Act II

Six Sigma, which is beginning to acquire some grey around the temples, has now advanced to the stage where the basic requirements for success of the program are fairly well known. That doesn’t stop it from being screwed up in about 95% of installations, but no one can say that’s due to a lack of reference material detailing what’s required to be successful. Implementing Six Sigma has become a matter of excellent execution rather than invention and discovery. Or at least it should be.

The same is true of many other large-scale organization programs and installations. Converting to Oracle or SAP, for example. Building a performance management system. Opening and managing a call center. Developing a strong Innovation or New Product Development process. Outsourcing. The list goes on and on. There are a lot of things under the general “organizational transformation” umbrella that while still very difficult to pull off, require excellent large-scale execution skills rather than a lot of invention.

All of this leads to what I call the “Act II” problem. As you might guess, Act II follows Act I. Act I can be any of the things I described above, including starting a Six Sigma program. It can also be fixing or “re-energizing” previously botched execution, which is actually more common with Six Sigma programs these days. Whatever the case, the defining feature of Act I is that is it usually so pressing and painful that no one is thinking ahead to Act II, especially the person who was hired to produce Act I.

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So what is Act II? Simply put, it is making use of what was produced in Act I to achieve some desired end. Wait, you might say, isn’t that the point of Act I? Generally speaking, not really.

Take a Six Sigma deployment, for example. Act I usually consists of hiring or training belts, engaging consultants, conducting training classes, filling a project pipeline, getting initial projects done, delivering results, etc. Many (most?) organizations fail at some point in Act I, which is why Act II doesn’t get much mainstream attention. Act II can only begin when Act I is complete – that is, when the program is already up and running and hitting on all cylinders. The project and talent pipeline is flowing well with little intervention, and results are being regularly delivered. Six Sigma isn’t new or exciting anymore, it just a part of the fabric of the business. Though rare enough, all of that just gets you to the starting line of Act II.

Act II is where you start to think beyond the simple running of the program. Now that you have all the machinery, what are you going to do with it? How does it play with the other processes in your business? How will what you have built evolve over time? If you’ve mastered the basics, what do the advanced levels look like? How can what you’ve got become a competitive advantage in the marketplace? What should be emphasized and what should be dropped in the future? In short, what will you do with what you have built? Act II is all about answering these questions, but only after the initial execution has been completed at a high level. Only after the initial build is done.

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The problem is that Act II takes a much different skill set than Act I, so it is rare to find one person who can do both effectively. And many people who have built careers on Act I – particularly those who are called in to fix an ailing Act I – simply have no Act II. When the time comes, they let the results of their excellent execution operate on a performance plateau. They, and the organization, will often feel they’ve earned the right to do so. But unfortunately, in the world of organizational change, standing still means moving backward. If you’re not growing, leaping, expanding, and evolving with whatever you are doing, then you’re marching to the grave. There really is no in between, no time to enjoy the plateau. If you have no Act II waiting to begin, you might as well not even have done Act I. That’s a tough lesson to learn, but non the less true for it.

I think this explains why the business landscape is littered with the carcasses of many once-strong programs. They had a strong Act I, but there was no Act II, so the show ended abruptly. As hard as Act I is, and as rare as it is to see an Act I successfully conclude, Act II is even trickier to plan for and pull off, and consequently more rare and valuable.

Comments 4

  1. Evan J Miller

    Great post, Andrew. I’ve been thinking of this as the difference between Explorers and Settlers. I think you’re right on that the two Acts require different skills. I’m guessing they also require slightly different tool kits and and a wholly different view of data. I’d be interested in your take on my post.

  2. Andrew Downard

    Hi Evan,

    I read your blog post, and added a comment there as well.

    I don’t tend to like designators with personality like "explorers" and "settlers". They imply value judgments, whether you intend them or not. For example, being an explorer sounds a lot sexier than being a settler, but I don’t think one role is any more or less useful than the other.

    That being said, I do think Act I specialists tend to advance further and faster in business settings. People who are good at Act I can often survive for decades by hopping from place to place, performing Act I every time. And that’s okay, even desirable…until they land somewhere that an Act II is required, and they don’t move on in time to avoid it. I’ve seen some very good Act I people lose their jobs because they had no Act II when the time came. It’s very easy to become a clean-up artist or turn-around specialist, and not have anything else in your repertoire. You’ll be heavily rewarded for it, right up until the end.

    I’m also not sure I agree that the "view of data" does or should change – for me, that’s an overly technical way of looking at it. I’m thinking much more about the soft side of things. How do you keep the momentum of the program going? How do you keep pushing forward and serving the needs of the organization? If we were all robots, Act I would be enough. But human nature being what it is, programs have to grow and evolve to stay relevant, or to even stay alive. That’s Act II, and it has very little to do with the technical details of the program.

    Anyway, good discussion, and I enjoyed your blog post. Thanks.


  3. Sam


    I like the challenge that you are placing in front of the practicing profession this concept of Act II. I would hypothesize that Xerox is one of the few organizations that has figured out its Act II. It has turned its early adoption of Lean Six Sigma (They were one of the first trained in the truly combined methodology by the George Group) and have turned it into a competitive advantage.

    When we look at GE, we see that how they evolved their deployment to move it closer to the customer to their supplier base out of the core, but at its heart it was still a set of management tools.

    I believe that Act II is in fact placing Lean Six Sigma, project selection, and results execution in the proper context, meaning a strategic lever for the organization. We can’t assume that it is integrated as part of the management framework when we first start, but over time it is pulled upon by leadership to meet targets and objectives.

    If we think about the Malcolm Baldridge Framework, and consider that to be a descrptive framework for an organization, that is made prescriptive via the strategic planning process. I would think that we could look at the Lean Six Sigm prescriptive framework as enabling a strategic planning process.

    Some things in an Act II organization, there are no project identificaiton workshops, there are goal setting workshops, that are part of the annual planning cycles. There are metrics throughout the organization, that when they are reaching their targets they reach for the Six Sigma infrastructure to help solve the problem. The organization thinks in terms of DMAIC.

    These are just my 2 cents on this subject. I would love to see a wikipedia like article develop on this idea, that we as practitioners could take on to develop this idea of an Act II, or the act of integration, and leverage the sustained capability.


  4. Andrew Downard


    Thanks for your comment. I offer my enthusiatic agreement. I especially liked your comment about project identification workshops, etc. I have long considered "special" workshops and processes of this nature to be counter-productive. What does it mean if you need such a special process to decide on Six Sigma projects? Why not just fix whatever process already exists for determining who works on what, and use that for ALL projects?

    Anyway, good thoughts. Thanks for commenting. Count me in on the Wikipedia idea, although someone else will have to get the ball rolling – I don’t know how!

    Thanks again,


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