Managers play a key role in building a successful Lean Six Sigma organization. They must create and foster an environment that sets the stage for employee success. Here are six essential factors for creating Lean Six Sigma that thrives:

  1. Pick the right projects
  2. Pick the right people
  3. Follow the method
  4. Clearly define roles and responsibilities
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  6. Support education and training

Pick the Right Projects

One of the reasons previous quality improvement methods have failed is that people had no guidelines in selecting projects. So employees would end up doing projects like “redesign the cafeteria” or “set up a new system for assigning parking spaces.” These kinds of projects may have made some people feel better, but even if they were successful, the company’s customers saw no gains in quality, speed or cost. And managers saw only money going out with no benefit to the numbers the CEO was watching.

Lean Six Sigma lives and dies with project selection. If managers do not have people working on the right things, it will not matter how good they get at problem solving and improvement. Consequently, much more guidance is given now in selecting the “right” projects – projects that:

  • Are linked to corporate strategies and priorities – There should be clear links all the way down from the CEO’s annual strategies to specific projects.
  • Are realistic in scope – Far too many companies see quality initiatives fail because they were picking problems of the “solve world hunger” scope. In some cases it does pay to have an experienced team of problem-solvers attack broad, complex problems. But by and large, a company is better off selecting projects that new project teams can realistically complete in three months or less.
  • Have identifiable and measurable hard results – Lean Six Sigma puts a strong emphasis on making sure that the dollars invested in projects can be measured on the bottom line. (That said, managers should not ignore the softer results of projects, such as improved morale, fewer hassles in the workplace, greater collaboration, and so on. However, it is only rarely, if ever, that a project should be chosen solely because of its soft-side potential.)

A final tip on project selection: keep the project pipeline well stocked. Typically, companies go through a formal project discovery or identification process each year, then narrow down the list based on capabilities and priorities. In doing so, a company needs to consider not only what projects to launch immediately, but what projects will come next. When one project is complete, what will take its place? Suppose, for example, that a team discovers that a project really is not as important to customers as originally thought, or that the expected return is not as large as predicted. What would a manager have the team do instead?

Pick the Right People

Companies that have been most successful in deploying Lean Six Sigma have selected Black Belts and Champions with the view that they are future leaders of the organization. Look for employees to fill those positions who have demonstrated leadership skills, problem-solving and process improvement skills, and an ability to make a difference in the organization

Follow the Method

The vast majority of methods and techniques associated with Lean Six Sigma have evolved during the past few decades (or longer). They are based on experience with what does and does not work in practice. A manager can be more effective by adopting practices such as:

  • Always asking to see the data when employees come forward with a suggestion or idea.
  • Working with a Black Belt to develop ways to “make waste visible” in a work area. Simple data charts and flow charts, maintained by managers or employees, can keep people focused on improvement goals.
  • Fully participating in the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) reviews for teams working on issues that affect a work area.

Clearly Define Roles and Responsibilities

In setting up a Lean Six Sigma infrastructure, managers also set up potential conflicts in authority and responsibility. Being clear about the responsibilities of both management and Lean Six Sigma roles will help avoid innumerable conflicts.

A RACI matrix is a useful tool to format that helps people sort out and clarify responsibilities. The letters stand for different levels of expectation:

  • Responsibility – People who are expected to actively participate in the activity and contribute to the best of their abilities
  • Accountability – The person ultimately held responsible for the results
  • Consultation – People who either have a particular expertise they can contribute to specific decisions (i.e., their advice will be sought) or who must be consulted before a final decision is made (e.g., finance is often in a consultation role to projects)
  • Inform – People who are affected by the project but who do not participate in the effort (they are usually notified of the outcome after the final decisions are made)

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Managers and others leading a Lean Six Sigma effort face many competing pressures. They have to select and launch projects, make sure training is set up and delivered, provide support to people working on projects, and on and on. But even so, they need to factor in what is going on with the people not directly involved in the efforts. They need to put time into creating a web of communication with all parts of the organization:

  • With bosses – To make sure everyone understands corporate priorities. Communication with corporate leaders also can be vital in helping to overcome roadblocks or resolve conflicts that may arise between departments.
  • With project team members – To make sure they are clear on the purpose, goals, boundaries and expectations for their project. The manager also should invite communication from the team, so the members will feel comfortable asking questions, pushing for clarity and so on.
  • To and from staff (and the rest of the organization) – To make sure that employees at all levels are aware of what is going on and why. The more the staff knows, the more likely they will be to support Lean Six Sigma efforts either directly or indirectly.

Support Education and Training

Lean Six Sigma is not yet a course in most universities or colleges, let alone high schools. So most people in the workforce – including managers – need to be trained and educated. Managers have the dual responsibility to support the education of their staff and to educate themselves. They do not need to be Black Belts, but they should know enough about Lean Six Sigma so they can ask intelligent questions and guide who are those involved in projects.

Conclusion: No Stealing Involved

Lean Six Sigma is a discipline that has learned from past mistakes. And one of the mistakes made by previous improvement methodologies was to ignore the importance of management support at all levels. Initially, some managers find themselves thinking that Lean Six Sigma efforts are somehow “stealing resources” that they would rather devote to the “real work.” But once a manager sees the rapid and sustainable gains that can be earned when well-trained people work on high-priority projects (linked to the managers’ business goals), they quickly become enthusiastic supporters of training and education.

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