dan failed to balanced his remarks with the positive aspects of Six Sigma, and the hugely successful Six Sigma projects worldwide.

    • Hi, late to the discussion after seeing a tweet, I agree with the others that Gary has read way too much into what Dan wrote. If he is confident in the work he has done, why is he feeling so attacked?

      One question I have, and this was offputting to me… What is with the obsessive focus on cost savings here, in both of your comments? Frankly, I’m skeptical when someone trots out such a specific number so readily – are these specific numbers knowable? I thought Six Sigma was a quality improvement program, why does it so often become all about cost? My Toyota roots teach me this should be about safety, quality, delivery, cost….

      Did you save $33,617,045.00 or $33,617,046.78? Where is the balanced scorecard of improvement? Specifically how many lives? All of your improvements have been sustained? How do you possibly know that?

  4. Let me add a few more thoughts. For one, I would have published Dan’s piece if he heard these problems at a Lean conference and pointing out what I call “L.A.M.E.” (Lean As Misguidedly Executed) is not an attack on Lean. Nor is pointing problem as a cautionary tale about what some organization’s might do with Six Sigma.

    This is a blog, not a peer-reviewed journal, so Dan is free to share what he heard and saw at a conference in a somewhat anecdotal way. People are free to disagree and debate it here on the blog.

    This is not a religion to me, Lean or Six Sigma or otherwise. Evidence shows Lean can work wonders for people and organizations, as can Six Sigma. I shouldn’t be considered a heretic for pointing out problems that can occur in the real world.

  5. I have known Dan for many years now and I think I can safely say he did not intend to offend anyone by his post. He does have an extensive background in six sigma, having been a master black belt in arguably the most six sigma’d (?) organization out there. What he and I have discussed a lot is the common disconnects we have experienced on projects between the project purpose and the strategy of the organization. These links are typically weak at best, and unfortunately they appear to be weaker in the healthcare space than manufacturing (personal experience). I share similar thoughts on the certification process too. If all you’re concerned about is demonstrating you have the most master black belts, you have the wrong focus – period. I’ve learnt over many years to be wary of anyone who immediately trots out their certification level in a conversation. I look for deep domain knowledge and broad relevant experience. Far more useful.

    Now I have to go work on my lean six sigma tartan belt finals. :-)

  6. I have been in manufacturing (automotive) for more than 28 years and fully appreciate the value of Lean, Six Sigma and Theory of Constraints to name a few of the improvement strategies available.

    Over these same years, I have also witnessed the results of many failed attempts to implement lean and other quality initiatives for the very reasons identified in this post.

    I have managed / facilitated many turn-arounds in my career where the first step required was to literally refocus the team on the “now” condition. In extreme cases, I had the unfortunate task of trimming the team to be more effective – also known as “addition by subtraction.”

    In some cases I have literally been stunned by the number of “data handlers” and desk-bound “support staff” versus the actual number of people studying the process on the line, engaging with employees / operators first hand, in real-time.

    Saving a company from permanent closure is a challenge and rest assured that people are only concerned with what works – not “program names”, certificates, belt colors, or academia.

    Companies that are literally in survival mode (and know it) present a much more focused group of concerned employees than those where “lean” is just another one of “our many areas of expertise.”

    To understand the challenges and real sense of frustration that only a turn-around can bring, I recommend reading a book published by AGI-Goldratt Institute: Velocity, A Business Novel – Combining Lean, Six Sigma, and the Theory of Constraints to Achieve Breakthrough Performance. This story exemplifies what it means to implement an effective program (regardless of the means chosen) that delivers results – regardless of the means or methods chosen.

    I have been fortunate to work with companies who recognize and acknowledge the traits and behaviors identified in this post. I am reminded of a very simple quote, “The proof of wisdom is in the results.” Do it right, Do it now. Do it always.

    Dan, thank you for your contribution and insight. Mark, thank you for providing the opportunity.

  7. I agree with Dan’s comments though some are pretty bleak.

    However I’m also not as worried about ‘failure’.

    I’ve worked with around 30 areas of my business and I’d guess half were not a resounding success, but the other half were and one area alone has justified the entire initiative. Paid our salaries many, many times over.

    Some of the areas that were failures have been good learning experiences, while others were symptomatic of being ‘not ready’ and come back 1 or 2 years later saying “Now we get it”

    I wish Lean, Six Sigma and LSS practitioners wouldn’t get into arguments about the methodologies. A lot of Lean practitioners forget the origin of some of the tools, and also fail to realise that Toyota and other antecedents assumed statistical tool knowledge as given. They didn’t ‘need’ six sigma as they already had it.

    The Department where I work could be said to have knowledge of statistical methods approaching zero. Even basic stuff. A control chart to them is a major revelation. Much of the data they need to run the business is missing. Real basics. Time, cost and quality, completely absent. Never measured. Measured as inputs, not outputs.

    It’s not about Lean or Six Sigma winning the race. Some need to be shown where the starting line is for the race, and some don’t even know where the stadium is.

    • Richard – my point of posting this wasn’t to set up a “Lean vs. Six Sigma” debate… as I said above, many of Dan’s points could be seen in what a company is calling “lean” and I would be critical of that too.

      The path to a failed “program” is pretty consistent, looking at Lean, Six Sigma, TQM, what have you.

  8. I thought Dan’s comments were completely reasonable. He was not criticising LSS, merely the way some companies misapply it. I can totally sympathise with his point of view as I see misapplication of Lean every day in my job. Working in a large civil service department I see fragmented management and inconsistent levels of training. Our region insists on 14 weeks intensive training including supported and unsupported project management plus written tests before certifying Lean practitioners and experts. Some regions declare staff to be experts after 2 weeks of theory training and it usually shows when you talk to them. In the past three years we have seen various initiatives badged as Lean which were not developed using true Lean techniques. Many of these have not brought about the hoped for improvements for that very reason. After years of command and control thinking we face many managers who are blockers rather than enablers – primarily because they are threatened by ideas coming from the front line or they fear taking responsibility for the effect that project work might have on their (largely arbitrary) targets. Additionally, the department is already finding new and mind numbing ways to bureaucratise our work with requests for multiple business cases and ill conceived costing tools. The unstructured approach to national implementation has led to all kinds of project overlap and duplication. It doesn’t help that the original initiators of the Lean project have moved on and the new management does not seem to have the same enthusiasm. There is an obsession with cost savings in terms of head count without any understanding of the benefits of Lean in terms of flow, quality, work levelling, customer satisfaction etc. Fortunately there are some good managers out there who understand what we are trying to do. I still nurture hopes that we will eventually overcome our issues but it will take a sea change in the way we are managed before that will happen.
    In short, we appear to want to be Lean, we talk Lean but we continue to misapply it. At least I now know it is not just confined to the public sector and that there are others sharing my misery out there.


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