The role of a Black Belt is typically described as a Change Agent and the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. Why then, if the change agent role is such an important part of the Black Belt identity, do we spend four to six months training the Black Belt candidates with maybe, just a few hours of training on the process of change?

Is it because the statistics are so overwhelmingly complex that the preponderance of time needs to be devoted to understanding them? Possibly a valid point in the past, but programs such as Minitab have eased that dilemma. Today, understanding what tool is applicable and interpretation of the output of the analysis are pretty rudimentary. The software companies have chased away all the “mathematical boogie men.” The statistics that once scared people away have become tools for the masses. So why don’t we spend more time on change?

The People Issue

Perhaps it is a two-fold issue. First: change has undeniably been labeled as difficult. Second: dealing with change is ambiguous, even on a good day. The fact is, however, that the root cause to the difficulty is the same root cause to the ambiguity. The real issue is: People! They aren’t like a nicely defined data set where we can hit a few keystrokes, stack them, run an analysis and, if it doesn’t work out, delete that worksheet as if it never happened. You don’t get to move them into Excel so you can manipulate them in a pivot table until they look the way you would like them to.

People are much more complex than a data set. If we could find a way to use a multi vari analysis, it would be a wild looking chart. The anal retentives would have a single point with no within-piece variation – and probably no across-time variation as well. The free spirits, however, might have a huge amount of within-piece and across-time variation. Just imagine the difference in charting between the engineering department and the IT department.

Now, think about those various charts and imagine what happens when you mix them together. The piece-to-piece variation would go crazy. How could anyone possibly deal with that much variation? A nightmare? No. Actually it is called a company…a workplace…an environment…or what ever politically correct term you use for the place where stuff gets done. It is the place where – when you have taken the operational problem, turned it into a statistical problem, calculated a statistical solution, and interpreted it into a practical solution – you still have to execute the change. Without the execution of the change solution at the end of the project, you are just another piece of COPQ.

The point is: change is ambiguous and, yes, it can be difficult; but your success is dependent on your skill in dealing with it.

Understanding Is The First Step

Dealing with change begins with understanding. The following model can provide a framework for understanding the environment around you:

Valley of Despair

It is important to understand that this model is occurring at multiple levels as a company-wide deployment is occurring:

  • It will happen at a strategic level with the “C” and “VP” level employees.
  • With the initiation of a project, it will begin to occur in the work place.
  • At the same time, it will also be occurring within each individual member of the team.

As an effective change agent, you will have to be cognizant of the effect on the various levels and at what stage of the process they are operating. They will not all be congruent, and you have to manage it.

Managing Change

The first stage in managing change should be as natural to a Black Belt as breathing. It begins with planning a change and the accompanying metrics and includes:

  1. A problem statement,
  2. An objective,
  3. A baseline metric, and
  4. The secondary metrics for a project.

A good plan must also include communications, education requirements and other activities to lessen the severity and shorten the duration of the change curve on your team.

The next two stages are executed as we progress through the project during which time the team is being trained, mentored, and coached through the process. These steps are not indigenous to Six Sigma; they effect any initiative such as Work Place Organization, TQM, or whatever organizational alteration is being effected at the time.

At this point you begin to launch the change process. The team, whether or not it is acceptant of the change, now puts itself on the curve and soon heads for the very natural drop into the “Valley of Despair.” Expect this. This is normal. Why? Because the old way has ended; people are not used to dealing with the ambiguity of the new unknown. They have no recognizable patterns of acting that tell them the “correct” way to do their job. They need time and help to find their way. As a change agent it may also be a point where you receive valuable feedback on potential flaws in the change.

The individual team members are also on their own individual curves. Some will be in the Valley of Despair by the end of the first team meeting. Don’t worry about it as, again, this is natural. You must, however, take the time with the various team members to become aware of who went over the cliff and when.

Emotional Turning Point

The conclusion of the Six Sigma project will bring you to a significant emotional event – the end of the old way. There are those companies that do this well: it is built into the company DNA that when the decision-maker says, “turn right,” everyone turns right. There are also those companies where, when someone suggests that they consider a right turn, the team gets a cup of herbal tea and discusses it.

This is not meant to be some treatise on which is more effective. There are plenty of examples of both styles working effectively within their culture. You can be fairly sure, however, that you won’t be successful if you try to mix the two styles. The end of the old way initiates the beginning of change and the trip into the Valley of Despair. For some, it is a pothole in the road to something better; for others, this is a crisis and a threat to their very existence.

As the Change Agent there are two issues: First: you are on this curve yourself, so you had better deal with your own insecurities and inner demons. The second is that you have to deal with the various individual curves. It is the individual curves (think of it as a rational subgroup) that will determine the group curve (the overall process capability).

Arriving at Pity City

The curve bottoms out in Pity City. Here the organization will see much recreational griping. That is okay; people need this, and it can be therapeutic as they swap war stores about the ambiguity and difficulty they face. The important thing to remember is that the Black Belt’s (or any change agent’s) key contribution is shortening the duration of the change and minimizing the severity of the drop into the Valley of Despair. Nothing guarantees the climb to productivity other than the skill sets of the facilitator, which may be the Black Belt and/or the Team Leader, and that person’s ability to build and execute a plan that shortens duration and minimizes severity.

Pity City will occur, but it requires attention. Ignoring Pity City will only increase the duration and cause increased pain to the organization and the bottom line. A common tactic for refocusing the team and starting the ascent is to initiate activity. Training, in particular, is key to implementing refocusing. The change will initiate various levels of action. If you are an ISO or QS certified system, the changes require documentation. The activity around making documentation changes may help them adjust. Training actions can be focused around familiarization with the documentation. If, however, new skills are required, then the training can focus on those skills. In either case, it is the effort and the change of focus that initiates the departure from Pity City and the climb to new levels of productivity.

As an agent of change, it is critical to remember that your main objective is to lessen the severity and shorten the duration of a team, department, or organization’s fall into the Valley of Despair. Although it is natural because of human behavior to go through this change curve, any disturbance of “the old way, the known way” can cause disruption and organizational pain. Organizational pain eats up focus that could otherwise bring profits and growth. The Black Belt’s skillful execution of the plan, which includes specific change activities, will go a long way to shorten that trip through the Valley of Despair.

Working On Different Timetables

Various groups in the organization will feel the pain of Pity City at different times, with the senior levels typically arriving there many months before the rest of the organization. With their executives in the valley, the rest of the organization is wondering, “what is wrong with these people?” Once the executives climb out and the rest of the organization begins its descent, the executives are wondering what is wrong with them? This variation in timing is an important point to manage for any change agent.

Much organizational confusion can be saved and energy refocused if change agents/Black Belts account for this potential in their plan and manage it well. With a disciplined approach to implementation that uses a tool such as tollgates, the change process can be relatively simple to measure.

A tollgate at the end of the control phase can be used to signal the end of the analytical work and the beginning of the implementation. The end of the cycle can be measured when the metric crosses the goal that was set for the project. This would give you the total time that was spent in the actual trip through the Valley of Despair and the attainment of the goal. This time, however, has a cost associated with it. As long as the solution to the original problem has not been implemented, then the savings are not being realized.

Agility as a Competitive Advantage

The financial advantage to understanding the implementation curve is that the more we quantify and understand it, the greater the probability that we can institute tools and methods to deal more efficiently with the time.

The more efficiently we learn to deal with change, the more profitably we can operate. Changes can be instituted more quickly and with greater ease, but the larger advantage is the company’s increased agility. That agility is the company’s ability to respond to changes in technology and changes the marketplace.

A company’s agility is the company’s competitive advantage.

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