Getting There From Here

It is the aim of most Continuous Improvement programs to transform the organization. Six Sigma usually attempts to do this in one of two ways:

  1. By taking top-down approach, wherein the end state of transformation is articulated and communicated by organizational leaders, and stages and activities of the transformation are painted only in very broad strokes;
  2. By taking a bottom-up approach, wherein the end state of transformation is either not clearly articulated or not known, but incremental activities within the transformation are planned and managed in great detail.

Of course, neither of these approaches can succeed on its own. But that doesn’t stop most organizations from trying one to the exclusion of the other. The approach chosen is often driven by the personal style of the figurehead for the transformation, which in turn is dictated by the general culture of the organization. While there are exceptions, it is rare to find a senior leader whose personal style diverges significantly from overall the organizational culture. This is for the simple reason that senior leaders typically don’t become senior leaders unless and until they learn how to fit in.

Intellectually, most people leading continuous improvement programs have the mental horsepower to figure out that neither approach works on its own. But realizing that and being able to do something about it are two different things. In my experience, leaders who are capable of giving birth to great and clear vision and rallying others to that vision are seldom equally capable of doing the detailed work necessary to actually get there. These folks can state with great conviction and clarity where we need to be a year from now, but they have no ability to describe what has to happen tomorrow and the next day and the day after that…eventually leading to the goal. They understand the destination, but not the route.

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On the other hand, those who revel in the detail and are capable of writing the detailed plan to arrive at the destination are seldom equally capable of conceiving of and articulating a vision that will rally the organization. They understand the route, but not the destination.

The solution to this dilemma is clear: both skill sets are required, both things need to be done. You can’t choose one approach or the other of the two listed above, you need elements of both to succeed. We all know this. But doing it is excruciatingly difficult. It is very tough for a single individual to function equally well on both ends of the spectrum, and even tougher to put together a pairing or small group that does so.

I suspect many of you reading this will disagree with me, perhaps point out that all you need is a well rounded team of individuals with compensating strengths and weaknesses. But I just don’t see that happening very often, if ever, in real life. What I want to know is…why. Given that the solution isn’t hard to comprehend, why is it so difficult to make it happen?

Comments 3

  1. Daniel Renner

    I agree with you. I’ve found similar situation in different areas and by discussing the general approach we have wasted a lot of time and energy without getting something done.

    As a 6S guy, I always tend to have a bad feeling about changing something without the knowledge where we are actually, in terms of situation and indicators. But especially when the ’where we want to be’ is just defined by indicators and not by describing the situation which will lead to required metrics.

    So, different ideas and opinions without bundling them to a team, and so a general approach, will lead to activities heading in different directions. By this, you may find yourself sometimes in a scenario which is worse than before. Handling this as an individual is more difficult (or impossible) if you have to fight to get something changed.

  2. Andrew Downard

    Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t think it’s any secret that most of us "Six Sigma folks" gravitate towards what I have called approach #2. But like I said, I don’t think it can work on its own, and the ability to do both approaches equally well is exceedingly rare. Perheps this explains why Six Sigma hasn’t quite managed to take over the world. (Yet.)


  3. Mark

    I found your remarks interesting and I totally agree. While many tools prove to be helpful, I feel that they are merely a method for making things visual. Nothing tops going to the floor and taking hard data. Gemba is the moto to go by.


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