“So what?”

That’s all your CEO has to say after you present your latest Lean Six Sigma triumph. You gaze out over a deafeningly silent boardroom. Your team is stunned. While you try to comprehend the CEO’s demoralizing response, the other managers and administrators chime in: “Yeah, so what?”

The above scenario might be an exaggeration, but the point is a valid one. Lean Six Sigma practitioners sometimes come face-to-face with deep-rooted skepticism from higher-level leaders, lower-level business units and managers. One way to meet this challenge is to engage the skeptics in answering their own question through a new tool termed the “Morris 5 So What” analysis.

The tool, developed during a Lean Six Sigma deployment in the U.S. Army (see “Meeting the Army’s Diverse, Multilevel Needs” below), helps a team move upstream from discovering root causes to making improvements. It provides understanding of the impact of potential solutions across the enterprise, and thereby can help garner buy-in from senior operational and program leaders.

The Concept Behind the Tool

The 5 So What analysis complements the traditional 5 Whys tool, which Belts use to drill down to the root causes of a problem. The 5 Whys – a series of questions, each starting with the word “why” – help to determine the relationship between the causes and the actual problem. However, this analysis does not show the best potential resolutions to the problem or the actual impacts of the solutions across an enterprise.

The 5 So What approach goes beyond the 5 Whys. It challenges advocates of improvements and solutions to answer the question “So what?” By the time practitioners ask and answer “So what?” five times in response to the impact of a potential solution, they will reach a maximum impact. (In some cases it may take even fewer questions.) The impact of different solutions can then be weighed against each other to assist in prioritizing the implementation of solutions that best support organizational goals or customer requirements.

Meeting the Army’s Diverse, Multilevel Needs

The Morris 5 So What analysis was born out of necessity to aid in a Lean Six Sigma deployment in the U.S. military. (Editor’s note: The author led this particular deployment.) Leaders in the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) had recognized the need to improve The Army Distributed Learning Program (TADLP) and the Army Training Information System (ATIS), which deliver training and education to soldiers and civilians across the globe.

In 2008, TADLP and ATIS were challenged to adopt an enterprise approach in one year or less. This required executing a Lean Six Sigma deployment across a complex domain that is radically different from normal business models. Compounding the problem was the need to obtain multi-level support across a diverse military culture with widely varying goals. These stakeholders were often united only by their skepticism of Lean Six Sigma and quality improvement tools.

Command leaders were looking for different hard and soft benefit measures of success from the deployment:

  • Operational commanders focused on how solutions supported the Army Force Generation Model – the structured progression of unit readiness over time – while reducing operational stress on the force.
  • Senior leaders focused on how improvements through Lean Six Sigma would reduce duplicated or unnecessary workload and training, streamline the process to deliver fewer defects, decrease training times, and reduce course attendance backlogs.
  • High-level Army staff required supportable data showing how distributed learning could reduce operational tempo, the pace of an operation in terms of equipment usage (e.g., the number of hours an aircraft is flown or the number of miles a vehicle is driven); personnel tempo, the time an individual spends away from their home station; and deployment tempo, the number of days in one month a unit must deploy to accomplish assigned training or operational missions, while increasing readiness and producing both cost avoidances and cost savings.

Besides having to meet these varied expectations, the deployment would have to overcome a number of roadblocks. An audit by the TRADOC compliance office defined the challenges of moving to an enterprise approach:

  • Dispersed geography
  • Loss of top-of-the-organization support
  • Lack of Belts currently in place
  • Lack of governance, stewardship and standards

Determining Root Causes

To address the challenges, seven teams, made up of more than 200 Army stakeholders, gathered for a summit. They used Six Sigma tools to analyze several functional areas, including classrooms, courseware and the Army Learning Management System – the repository for all courseware.

Teams determined the root causes of problems within the functional areas using the 5 whys tool, but this did not reveal the best potential resolutions to the problems or the wide impacts of the solutions. The teams also faced the challenge of articulating the potential benefits of deploying their solutions in a way that would meet the expectations of the various leaders, commanders and components of the Army staff. The 5 So What analysis was created in response to this need to move the organization up from root causes to measured improvements and obtain buy-in from senior leaders.

The analysis helped the Six Sigma teams elevate their solutions in the midst of initial negative responses to instituting continuous process improvement.

Putting the Tool to Work

The first step in conducting the 5 So What analysis is a clear articulation of the root cause of the problem to be solved. This statement is often the product of 5 Whys analysis.

The next step is to ask a series of “so what?” questions about the solution, improvement, waste reduction, defect elimination or other strategy that could resolve the problem. Responses should be given in terms of functionality provided or output produced.

The analysis normally begins with a small benefit, but ends, after further analysis, with either a significant benefit that is worth pursing or a solution that should not be implemented. In this sense, the value of 5 So What comes from identifying not only what should be done, but also what should not be done. Often, “so what” levels branch out to produce other 5 So What progressions that can form a “so what” tree depicting the integration of solutions and potential effects across the organization.

Each level reveals the increase in benefit if the solution is implemented. Participants are engaged vertically and laterally within the organization. Eventually the negative responders realize the solution does have sufficient merit or benefit to be implemented.

This progression is illustrated in the following example from the Army deployment.

Problem: Time away from home station required to train and ready information technology specialists (25Bs) in the operational force

Solution: Provide the 25B course by distance learning through the Fort Gordon lifelong learning center instead of a 137-day temporary duty assignment (TDY).

Maximum impact: $5.123 million cost savings and 218 trained and ready 25B soldiers in the force without time away from home, and further training planned for FY09.

So what? 51 National Guard and 167 Reserve Corps 25Bs were trained for the operational force in FY08 without leaving home station (no TDY).

So what? No TDY led to a cost savings of $5.123 million ($23,500 average TDY cost per student x 218 students).

So what? By expanding to four additional training sites and with four additional occupational specialties projected to receive distance training in FY09, estimated cost savings is more than $20 million.

Added Benefits

The results from applying the 5 So What tool also are useful in other Six Sigma approaches. The 5 So What feeds a solution-and-impact fishbone diagram, similar to a cause-and-effect diagram. In the solution-and-impact version, the root cause problem at the end is replaced with the optimum solution or strategic goal.

The “so whats” also can be used to respond to varying customer priorities at different levels throughout an organization. In one application in the Army deployment, the group analyzed the importance of rapidly producing and delivering courseware. This would reduce the number of instructors needed, which was valuable to the budget office and school. But it was of little value to operational commanders in the field – or so it seemed at first.

However, when this same capability was shown to allow for rapid response to a need to train and deploy a critical countermeasure to defeat improvised explosive devices (IED), it met the operational commander’s goal to protect his soldiers. The resulting reduction in casualties from IEDs had national-level impact. Had the initiative been judged solely on the ability to reduce courseware development cycle time, it would have continued to be viewed as insignificant.

Widening the Scope

Although the first implementation of 5 So What took place in a military environment, it is a flexible tool that can be tailored to any domain. In the style of the 5 Whys being used as a focusing tool to find root causes, the 5 So What aids in increasing the scope of a project’s benefits.

It also can be used to identify and prioritize potential improvements before implementation, track progress during deployment of the solution, and determine hard and soft benefits derived from stakeholder and organization needs. This ability to enable all participants to understand the full scope of a solution is what makes 5 So What particularly powerful.

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