Six Sigma, which is beginning to acquire some grey around the temples, has now advanced to the stage where the basic requirements for success of the program are fairly well known. That doesn’t stop it from being screwed up in about 95% of installations, but no one can say that’s due to a lack of reference material detailing what’s required to be successful. Implementing Six Sigma has become a matter of excellent execution rather than invention and discovery. Or at least it should be.

The same is true of many other large-scale organization programs and installations. Converting to Oracle or SAP, for example. Building a performance management system. Opening and managing a call center. Developing a strong Innovation or New Product Development process. Outsourcing. The list goes on and on. There are a lot of things under the general “organizational transformation” umbrella that while still very difficult to pull off, require excellent large-scale execution skills rather than a lot of invention.

All of this leads to what I call the “Act II” problem. As you might guess, Act II follows Act I. Act I can be any of the things I described above, including starting a Six Sigma program. It can also be fixing or “re-energizing” previously botched execution, which is actually more common with Six Sigma programs these days. Whatever the case, the defining feature of Act I is that is it usually so pressing and painful that no one is thinking ahead to Act II, especially the person who was hired to produce Act I.

So what is Act II? Simply put, it is making use of what was produced in Act I to achieve some desired end. Wait, you might say, isn’t that the point of Act I? Generally speaking, not really.

Take a Six Sigma deployment, for example. Act I usually consists of hiring or training belts, engaging consultants, conducting training classes, filling a project pipeline, getting initial projects done, delivering results, etc. Many (most?) organizations fail at some point in Act I, which is why Act II doesn’t get much mainstream attention. Act II can only begin when Act I is complete – that is, when the program is already up and running and hitting on all cylinders. The project and talent pipeline is flowing well with little intervention, and results are being regularly delivered. Six Sigma isn’t new or exciting anymore, it just a part of the fabric of the business. Though rare enough, all of that just gets you to the starting line of Act II.

Act II is where you start to think beyond the simple running of the program. Now that you have all the machinery, what are you going to do with it? How does it play with the other processes in your business? How will what you have built evolve over time? If you’ve mastered the basics, what do the advanced levels look like? How can what you’ve got become a competitive advantage in the marketplace? What should be emphasized and what should be dropped in the future? In short, what will you do with what you have built? Act II is all about answering these questions, but only after the initial execution has been completed at a high level. Only after the initial build is done.

The problem is that Act II takes a much different skill set than Act I, so it is rare to find one person who can do both effectively. And many people who have built careers on Act I – particularly those who are called in to fix an ailing Act I – simply have no Act II. When the time comes, they let the results of their excellent execution operate on a performance plateau. They, and the organization, will often feel they’ve earned the right to do so. But unfortunately, in the world of organizational change, standing still means moving backward. If you’re not growing, leaping, expanding, and evolving with whatever you are doing, then you’re marching to the grave. There really is no in between, no time to enjoy the plateau. If you have no Act II waiting to begin, you might as well not even have done Act I. That’s a tough lesson to learn, but non the less true for it.

I think this explains why the business landscape is littered with the carcasses of many once-strong programs. They had a strong Act I, but there was no Act II, so the show ended abruptly. As hard as Act I is, and as rare as it is to see an Act I successfully conclude, Act II is even trickier to plan for and pull off, and consequently more rare and valuable.

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