Many times when Lean and Six Sigma are introduced to an executive management team, there will be an individual who makes the statement: “This is just common sense. Why do we need to go through all this methodology, training and the statistics stuff to execute a simple project?”

A large segment of thought leaders in corporate America believe in the “just do it” approach to change. To them, the answers to process improvement needs are obvious. They think if everyone were as bright and motivated as they, these projects would get done … and the projects would get done on time and under budget. Of course, a Six Sigma practitioner would say, if the solution is known, then by all means implement it. The discipline of Lean and Six Sigma should be utilized on issues where the solution is not known.

While Six Sigma often gets a bad rap of “slowing down project implementation,” much of that is based on the up-front effort in properly defining the problem and collecting the appropriate data to determine the root cause of a problem. Once individual leaders become familiar with the concept of root cause, then they are willing to jump on the bandwagon and admit that common sense alone might not have allowed them to discover the solution to a customer requirement or systematically find the unknown cause to the process problem.

Real Common Sense Has a Role in Six Sigma Projects

Yet on the flip side, there are Six Sigma practitioners who downplay the role of common sense and hold on to tools alone – at the expense of the valuable insights that years of hands-on experience can bring. Common sense in the context of historical knowledge of a particular business – including a grasp of best practices and insights on how to make things happen in that business culture – is an invaluable ally of the Six Sigma disciplines needed for effective change. It is when common sense is the code word for “just do it” that problems can occur and warning flags should be seen.

In many instances, the just-do-it mentality can be hidden within the argument that a project methodology already exists. At any thriving organization, change has been going on for a long time, either formally or informally. If the best aspects of Lean and Six Sigma are to be leveraged to improve change dynamics, then it is best to introduce them as a way to augment the current project methodology and not as something to replace it. Building on an organization’s change history makes Lean and Six Sigma more acceptable to change agents by emphasizing and celebrating past success rather than tearing down and starting over.

This approach plays well in companies where the leadership groups sees Six Sigma as overly complicated and as taking steps back before being able to move forward. A common sense approach to implementing Six Sigma concentrates on the aspects of Six Sigma that move the company forward, rather than engaging in a philosophical debate of Six Sigma versus current project approaches.

Six Sigma Principles That Are Key to Successful Project Execution

The principles of Lean and Six Sigma most important to emphasize when integrating Six Sigma into an organization’s existing project methodology or philosophy are:

  • In Six Sigma, the voice of the customer defines quality in terms of meeting customer expectations. Traditional project methodology usually concentrates on the quality and speed of the project implementation, itself, and not of the measurable customer experience.
  • In a Six Sigma program, key leadership and P&L owners are trained and actively engaged in the process, with the CEO playing a key role in company-wide initiatives. When initiatives are scoped within only a single line of business, the key manager or Champion in that business unit plays the leadership role.
  • A Six Sigma approach to change provides defined organizational roles (Green Belts, Black Belts, Master Black Belts, Champions, sponsors, etc.) to create accountability. Many companies choose to not use Six Sigma terminology when describing these roles. However, the clear definition of roles helps promote project success in a Six Sigma environment.
  • Six Sigma promotes a critical mass of dedicated resources deployed to ensure success and help define capacity for change. Many times in a traditional project or change environment, management expects projects to be done in addition to the day-to-day job. While not all participants need be dedicated on a full-time basis, the critical roles should be full-time resources who continually move process improvement forward.
  • Six Sigma uses a value-based project selection process and a rigorous system of projects-in-process management. So choosing projects to execute across silos in an organization allows for change to occur within processes impacting customers and not within discrete business units with little or unknown customer impact.
  • The DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology has, under its umbrella, both Lean and Six Sigma tools that can simultaneously focus on speed and quality. This integration of Lean tools speeds up processes by removing waste and non-value-added process complexity. These tools are additional ones in the arsenal of traditional project tools that make change happen.

Project Management Principles Key to Six Sigma Implementation

There also are aspects of an existing project methodology and change culture historically found within an organization that are critical for the successful integration of Six Sigma principles.

The traditional project management approach to change leverages an infrastructure to plan, manage and control the change initiative. Typically, a company will utilize a project management office that acts as the central point for all information and tracking of critical initiatives. Likewise, such a mechanism is essential for tracking the progress of all Six Sigma projects in regard to meeting deadlines and staying within budget. The project management office also is a good place to track all critical-to-quality metrics and expected financial benefits of Six Sigma projects.

A traditional project approach includes tools, templates and methodologies to ensure implementation success. These will include work plans, issues lists, task action records and all documentation related to managing the risk and communications around a project or wave of projects. Many of these traditional project management tools fit nicely into the “tollgating” process required between each phase of the DMAIC methodology.

Emphasis in a traditional project approach is on the project management process itself and implementation quality. This goes hand in hand with the Six Sigma approach that the end game of the project is to address speed and quality of the “operational process,” which, in turn, favorably impacts the customer experience and the bottom-line of the organization. So, a common sense approach indicates that Lean/Six Sigma and traditional project management are not either-or propositions, but critical elements in a successful change management approach. Of course, the two are not operating totally distinct from one another, but in a fashion where the sum of the two are greater than each by itself.

Six Sigma’s influence on a traditional approach to change management is that it helps shift the focus more directly on the customer experience and toward data-driven process improvement. The examples in the figures below show the effects of Six Sigma being introduced into a traditional merger methodology, a traditional mapping approach and a training and communications plan.

Figure 1: Merger Approach
Figure 1: Merger Approach
Figure 2: Process Mapping
Figure 2: Process Mapping
Figure 3: Training and Communications
Figure 3: Training and Communications

Conclusion: What Works in a Complex World of Change Mangement

The answer to the original question of the naysaying manager – How are Lean and Six Sigma different from just plain old common sense? – becomes obvious when reflecting on the thought processes described in the figures above. “Just doing it” may work for athletes wearing Nike gear, but it does not work in the complex world of change management. The place for common sense in process improvement is twofold:

  • In demonstrating an understanding and appreciation for the intellectual capital of the company by recognizing best practices within the organization and by valuing the knowledge of its associates.
  • By introducing Six Sigma as a way to build on the successful use of traditional project methodology while pointing it in the direction of continuous process improvement and an improved customer experience.
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