Gaining support to implement and sustain a continuous improvement program is an oft-voiced concern of Lean Six Sigma (LSS) practitioners. These concerns reflect frustration in both senses of the term –  feeling frustrated personally and encountering attitudes that frustrate the effectiveness of the program.

Three sets of skills and methods have shown success in gaining buy-in. They are:

  1. Using a proven step-by-step process for leading change.
  2. Recognizing and overcoming resistance to change.
  3. Applying influence principles to engage resistant stakeholders.

Step-by-Step Process for Leading Change

John Kotter, professor at Harvard Business School and author of the book Leading Change, made two assertions about leaders: 1) that every leader who used Kotter’s defined eights steps of leading change saw successful results from the change they were leading and 2) that every leader who approached Dr. Kotter after a change had failed to gain traction was able to identify the step in leading change that had been skipped.

Dr. Kotter’s eight steps are described below along with examples of direct application of these steps toward gaining buy-in of continuous improvement projects and programs.

Step 1: Establish a Sense of Urgency – Confronting Reality

People tend to feel comfortable with their current situation and naturally resist change – unless there is a good reason for change. The outcome of Step 1 is, in effect, a compelling business case for change. Why is this change necessary? Articulating that compelling reason – the issues with the current reality that drive an individual, a group or a company to drive others – is a critical first step.

For an individual project, the project charter – approved and supported by key stakeholders – can provide this compelling reason, this urgency. For a broader initiative, such as implementing an entire LSS program, substantial effort might be required to identify major issues holding the organization back, and thus provide compelling motivation for change.

Step 2: Form a Guiding Coalition – Early Stakeholder EngagementBuy-in

Implementing change by yourself is not only lonely and frustrating – it is also ineffective, according to Dr. Kotter. It may be appropriate to combine Steps 1 and 2 to form a guiding coalition that shares your sense of urgency and then brainstorm ways to clearly articulate the “burning platform.”

For an individual project, the team is the obvious coalition – with the addition of a management sponsor or Champion committed to the success of the project. For a LSS program, key stakeholders such as management sponsors or Champions would make a good guiding coalition – especially if the LSS program can be shown to align with achieving their own goals, the organization’s “must-do’s” going forward. In that sense, the LSS program provides the how for achieving the goals.

Step 3: Define the Vision

Defining the vision for improving a process or developing a new product can be a team-building activity that leads to a vital deliverable: for a smaller-scope project, a compelling business case for the project; for a larger-scope program, the compelling vision that the stakeholders (the guiding coalition) would share with the larger organization for how the LSS program aligns with achieving the goals of the organization.

Team building with the guiding coalition is part of the desired outcome, and the development of the vision should involve the stakeholders so that they feel ownership of that defined vision. The vision could include such concepts as doing things right the first time, dramatically reducing new product development time or ensuring that the voice of the customer (VOC) is heard and heeded.

For a smaller-scope project, the vision can initiate and establish the project charter. For a larger-scope project, an effective set of steps for defining the vision could be:

  • The senior manager/executive clearly articulates the burning platform. The stakeholders then brainstorm the issues, starting with the issues from Step 1.
  • The stakeholders brainstorm keywords, phrases and terms that seem to capture the direction they would like to take.
  • Either the team begins to construct a first-pass vision statement, or a stakeholder or a pair of stakeholders volunteer to work on a first draft of the vision statement for the team to review, amend or replace.
  • The team reviews, edits, modifies and finalizes the vision. The vision should be easily remembered, brief, clear and compelling – powerful!

Step 4: Communicate the Vision

If the vision has been polished so that it is brief, clear, compelling and easily remembered, then it has fulfilled the first part of the equation:

Quality x acceptance = effectiveness1

This equation explains that the effectiveness of a proposed change within an organization depends not only on the quality of the change and the preparation for the change, but also on the receptiveness of the organization to accepting and even embracing the change.

Some key elements required for communicating a vision well include the following1:

  • Simplicity
  • Analogies and examples
  • A variety of media: meetings, memos, lunches, emails and newsletters. Some of these allow for a two-way communication, which is more powerful than simply talking “at” people and allows messengers to address questions and concerns.
  • Repetition
  • Leadership by example. Nothing undercuts a vision like having leaders undercut the message by inconsistent behaviors or snide or counter-message remarks. Even expressions of lukewarm or contingent support undermine the credibility of the message, and subsequently its acceptance. Communicating the vision is a time to show leadership, not hesitancy.
  • Addressing of seeming inconsistencies, which otherwise might also undermine the credibility of said vision.

Step 5: Empower Others to Act on the Vision

The term frustration is unusual in that it defines both the symptom and the cause. If people begin to feel frustrated and discouraged, it probably means that something seemingly or actually beyond their control is preventing them – frustrating them – from accomplishing the goals.

The Champion’s role is to help individual project leaders and Black Belts remove roadblocks in their projects. While Black Belts might feel that they and their team are expected to handle everything themselves, the real expectation is to recognize roadblocks and impediments, and handle what they can reasonably and confidently. Then they can meet with the Champion to request help with removing roadblocks beyond their control. Ideally, this happens quickly so that projects are not delayed and frustration and discouragement are not allowed to fester within the team.

For roadblocks and impediments to a large-scale project, the members of the guiding coalition should keep their fingers on the pulse of the organization. When they sense frustration, they should use their insight and power to remove roadblocks.

Step 6: Generate Short-term Wins

Short-term wins help a team in a multitude of ways. They:

  • Provide evidence that supports and provides justification for the project or program.
  • Deliver a sense of accomplishment.
  • Convey helpful feedback for the leadership team.
  • Undermine cynics and critics.
  • Strengthen support from the managers.
  • Help build momentum.

DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) Six Sigma projects lend themselves to low-hanging fruit. They find opportunities for quick wins in the Define and Measure phases through process mapping and the identification of non-value-added activities. Beyond that, team-building activities such as brainstorming and fishbone diagramming in and of themselves can achieve visible, if small-scale, success.

By contrast, the early phases of Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) do not lend themselves so readily to low-hanging fruit. While activities related to gathering VOC can provide insights and build rapport between marketing and engineering, the “proof” of the methodology being successful may have to wait through a full new-product development cycle, which hardly qualifies such successes as quick. There are, however, a few approaches that can be used to generate short-term DFSS wins:

  • Use DFSS with short-term development projects (e.g., derivative products and specialty products).
  • Use DFSS methods in the later stages of a product’s development, for products nearing launch. Some DFSS tools, such as a Pugh matrix, are particularly powerful when handling situations in which multiple requirements must be met with the same subsystem or component.
  • Use DFSS methods on products from the beginning, but incorporate leading indicators that enable the team and stakeholders to “see” progress before the product is released.

Steps 7 and 8: Consolidate Gains and Anchor the New Approach in the Culture

People rise to challenges if they trust that:

  • Leaders care about the project.
  • The team will be supported.
  • Individual successes and the full team’s success will be recognized.

Any deployment plan should provide a recognition system for teams and individuals. The recognition system for teams does not need to be expensive nor complex, but should be visible.

People also feel recognized when they are encouraged to share their successes, through presentations to management and elsewhere within their organizations as well as through presentations to other organizations. Town halls and management reviews are excellent forums for recognition. Media such as staff meetings, newsletters, bulletin boards, posters and banners can be used to recognize people and teams and celebrate success. External media may include publishing articles detailing a success. If the work is truly outstanding, significant recognition can be provided by selecting and recognizing their project as exemplary, having it videotaped as an outstanding success story or having team members represent the company at a conference.

Monetary rewards may also be appropriate and will reinforce the recognition – but public recognition by management and peers that they and their project were successful can be even more valuable.

Recognize and Overcome Resistance to Change

People generally do not like other people imposing something on them, because an imposed new approach implies that their previous efforts were insufficient, ineffective and inferior. While dealing with resistance to change is frustrating and challenging, in a sense resistance to change is a good attribute – it reflects critical thinking, a key attribute for leadership.

Example of Battling Resistance

As a recently hired device engineering manager who was considered an “outsider,” I dealt with a severe issue that had been communicated all the way up to the CEO of Motorola for which no one wanted to be held responsible, no one wanted the blame if anything went wrong with the solution, and everyone wanted to be on record as having raised questions about the solution in case anything went wrong. I was able to deal with Layer 2, disagreement about the direction of the solution, by showing with a simple cube plot from a design of experiments that the proposed solution was so far from the conditions that had caused the original issue that it was almost impossible for the problem to recur. I dealt with Layer 6 by clearly articulating the remaining steps for implementation. (To be honest, the stakeholders also were clearly relieved that it was just my head that was on the line.)

The problem was solved, and never recurred – not for the next 10 years, not even until the manufacturing area was finally decommissioned.

And no heads rolled – not even mine.

The keys for dealing with resistance to change are to first identify the key stakeholders – generally, this consists of managers and people who will be implementing the change and people who will be affected by the change. Then identify the sources of their resistance and meet with them (usually one-on-one) to discuss their concerns – listen, empathize and work with the resistant individuals to either find a resolution or to influence them to engage in a “willing suspension of disbelief” until results are achieved and the concerns are laid to rest.

Business management expert Eliyahu Goldratt, who developed the theory of constraints (TOC), identified six layers of resistance to change:2

  1. Disagreement about the problem (“It is not my problem”)
  2. Disagreement about the direction of the solution
  3. Lack of faith in the completeness of the solution
  4. Fear of negative consequences generated by the solution
  5. Too many obstacles along the road that leads to the change
  6. Not knowing what to do

These layers of resistance can be used to more deeply understand the sources of resistance. For example, if the resistance involves Layer 1, disagreement about the problem, then one or more team members can meet with the stakeholder(s) to better understand why they disagree, if there is another problem that needs to be addressed first, if there is ambiguity about the business case, or if the sense of urgency from Step 1 has some ambiguity that needs to be resolved.

If the resistance involves the second or fourth layers – disagreement about the direction of the solution or fear of negative consequences – then the stakeholder can discuss their concerns about the direction of the solution or consequences, and turn the resistance to change into an opportunity to provide useful inputs to the team on how to manage the associated risks.

If the resistance involves Layer 3, lack of faith in the completeness of the solution, the stakeholder’s voice can be heard and the team can learn what seems to be missing, and assess whether a more complete solution – in cooperation with the stakeholder – is warranted. If the resistance involves Layer 5, too many obstacles, the team can listen and perhaps work with the previously resistant stakeholder to identify the obstacles and develop approaches to overcome the stakeholders or obtain another champion to help remove obstacles. If the resistance involves Layer 6, the team needs to clarify the steps and clearly communicate what needs to be done and what is being asked of each stakeholder.

Apply Influence Principles to Engage Resistant Stakeholders

Dr. Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology and marketing, identified six principles of influence.3 They are:

  1. Reciprocity: People reciprocate and respond favorably to generosity – we want to return favors and pay back debts. When team members help each other, it builds teamwork in part through the influence principle of reciprocity.
  2. Consensus: People will use the action of others to decide on proper behavior for themselves. In a team setting, if there is generally consensus, an individual will follow the direction of a team.
  3. Authority: People are inclined to follow or be persuaded by someone who seems to be an authority or knowledgeable in the applicable area. A passionate executive can help keep team members excited and committed to a project.
  4. Commitment: People have a desire to be consistent. Once committed to something, people are apt to follow through, providing evidence to themselves and others that they follow through on their commitments.
  5. Liking: People tend to cooperate with those people they personally like and with people who appear to be similar to themselves in some respects.
  6. Scarcity: People innately desire things that appear to be difficult to obtain or are in limited availability.

The table below shows the alignment and usefulness of understanding these influence principles during the phases of a project or program.

Phases, Aspects and Principles
Phase Change Management Aspects Influence Principles
  • Identify stakeholders
  • Buy-in for charter/goals
  • Obtain resources for success
  • Authority
  • Consensus
  • Commitment
  • Reciprocity
  • Liking
Decision making Buy-in for decision made Consensus
  • Buy-in by stakeholders
  • Overcoming resistance to change
  • Authority
  • Consensus
  • Consistency
  • Scarcity


Six Sigma practitioners can win support for their programs using these proven step-by-step processes for leading change, recognizing and overcoming resistance to change, and applying influence principles to engage resistant stakeholders. These approaches have been used with remarkable success in a number of businesses. Addressing the people side of implementation provides short-term benefits in buy-in and support, but also builds relationships that can assure long-term success.


1. Eckes, George, The Six Sigma Revolution, How General Electric and Others Turned Process Into Profits, Wiley, 2000.
2. Avraham Y. Goldratt Institute, The Theory of Constraints and its Thinking Processes,, Accessed September 19, 2014.
3. Cialdini, Robert, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Harper Business, 2006.

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