Making the decision to bring Six Sigma into your organization is just the first step on a long journey. Although this approach has proven successful for a variety of industries (including manufacturing, transactional and professional services), the best-laid plans may go awry if the focus is solely on the technical side, without considering the cultural and communication aspects of the equation.

Since implementing Six Sigma usually involves changing human behavior, it is critical to include a carefully constructed communication plan that identifies and addresses human concerns. Initiating transformation of any magnitude across an organization requires meaningful dialogue with executive management, mid-level managers, employees and other key stakeholders. The leadership team must communicate early and often – clearly conveying the vision, strategies and benefits for all concerned. Overlooking this piece of the puzzle may undermine your efforts and could leave employees to fill the gaps with rumor, speculation and cynicism.

Depending on the existing culture and level of familiarity, the news that Six Sigma is being adopted in the organization may elicit a variety of responses-everything from fear of the unknown to enthusiastic endorsement. For some, Six Sigma may represent an unwelcome change in familiar routines…”We’ve been doing things the same way for years-why do we have to switch now?” For others it may signify opportunity…”How soon can I sign up for training and start my projects?” Naturally, there is a wide range of reactions between these two, and if you’re championing the cause you’ll obviously hope to hear comments that lean toward the latter example.

Launching Six Sigma in Your Organization

A thoughtfully designed communication plan can increase the chances of a smooth launch and help to lift all boats-while skipping this step can sink a large ship before it ever leaves the dock. It’s important to anticipate and respond to some of the most frequently asked questions from employees regarding Six Sigma implementation:

What Is It?

  • What is Six Sigma all about?
  • Isn’t this a manufacturing initiative? How does it relate to our business and processes?
  • We have been through TQM, CQI, PDCA and other programs. Is this just another “flavor of the month”?
  • Some of the terminology seems strange. What is the difference between a Green Belt, Black Belt and Master Black Belt?

What’s in It for Me?

  • How will this initiative affect me?
  • How will it impact my department?
  • Is this a potential threat or eventual benefit relative to job security?
  • Will there be a role to play even if we are not statisticians?
  • We are already stretched thin – where will we find the time for this?
  • Are there career advantages to participating in Six Sigma?

What Does This Mean for Our Business?

  • How will this benefit our customers?
  • How will managers respond to Six Sigma? What role will they play?
  • What are the initial areas targeted for improvement and how soon will we see results?
  • What criteria will be used for selecting Black Belts and projects?

The answers to such questions will obviously depend on the specific goals and objectives your organization has established, the variety of people you will be communicating with and the amount of information each stakeholder group needs to receive during the early phases of the initiative.

Designing an effective communication plan will require answering the basic questions – who, what, when, where, why and how:

Effective Communication Plan – Who, What, When, Where, Why and How?
Question Answer
Who? Different target audiences
What? Six Sigma need, vision, strategy and results
When? Continual, ongoing
Where? Use a variety of media
Why? Set the tone, keep the organization informed
How? Clear, concise, continual – using a variety of media
From Leading Six Sigma by Ronald Snee and Roger Hoerl

Lessons From the Front Lines

Organizations already implementing Six Sigma can provide a wellspring of wisdom and advice for newcomers to this approach. Whether deploying Six Sigma within a small business, or spreading it across a large multi-national organization like GE, there are some common communication strategies that can help to pave the way to a successful outcome.

Summarized below are insights from some of the healthcare providers actively applying Six Sigma within their own institutions:

  • Let the organization see early and ongoing leadership support
  • Know your culture and adapt communication plans accordingly
  • Generate awareness and enthusiasm among employees but don’t set unrealistic expectations
  • Develop a stakeholder analysis and determine tactics for addressing specific concerns
  • Communicate the shared win for individuals, patients and the organization
  • Leverage existing communication channels where possible and create new mechanisms if necessary
  • Use acceptance-building techniques and change management tools throughout the initiative
  • Seek and share early wins
  • Provide periodic financial reports and dashboards
  • Recognize and communicate successful team efforts
  • Over-communicate by a factor of 1,000!

Six Sigma Communication Tactics

As you begin to build your communication plan, consider the variation in your audiences and the methods that will be most appropriate for ensuring your messages are received and understood. If there are many people in the organization without access to email or computers, for example, reliance on web-based communications alone may not be a viable option. Also consider the messages that will be shared at different stages of deployment and establish a regular rhythm for communicating through a variety of channels.

The following is a list of some commonly used communication tactics:

  • Face-to-face meetings
  • Town halls
  • CEO memo to employees
  • Presentations at staff/management meetings
  • Videotapes of key meetings
  • Set of frequently asked questions and answers
  • Customized pamphlets explaining Six Sigma in basic terms
  • Brown bag lunches
  • Communication manager’s toolkit
  • Intranet posting updates
  • Regular column in employee newsletter
  • Separate Six Sigma newsletter
  • Phone hotline
  • Email
  • Milestone recognition events
  • Suggestion and question box
  • Employee surveys for feedback
  • Quality quiz or crossword puzzle
  • Posters
  • Shirts with special logos for team members

Keep the Momentum Going

Once the Six Sigma initiative has been underway for a few months and the first wave of projects are entering the Control phase, make sure there is a plan in place for continually updating and reenergizing the organization, and visibly celebrating success. Distribute periodic reports sharing summaries, financial gains, survey results demonstrating increased patient and staff satisfaction or measurable improvements in service and clinical quality.

As the program takes root within the organization and results begin to multiply, many organizations feel more confident in communicating outside their own walls. Some begin to share case studies in journals, present at national forums or publicize their commitment to quality through consumer advertising. It was noted at the recent Quality Colloquium at Harvard that there is a growing trend toward direct to consumer (DTC) ads touting healthcare quality improvement.

A well-conceived communication plan will begin even before the first day of training or the first wave of projects has begun and will be woven throughout the initiative. Remember to communicate up, down and sideways across the organization. It’s also wise to keep in mind that communication is an ongoing process – not a one-time event.

It has been often studied and repeated that more than 60 percent of change initiatives fail. This failure is due in part to the absence of acceptance in the organization for whatever path the leadership has chosen. Building that acceptance begins with the development of solid communication strategies.

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