Whether it is Lean, DMAIC or DFSS, Six Sigma boils down to improving business processes. And irrespective of the methodology employed or the scientific rigor behind it, every process improvement initiative – if it is to be successful – has to be approved, understood and implemented by people. Given the body of work published about human inertia and change management, it should come as no epiphany to the quality professional that people are notoriously resistant to change, or may embrace change for the wrong reasons. Successful Six Sigma practitioners have a variety of methods for diagnosing and overcoming this inherent resistance – this is one.

A key component of process analysis is the notion that one should maximize those steps that add value and minimize or eliminate those steps that do not add value. In its simplest form, the idea of value-added is to do only those tasks that a customer recognizes or expects as being essential and is willing to pay for. Anyone who has been active in process improvement knows that most business processes are chock-full of non-value-added steps, possibly as high as 70 percent.

Imagine how a person working in a department, doing their level best every day, would feel if they found out that much of what they do is without value? Their level of job satisfaction would plummet and they would be disenchanted in leaders who had them completing tasks that no customer needs or wants. Such pockets of inefficiency are not the mark of a company dedicated to quality. Yet people are only human; nobody wants to lose their job. Thus, companies that foist quality initiatives on workers who live in fear of their livelihood are implementing a self-defeating program.

Conversely, if workers are motivated to look at what they do from an overall customer service perspective, they are more likely to be satisfied in their jobs. And they will be more confident that any effort to refocus their labor to give more value to the customer will in turn be valued by their employer. Thus, they are far more receptive to embracing constructive and innovative changes that a quality program may advocate. Such an employee perspective is essential for an organization’s overall success.

Here are two example of how to get on top of this problem:

An Example on a Navy Ship

While on active duty in the U.S. Navy, an officer stood duty as officer of the deck (OOD). The officer of the desk is an important position because he or she is running the ship based on the captain’s authority. During flight operations with an aircraft carrier or maneuvering in close quarters with other ships, an OOD can get pretty busy and mistakes can be devastating. It was not unusual to simultaneously have several radio speakers blaring with all manner of information – a lookout reporting a ship on the horizon, engineering reporting a minor malfunction, navigation reporting a time to make a course adjustment, along with a new combat exercise about to commence.

In the middle of all this a young sailor, fresh from boot-camp would report in his loudest, post-adolescent voice, “Sir, lunch is now being served on the mess-decks!” The Navy calls this lad a “phone-talker” and his expected response from the OOD is, “Very well.” The “very well” signifies to the sailor that the OOD had heard and understood his message. A terse “very well” is fine when the message involves lunch for the crew, but is insufficient when the information involves the ship on a collision course with a carrier. Moreover, this young sailor is duty bound to repeat his message until he receives a “very well” from the OOD. (Note, it matters not to the phone-talker that the OOD is busy answering a radio signal, responding to a lookout, contacting engineering, and giving orders to the helm. If a “very well” is received, then the mission is complete. In short, these sailors know what to do, but they do not know what they are doing.

Was it unusual for an OOD to utter a “very well” without understanding the message, just to stop the hollering? Yes. Was that a risky move considering what might be being missed? Another, yes.

After several months of this nonsense, the officer tried a new approach. During a quiet period, he spoke with some of the phone-talkers and asked them if they realized what they were reporting. Each admitted that, other than lunch or some other administrative matter, few had any idea what they were reporting and what it meant to the ship. However, all seemed anxious to learn and were immediately receptive to the attention the officer was giving them. The Navy is full of jargon and codes so it is not unusual that these young men and women would not comprehend what they were conveying. In fact, they were trained not to think or to summarize, but to repeat word-for-word what they were told over the phone. Mind-numbing? Absolutely. Necessary? Well, maybe during the War of 1812, but not in today’s modern Navy with well-educated enlisted people.

What the officer did then was to begin to move around the training these sailors had received and to begin educating them about what their messages meant. Clearly it did not take a genius to grasp that an announcement about lunch or mail-call could wait until the OOD responded to the radio message from the admiral. More importantly, it was just as easy for them to appreciate the how critical it was that they ensure the OOD fully understood that there was a submarine about to surface 1,000 yards ahead of us. A simple “very well” would not be good enough. In illustrating the point, once they understood what the messages meant, the officer asked them to consider his position as OOD. What if they were doing that job, how would they want the information passed on to them so they could always make the best decision. None of them ever failed to see the point when viewed from that perspective.

As one might suspect, it did not take long for the intensity level to ratchet down somewhat. There were still radios blaring, lookouts and engineering reporting, course adjustments and combat exercises, but there also was a newfound cooperation between the OODs and phone-talkers. Now, instead of a constant drumbeat of inane information that clearly could wait, mixed in with a crucial element that could not, real communication between sender and receiver had been achieved. Communication that included true understanding and comprehension for all parties involved.

However, there was another unintended consequence of the officer’s behavioral experiment – the phone-talkers felt better about themselves. Their pride increased. They now grasped how important their role was to the ship, its operation, the crew’s safety and to the OOD. As their knowledge about the messages and reports increased, their pride increased. As their pride increased, their ability to perform their job improved. In short, it was a win-win situation. The OOD had better control of the situation and the phone-talkers had a real mission. These sailors now knew not only what to do, but also knew what they were doing.

An Example in the Business World

Fast forward to the ex-Naval officer’s life as a management consultant. He now is the guy leaning out business processes and having to tell people that much of what they have been doing has little value and must be eliminated. Many workers immediately jump to the conclusion that if what they do has no value, then he was saying they have no value. There starts the resistance. He had to find ways to overcome people’s natural resistance to change in order to see his recommendations as a consultant be implemented and the savings realized. The same approach he discovered while in the Navy became his go-to method for managing change.

Several years ago a regional bank’s operation site needed help. In simple terms, the site’s staff was opening envelopes containing checks as invoice payments and depositing the checks into accounts for various small, medium and large businesses. Additionally, the site also processed payments for a variety of government agencies. The operation suffered from error rates that were off the chart, unusually high turnover and extremely low morale among the work force. It was clear that no manner of process improvement would stick if it was not possible to somehow turn-around the employees’ attitudes and make them proud to come to work each day.

Using his Navy approach as a guide, the consultant and his team designed and implemented separate processing teams. These teams were tied to the industry they supported. For example, one team was dedicated to healthcare insurance providers; another to real estate businesses and a third handled child-support payments. Then by way of a series of training, or rather education classes, it was explained to each person how their role fit into the big picture.

For example, for the real estate team, the consultants explained that the checks they were processing were in fact rent payments from people just like them. Real-life examples were used to illustrate what might occur if they did not do a quality job: “Imagine what might happen if you fail to deposit that check in the right account? A person could come home and find all their belongings on the street and their apartment rented to a new tenant – all because you didn’t pay attention to your work.” Consultants explained to those handling child support payments that if they failed to process a father’s check properly, he could be accused of being a “deadbeat dad” and face arrest, when in fact he had mailed in his payment. This approach with these examples hit home. Employees started to pay closer attention to their work because they now knew not only what to do, but they also knew what they were doing. They understood the value of their work.

More importantly, just like at sea an unintended consequence occurred. Because the consultants had designed and implemented teams that handled only certain industries, employees were now responsible for specific accounts that they processed every day. Previously, any employee could be told to process any account at any given time. As a result there was no ownership. Since assignments were given out at random, when a business customer called with an issue no one in management knew who processed that account on the day in question. Under the new system, employees were held responsible for their work. With responsibility came accountability. And just like in the Navy, this accountability led to pride. Each team began to track errors and productivity; not because management insisted, but because they wanted to demonstrate to each other which team was best. Additionally, instead of business customers wanting to talk to a supervisor or a manager, those same customers now wanted to talk to their processing clerk. Open customer was overheard saying to a supervisor, “I don’t want to talk to you, I want to talk to Marcia; she’s the one who handles my account.” It is easy to understand the increase in self-esteem felt by members of the staff. Their work was valuable to a customer. They were valuable to a customer.

When the bank project was completed, customer-reported errors had declined by 63 percent and were continuing to fall. Productivity had increased by 20 percent and was on the rise. Turnover was declining and morale was high. In short, the company, its customers and the employees were all better off.

Lessons Learned from the Two Examples

Recommendations to improve business processes must be approved, understood and implemented by people. People are naturally resistant to change, but become particularly so when they believe a change initiative is attacking them as workers. In order to be successful, a change initiative must not only advocate value-added processes, but also value workers for their ability to carry though these processes. So, what are the universal features of the two examples that a Six Sigma professional can use? Consider these points:

  • People are the key to successful projects. Overlook the people, and their likely resistance, and a project is doomed. Management and team leaders must value the work of everyone. That does not mean all tasks are value-added; they are not. Obviously that is the reason for an improvement project. Leaders on all levels must develop and maintain an attitude that the work someone does is worth both the leader’s time and the workers’ time. If workers sense that a leader looks down upon what they do, they will resist recommendations and perhaps sabotage the project. By the way, this attitude must be genuine. People will see through a charade and can detect a phony.
  • Employees should be accountable. That does not mean dishing out sanctions for not following disconnected and meaningless procedures. If someone cannot see the result of their labor they will begin not to care about what they do. When a business leader asks someone why they do a particular task and they get a shrug and the answer, “I don’t know,” is there any wonder about poor attitudes and poor quality? People want to do good work. Good leaders show them how and hold them accountable to a standard. They will reward the business with positive results. However, with this approach comes increased management responsibility as well. Training, metrics and pay-for-performance all become more important.
  • Everyone needs to know how what they do contributes to the company and its customers. Nothing is more frustrating than to think what one does for a living has no value. Many employees do not know how their jobs – the tasks they perform everyday – contribute to the success or failure of a company or its customers. Management needs to teach them. The opportunity in this regard is incredible. When workers know that their job is important they will approach it with a new found vigor and pride that can only lead to higher quality, productivity and morale.

Six Sigma quality and productivity cannot be achieved by workers who simply punch a clock. Quality and productivity come from workers who care. Management must not stop training at the task. Good people should not merely know what to do; they must know what they are doing.

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