Culture is the “white whale” of leadership: in Moby Dick, Captain Ahab was obsessed with capturing the white whale, and modern leaders have a similar obsession with developing organizational culture. 

Lean Six Sigma organizations task themselves with fostering a culture of continuous improvement (or kaizen) that draws from customer requirements, objective data and metrics, and employee engagement. However, employee engagement tends to be associated with culture and the most elusive of the factors in a culture of continuous improvement. 

Is this a cultural problem? Developing kaizen in a non-profit healthcare organization

The organization is a mission-driven non-profit that is adjacent to the healthcare space. Every person in the organization personally associates with the mission, and the halls are decorated with pictures of successful patient outcomes. While employee support for the life-saving mission is not a problem, the organization’s leadership was concerned about efficiency and effective resource management. 

This organization contracted with a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt to develop an internal Lean Six Sigma program. The organization had high levels of executive engagement and sponsorship, and a vision of an employee-driven program with green belts in every department. The team was briefed that these types of programs can take years to develop and requires engaged employees who are bought into the potential transformation and benefits from a Lean Six Sigma program. 

The organization completed two initial department-level projects and received a lukewarm response from the rest of the employees. This lackluster response was discouraging for both the project team members and the executive leadership. The MBB decided to perform a cultural assessment to gauge maturity for each of the cultural facets of a robust continuous improvement organization.

Based on a quick culture assessment, the organization showed evidence of each of the factors of a culture of continuous improvement; the teams used metrics to drive decisions, the voice of the customer was formally integrated into activities, and the employees were motivated to participate in continuous improvement. However, the excitement for organization-level activities was limited.  

They decided to start with a SIPOC-R to identify stakeholders

Because each of the factors of a culture of continuous improvement was present, the MBB hypothesized that the barrier to an effective continuous improvement culture was inter-department communication rather than buy-in or lack of leadership support (common critical success factors). Testing this hypothesis, the organization assembled a team of manager-level employees to strategize overcoming the communication barrier and next steps to jump-start their continuous improvement culture. 

During the initial current state conversations, the team struggled with articulating the process and organization stakeholders. Then, applying a high-level 5 whys root cause analysis, the team uncovered that because the organization is a life-saving non-profit, the employees didn’t view their stakeholders as customers

The team agreed that customer requirements are a vital part of creating a culture of continuous improvement but did not actively gather the customer “voice of” feedback and perspectives and did not consider how to communicate with the process customers effectively. The facilitator briefly explained internal versus external customers before having the team engage in an organizational level SIPOC-R exercise to identify the internal and external customers. 

Identifying customers and suppliers was a challenge

While understanding the nuance between internal and external customers was easy for the team, naming who these customers are and why they are customers was challenging for the team. To get the conversation flowing, the team started with completing the process section of the SIPOC-R tool by calling out the significant steps in their value stream. 

Based on the significant steps, the team filled out the inputs, outputs, and requirements section of the SIPOC-R tool. Filling out the inputs, outputs, and requirements sections sparked the cultural conversations with the managers discussing how each of their departments played a part in the organization’s start to finish value stream. 

Once the team established the tactical details of what is needed for the operation of the process, the next step was completing the final and most crucial part of this exercise: determining the organization’s internal and external suppliers and customers. Again, circling back to the original problem statement, communication was the limiting barrier for this organization’s culture. Understanding the suppliers and customers will provide a starting point for developing an effective communication plan. 

Using the inputs and outputs as a starting point, the team used the inputs/outputs logic to extend to communication needed for each of the steps in the organization. A significant aha moment for the team was realizing that the departments in the organization did not treat each other as customers but somewhat overlooked their feedback and requirements when it came to listening to end-to-end process insights and improvements. 

The outcome was a meaningful dialogue about communication 

Communication is not the only factor in an organization’s culture. Still, it is the starting point for any cultural transformation and a requirement for engaging employees in developing a culture of continuous improvement. Using the SIPOC-R tool allowed the department leaders to discuss what they needed from their peers in a non-confrontational, process, and outcomes-focused manner without feeling pressure to propagate a cultural transformation.

Generally, the SIPOC-R tool is completed during the define phase of a DMAIC project to gain a common understanding on project teams before starting the measure phase. The results of the SIPOC-R are used during the measure, analyze, and improve phases to confirm that the Voice of the Customer is captured and the requirements are included in the future state process. For this team, the SIPOC-R tool demonstrated the importance of understanding who the customers are and how customers and stakeholders need to be considered in communication planning. 

Using the SIPOC-R tool in this manner encourages managers to engage with their peers and discuss their communication needs such as frequency, content, and delivery to foster collaboration. In turn, these conversations support cultural transformation by directly addressing impediments to the organization’s cultural goals. 

4 best practices when using SIPOC-R for culture assessments

Using the SIPOC-R tool of the project context provided the team with two lessons learned:

  1. Lean Six Sigma tools can be adapted to meet the organization’s needs 
  2. Internal customers are significant drivers to the organization’s culture

Based on these lessons learned, practitioners considering using Lean Six Sigma tools to uncover cultural opportunities should keep the following recommendations in mind. 

1. Do allow for emotions

Discussing culture and communications can incite powerful emotions in people. These robust emotional responses can be more pronounced in organizations such as this, where the employees feel a strong connection to the mission or their roles. Encourage employees to express emotions positively to allow for trust-building and collaboration to develop while completing the exercise. 

2. Do not force the conversation

Suppose the anticipated outcome from using the SIPOC-R tool is to facilitate communication and cultural development. In that case, it is essential to set that expectation initially and allow the dialogue to transpire organically. Prompting or guiding the conversation will erode the benefit of using this exercise to address communication needs in a naturally occurring manner. Instead, have participants discuss their needs and requirements, allowing for dialogue about the communication and culture. 

3. Allow time for breaks and sidebar conversations 

Following up from not forcing the conversation, for the team to gain the maximum benefit from using the SIPOC-R to discuss the organization’s culture from an internal/external customer perspective, allow the team the opportunities to discuss intangible topics such as how goals are communicated and how feedback is received across roles and functions. 

4. Do set expectations 

As with all Lean Six Sigma tools, it is essential to set expectations and objectives before completing the tool. In this case, the team was informed that we are doing this exercise to understand our stakeholders and what they need. In addition, the team was told that the MBB had some questions about how the internal customer feedback was being gathered and that one of the topics the team would debrief on identified the “lost in translation” internal customer opportunities after they completed the exercise. 

Don’t save SIPOC-R for DMAIC projects

So often, Lean Six Sigma tools are saved for DMAIC projects and not adapted for non-project applications. In the case of this organization, they seemed to have everything “right” for a robust culture of continuous improvement, but upon closer inspection, they lacked the connecting communication to pull the culture together. Using the SIPOC-R tool was a great unifier that reinforced the importance of considering colleagues as internal customers and allowed the team to discuss the condition of their department in an objective, non-judgemental way. 

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