Striving to improve should be the prime directive for all business leaders. If organizations do not improve, they run the risk of getting left behind. So the question is: What is the best strategy or approach for improvement?

Over the last 20 years, many continuous improvement initiatives have been introduced, but only one seems to have staying power: Lean Six Sigma. Why? Because it teaches that to improve a process, organizations must map it, measure it and compare it to customer requirements.

Lean Six Sigma, however, has its problems. Many organizations have difficulties with the methodology, due to reasons such as:

  1. Lack of leadership engagement
  2. Length of time needed to complete projects
  3. A failure to identify valid projects

To complete organizational improvement and resolve these common issues with Lean Six Sigma, leadership must tie their efforts to a strategic initiative. By adopting an approach that narrows the focus first to critical areas of the organization, they can use Lean Six Sigma to drive quick results.

Focusing on Critical Areas

This strategic approach to Lean Six Sigma enables senior leaders to prioritize what should be addressed and to manage their resources so projects can be completed in a shorter time. The approach has six steps:

1. Educate leaders – Leaders should be educated on organizational improvement as a business strategy. This should happen in the form of a focused discussion or workshop on the basic tenets of process improvement.

2. Define organizational strategic objectives – The leaders must define the key metrics of the business – the ones that drive profit and loss. In government organizations, where the profit focus may not be as great, consider the drivers (metrics) of customer satisfaction. For example, U.S. Army depots use metrics called “net operating result” and “on-time delivery to the war fighter.” In Lean Six Sigma terminology, these are the leading indicators that show failure or success. In some cases, these metrics may not be tracked as part of the business operations.

3. Assign an owner to each metric – Each of the key metrics – such as revenue, customer satisfaction and deals lost – should be assigned to a member of the senior leadership team. This person should be ultimately responsible if the metrics are not tracking to the desired targets. This person should understand how the metric is performing and why it might be performing below target.

4. Conduct a workshop on measuring metrics – In many cases, these metrics may be something the organization has not measured on a routine basis. In this workshop, stress the critical importance of measurement and explain how to determine how well or how poorly the metric is performing. During this workshop, the team should generate high-level process maps or value stream maps. Completing these may also identify some data that should be gathered in the next step.

5. Collect data – Now the leadership team must get to work and collect baseline data for the metrics. This data can be gathered from many sources, including quick customer surveys and market research.

6. Conduct a workshop on prioritizing focus areas – Now that data is available, the leadership can start prioritizing which areas to focus on. Some of the many prioritization approaches, such as a matrix, used in Six Sigma can be utilized here. This will go far to quantify this decision-making process. Once a few focused opportunity areas are identified, the leadership team should select people to take the lead at running these improvement projects. These people must have good project management skills, have respect from the organization, be good with numbers and be open to learning.

Preparing a Kaizen Event

After completing the six steps, another workshop should be scheduled with project sponsors and the project leaders. The purpose of this workshop is to educate the sponsors about their role. They should be taught to understand the following:

  • How to measure and interpret the data
  • How to listen to the voice of the customer
  • What improvement methods are available

After the workshop, each sponsor should launch a Kaizen, or rapid improvement, event. This week-long event should be focused on:

  • Engaging everyone involved in the process to be improved
  • Identifying some quick wins – things that can be implemented within a week and yield results
  • Identifying long-term opportunities for improvement

For this to be successful, some up-front planning work between the sponsor and the project leader must be completed, including:

  • Mapping the process
  • Measuring the current state
  • Selecting the team that will attend the kaizen
  • Make sure people are fully dedicated to the event; this may involve rescheduling or shifting responsibility for other priorities

During the event, the sponsor must be able to decide on the recommended improvements teed-up by the team and how to implement these changes. Over the next few weeks, the sponsor and project leader should also be available to address any follow-up items that may surface. In addition, there may be a parking lot for opportunities or ideas that could not be addressed within the one-week timeframe. These can become good candidates for future DMAIC projects.

Kaizen events will yield quick improvements and can benefit the organization immediately. It is critical that these process changes be sustained and that the process owners do not revert to the old way of doing things. The changes also should include some definition of what metrics are important and how they should be tracked to help assure that the gain has been maintained.

Staying Flexible

Organizations must embrace and integrate continuous improvement as part of their culture, but they should adapt a flexible approach in order to gain results quickly and to identify long-term efforts clearly.

Using Kaizen events first empowers and energizes the organization and helps to deliver results quickly. It also provides for better-defined, longer-duration DMAIC projects.

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