It would be great if every organization had senior management fully on board from the start of a Six Sigma program. Think Larry Bossidy at AlliedSignal and Jack Welch at GE. But not every organization is so lucky; many improvement efforts start at middle or lower levels. A middle manager gets a vision about how Six Sigma could dramatically improve operations. Or proactive front-line workers seize the initiative to map out and improve their process. Unfortunately, isolated improvement projects rarely make it to full-blown organization-wide Six Sigma initiatives. However, there are a couple of ways to turn on management support for a continuous improvement program organization-wide.

The Situation and the Ways Out

While continuous process improvement is widely regarded as worthwhile, dedication of time and money to do it is often elusive. Why? Continuous improvement – especially the large-scale variety – has few constituencies at the start. Senior management is reluctant to dedicate time and other resources for improvement when there are “products to get out the door” and short-term financial pressures. Front-line workers feel it takes time away from their “real job” and that “management has never paid attention to me in the past, so what makes this different?” And middle managers balk at projects starting in their area for fear of embarrassment or punishment for years of poor-performing processes.

But there are two proven, successful ways to get a foot in the door for organization-wide Six Sigma efforts that address the reluctance of senior management:

  • Stealth Six Sigma
  • Limited Initial Commitment Six Sigma

Their common underlying principle is that if Six Sigma benefits can be shown on a small scale, then senior management will buy into the program and dedicate resources organization-wide. The key difference is that Stealth Six Sigma begins under the radar scope of senior management, while Limited Commitment Six Sigma begins with a try-it-and-see blessing of senior management.

Stealth Six Sigma

The objective of a Stealth Six Sigma project is to demonstrate significant improvement benefits while maintaining a low organizational profile. A key to success for producing dramatic results quickly comes from combining Lean waste elimination principles with Six Sigma statistical tools. In one high-tech manufacturing company, a two-week improvement project increased annual plant capacity by $225 million. The team used Lean principles and process maps to streamline processes through the circuit board test and engineering departments. This led to a broader deployment of Six Sigma.

While there are many variations, a general Stealth Six Sigma approach is:

Activity Who Approximate elapsed time*
1. Identify and clearly articulate the gap between desired and actual performance. Core group (one to three people interested in improvement, including a knowledgeable Lean/Six Sigma person) 1-2 days

2. Articulate needs for the project:

  • Logical (e.g., customer and financial)
  • Emotional (internally motivating reasons for a team to fix the problem, e.g., eliminating bureaucracy, workmanship pride, reduced frustration).
1-3 days
3. Use project selection criteria to evaluate potential projects. Starter criteria for a candidate project include:

  • Rapid payback
  • Business strategy support
  • Relatively self-contained departmental process not requiring senior management “turf” arbitration
  • Availability of data for analysis
  • High likelihood of success

Other custom criteria should be added to demonstrate Six Sigma’s value to management.

1-2 days
4. Finalize the project organization (typically front-line workers within a process and possibly middle managers). Anticipated minor political battles require a Champion. All involved receive training/education. 1-2 days
5. Address the problem, using DMAIC where appropriate. (“Where appropriate” because the emphasis is on rapid results, not methodology adherence, e.g., Lean principles like waste elimination and 5s and simple quality tools like Pareto charts, checksheets, and run charts should be implemented instead of force-fitting tools like FMEA and DOE requiring potentially lengthier data collection/analysis timeframes.) When DMAIC is used, teams should avoid the frequent mistake of spending too long in the DMA part of the DMAIC cycle. Improvement team (core group plus two to four others involved in the process) 1-5 weeks
6. Present results to senior management and request organization-wide roll-out. ½ day

*Represents approximate time during which activity occurs, not actual time required. For example, Activity 5 may require 2 days of work, but may be spread over 5 weeks.

Limited Initial Commitment Six Sigma

The objective of a Limited Initial Commitment Six Sigma project is to address several issues of executive interest and show dramatic improvement quickly. Senior management is actively involved up front in articulating business challenges and scoping three improvement projects. If benefits materialize, then Six Sigma is rolled out to the organization. Senior management does not need to commit to a full-blown, organization-wide effort from the start. General steps for Limited Initial Commitment Six Sigma are:

Activity Who Approximate elapsed time*
1. Engage senior management in identifying two to four problems or opportunities. Core group (one to three people interested in improvement, including a knowledgeable Lean/Six Sigma person) 1-5 days
2. Collaboratively develop project selection criteria and establish three projects that meet them. Starter criteria for the three-project portfolio would include:

  • All support at least of one senior management’s problems/ opportunities
  • All support the business strategy
  • Two projects provide rapid payback
  • One project improves a self-contained process within a department, obviating senior management “turf arbitration”
  • For two projects, some data is already available
  • High likelihood of success
  • For the one project that does not provide benefits within four to five months, milestones can easily be established to continually assess progress

Other custom criteria can be added to demonstrate Six Sigma’s value.

Core group and senior management 1-4 days
3. Finalize the project organization (typically middle managers and some front-line workers who have knowledge of a process). All involved receive training/education. 1-5 days
4. Identify key stakeholders and develop ways to have them commit to the teams’ success. Improvement team (core group plus 10 to 15 others organized into three improvement sub-teams) 1-3 days
5. Address the problem using DMAIC where appropriate (emphasis is on rapid results, not adherence to a methodology. E.g., using Lean principles like waste elimination and 5s, simple quality tools like Pareto charts, checksheets, and run charts instead of force-fitting tools like FMEA and DOE requiring potentially lengthier data collection/analysis time frames.) 2-9 weeks
6. Conduct periodic status checks to ensure project progress and financial returns. If a project is progressing well, conduct interim celebrations and consider awards of spot bonuses in cash, stock options, dinner/theater tickets, etc. (It should be made clear these won’t continue forever, and are intended to stimulate continuous improvement interest.) Improvement team and senior management Throughout
7. Present final results to top management and request a roll-out of Six Sigma to the organization. Improvement team ½-¾ day

*Represents approximate time during which activity occurs, not actual time required. For example, Activity 5 may require 5 days of work time, but may be spread over 9 weeks.

Some people may confuse Limited Initial Commitment Six Sigma with the “pilot approach” of yesteryear’s improvement projects. This approach differs in three key ways:

  • Senior management is actively involved throughout. This approach ensures their interest in the outcome, likelihood of their public support of the improvement, and some sense of ownership of the process and results.
  • The first “fixes” are not intended to be final as in many pilots. Rather, they are intended to fund additional improvements and generate interest in improvement. Some fixes may in fact be modified significantly when the bigger picture of organization-wide Six Sigma is considered.
  • There is not just one project used to prove the concept works in the organization’s local culture. A mini-portfolio consisting of different types of projects (e.g., short-term benefits and long-term, cost reduction and revenue enhancement, Lean tool and Six Sigma tool applications) demonstrate the versatility and likelihood of improvement projects working in different problem situations that pilot projects don’t address.

Factors in Overcoming Management Reluctance

Ten factors critical to overcoming initial senior management Six Sigma reluctance via either Stealth or Limited Initial Commitment Six Sigma are:

  1. Quick results. Project benefits must be realized quickly and exceed costs. A maximum five-week time frame with a minimum return of 30 percent are good targets. These will grab senior management’s attention, demonstrate capability for self-funding projects, and generate energy for future improvement. Six Sigma and Lean should be combined to produce dramatic, rapid improvements. A telecommunications company director in Colorado canceled a Six Sigma project when he heard data collection would take three months. The following year he stated that he would have been more likely to launch Six Sigma if the first project were completed within one month – something entirely possible using Lean.
  2. Good project selection criteria. Getting the right projects is essential to demonstrating value to senior management. Teams can use the base criteria suggested in Activity 3 above, plus internally developed ones to help top decision makers assess Six Sigma’s potential benefits in their organization.
  3. Well-defined and contained scope.Regarding scope, projects need:
    • a clear, narrowly enough defined scope to ensure quick completion.
    • a broadly enough defined scope to ensure tangible benefits.
    • team members focused on the original goals and boundaries, thus avoiding “scope creep.”
    • a tight match between project scope and scope of influence of the Champion or team.
  4. Teams which set their own improvement goals. When people set their own goals, they tend to become highly motivated to achieve them. Such intrinsic motivation is critical for first-time improvement projects as it keeps people committed to successful completion, even when day-to-day work pressures command attention.
  5. Team members who understand Lean/Six Sigma. Lean principles can provide quick wins through reduced cycle times while Six Sigma attacks variation. Team solutions that incorporate Lean and Six Sigma increase the likelihood of organization-wide Six Sigma deployment. Sources with the appropriate expertise may be internal or external.
  6. Interim progress monitoring. Highly successful projects rarely “just happen.” They most often have a work plan, key milestones, intermediate deliverables and assigned responsibilities so they can be actively managed for high-quality outcomes and speed.
  7. People-intensive versus machine- or chemical reaction-intensive processes are targeted.Though not an absolute requirement, most quick-hit, high-value improvement projects attack a process that has many people involved in producing the output. The reasons are:
    • There is often great variability in how different people execute the same tasks, and even how the same person may execute a task multiple times
    • Process maps for people-intensive processes often identify quick gains such as:
      • eliminating redundancies
      • standardizing work
      • simplifying hand-offs
      • eliminating non-value-added activities
      • performng activities in parallel, instead of sequentially
    • Often machine- and chemical-reaction processes require considerable:
      • data collection and analysis to improve.
      • engineering or scientific expertise that may not be available for a rapid, intensive improvement project.
  8. Attention to team dynamics. To a larger extent than most people think, project success ultimately depends on the quality of team member interaction. Project leaders should constantly monitor team working relations, manage conflicts, and facilitate high-quality decisions. A pharmaceutical company that had two consulting firms and four internal departments working on a clinical trials improvement project conducted weekly “How-are-we-working-together?” lunch meetings. The benefits were well worth the time invested.
  9. “Engineered” buy-in. It’s infrequent that buy-in happens automatically. Buy-in from team members, managers and employees requires effort, not just hope. To insure buy-in, teams should use a disciplined, engineering-type approach: determine desired outcomes, identify obstacles, brainstorm options, evaluate options and develop action plans.
  10. “Gut-felt” reactions that reshapes current beliefs. The project should elicit some emotional – not just logical – reaction from senior management to change their initial position. Minds are changing when executives make comments like “It’s an abomination that our receiving process contained 90 percent wasteful activities!” “I had no idea our customers got such poor service!” and “I can barely believe the team produced $50 million in annual savings in just two weeks!”

Stealth Six Sigma and Limited Initial Commitment Six Sigma are good approaches to getting top management on board as strong supporters of a Six Sigma program, but they are not foolproof. Thus, implementing them requires the full attention and extra care from those involved.

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