By Steve Crom

The most difficult problems to solve in any Lean Six Sigma project or initiative relate to changing mind-sets or the organization culture. Confusion, anxiety and frustration are among the most commonly felt emotions when a company is in the thick of changing the way work gets done and asks its employees to modify engrained behaviors. However, experience shows that the right combination of vision, resources, incentives, skills and planning increase significantly the probably of successful change.

Vision: A Clear and Compelling Future

The willingness to let go of the present is a function of how clear and compelling the future is to which one is drawn. Without a clear and compelling vision, resources, incentives, skills and well-planned actions lead to a sense of confusion. “Why are we being asked to change?” will be heard in the hallways and at the coffee machines. A vision not only inspires creative thinking, it provides a sense of direction.

President John F. Kennedy’s vision of “getting a man to the moon and back by the end of the decade,” was not only a call to innovation and action, it set priorities. He did not need to place a call to MIT, for example, for them to know that the guidance systems they had been researching had to be scrapped for something entirely different. A compelling vision, as David E. Berlew, noted management professor and author, described it, “pulls the entire system forward as it points to a critical few problems that must be solved for that vision to become a reality.” It realizes positive energy, brings out the best in everyone.

It is the responsibility of Lean Six Sigma sponsors to paint the picture of the future in which the program or project in question will play an essential part. Take the 1,000 days product development vision of one of the top pharmaceutical companies. Taking 600 days out of the current process to reach 1,000 days is how 12 cluster projects will help the company fill even faster its pipeline of new products.

At the project level, it is the Black Belt or Green Belt’s responsibility to help those involved see how the modified process will make people’s lives easier and more fulfilling.

Resources: Turning Vision into Reality

Without the resources to turn the vision into reality, all those involved will see the projects as an exercise in frustration. “We know what needs to be done, if only we had the time to do it,” is an often heard sentiment. It is better to postpone launching a Lean Six Sigma initiative than to starve it of the resources it needs to deliver.

The single most important decision related to resources is whether or not to have full-time Black Belts. Time and again, experience shows that full-time Black Belts get four times as much accomplished in half the time as part-time Black Belts. Moreover, the culture change that every company wants through Lean Six Sigma comes largely by placing successful and experienced Black Belts back into line management roles.

The second most important decision is the degree of coaching – either internal or external – to provide Black Belts and Green Belts. The recommendation is a day of coaching per project leader per week of training, spread out during the four-week interval between training. It is in the application of the tools that one learns the most. Having a guide during application and the interpretation of results is key.

“We can not afford to wait to grow our own talent, so we have to hire certified Black Belts from outside,” is the opinion of many Lean Six Sigma deployment leaders. If the major challenges to implementation are cultural, think twice about bringing in outsiders for their technical skills or deployment experience. In keeping with the role of the Lean Six Sigma program office as an incubator for future leadership talent, look inside for people with the proven ability to get results through others and teach them the Lean Six Sigma technical skills.

Incentives: Compensation Makes It Work

Everyone has heard that “you need to put your best people on the Lean Six Sigma projects,” but how often does a company pick the best available people instead? One sure way to get the best talent is to tie the achievement of Lean Six Sigma results to executive variable compensation.

At an off-site leadership session, the managing director of a medical device company took his direct reports through two days of Lean Six Sigma education. He linked strategic objectives to processes, defined projects and nominated candidates to lead the projects. His team played along until the last hour of the session, when with the managing director announced that 25 percent of the leadership team’s variable compensation would be tied to delivering the expected benefits of the Lean Six Sigma projects. At which point the vice president of operations said, “That’s impossible, my best people are all working on other things!” It was a moment of naked truth.

If Lean Six Sigma is an enabler of strategy and top priorities improvement initiatives, then success should be tied to variable compensation at the executive level. The personal performance objectives of sponsors, project leaders and department managers should incorporate active leadership of Lean Six Sigma.

Finally, the chief financial officer should ensure that operating budgets reflect the improvements reported by the project leaders and sponsors. It is the only way to cash in on the benefits.

Skills: Change Starts with Individuals

The most obvious skills needed in Lean Six Sigma are the ability to scope and deliver projects using the DMAIC approach and tools. Once they have had the experience of uncovering fact-based casual relationships that solve chronic problems, project team members and others involved learn to trust the approach.

Equally important are the change leadership skills of sponsors and project leaders. They need to be able to answer the questions:

  • “Where are we?”
  • “Where do we want to go?”
  • “How do we get there?”
  • “How do we know we are getting close?”

“Organizations don’t change, individuals do,” is a comment heard recently from a deployment leader. She is right in that changes in an organization’s culture are the cumulative effect of many individuals choosing to take new approaches to their daily work. As Jerry Sternin, an authority on social and behavioral change, put it, “It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think yourself into a new way of acting.” Projects are the opportunity to work and act differently than one would normally, thereby learning new decision-making habits.

Influencing others over whom one has no formal authority is a key skill at the program and project level. One of the change management modules that deployment and project leaders should receive in training is influence and communication skills. They should be shown how to create a solid communications plan that speaks to the concerns and issues of stakeholders.

Planning: Actions Are Important

The tendency is to concentrate on the content of the improvements needed. Equally important in planning are the actions needed to manage stakeholders.

  • Who has a vested interest in the project and outcome?
  • Are they positive, negative or neutral?
  • What is in it for them?
  • How can the ownership of the project be shared with them?

To get commitment, others have to own the outcome and be involved in how to achieve it. There is no better opportunity to involve stakeholders than in defining the expected project outcomes, approach and milestones. Take the time for consultation sessions and be open to modifying the approach based on their input. Good planning with those whose support is most needed, will avoid false starts.

 Elements of Successful Organizational Change

                              Source: Sherrie Ford, Change Partners, Strategies & Solutions for World-Class Manufacturing, Summer 1994

Conclusion: The Art of Leading Change

While it may be more art than science to successfully lead change, the ingredients are clear: an agreed and compelling vision, dedicated resources, incentives to change, know-how, and a logical sequence of steps owned by those whose behavior needs to change most.

Confusion is a signal that a Lean Six Sigma program is too focused on activities and projects and not enough on “connecting the dots” so everyone sees the desired end state. Frustration is usually due to too many competing priorities and a lack of resources. If progress is slow, look to see whether executives have an incentive to actively lead, whether the projects are aligned with the company’s and individuals’ performance objectives. Natural anxiety can be overcome with coaching, training and networking with others such as deployment leaders traveling down similar paths. To avoid false starts, take the time to plan the program with those whose support is needed most.

It is the combination of these elements that leads to the most successful Lean Six Sigma initiatives.

About the Author: Steve Crom is the managing partner of Valeocon Management Consulting. He has more than 20 years of experience helping clients achieve breakthrough results. Mr. Crom has worked with clients such as Johnson & Johnson, Zurich Financial Services, Airbus, Siemens and many other Fortune 1000 companies. Based in Germany, he is fluent in English, German and French. He can be reached at

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