Middle manager of a mid-sized business with an average market share makes a New Year’s resolution, “I must improve our performance!”. Hits the Internet to discover what’s out there and is absolutely bombarded with the latest thinking and best practise in how to improve their business.

KISS…4P…5P…Burning platform…Blue Ocean…7S…PRINCE2…MBWA….Seven Habits…CMMi…Governance…Scenario Planning…Six Sigma….Innovation…Kotler…Activity Based Costing…Balanced Scorecard…Six Hats…ITIL….Results 1 – 10 of about 9,340,000

Given the number of options, it should come as no surprise that without clear executive sponsorship, managers looking for “home-grown” solutions could be reluctant to invest any time in Lean Six Sigma. There are any number of good reasons not to get involved. Gianna is currently on reason number 37 and still counting!

Even if they focussed on continuous improvement there is a lot to choose from e.g. Lean, Six Sigma, ISO, MBNQA, TRIZ, TPS, EFQM, TOC, TQM ….no, this is all too complex, not today thank you, I’ve got some fire-fighting to do!

Name a soft drink, quality automobile, or MP3-player and it brings to mind an immediate response. I think we have achieved a high degree of customer mind share. But in what categories should Lean Six Sigma hold mind share? Product Launch; Business Strategy; Performance Management, Innovation, Profit?

Our technology is proven and the tools work. It seems a question of marketing. I’m reminded of the early works of Geoffrey Moore like Crossing the Chasm. How do you cross the chasm from being a product used by selected niches and specialist areas into a de facto business tool?

Handpicked Content:   Overwhelmed by Too Much Training?

Product Adoption Curve

The move into mainstream is about making Lean Six Sigma easy to do business with. One aspect of this is standardisation. I will draw on a couple of examples from the IT industry.

  • During the nineties there were a series of competing approaches to software engineering. Adoption of modelling techniques was slow as customers were not sure which methodology to back. The resolution was the creation of a single industry standard Universal Modelling Language (UML).
  • Again in the nineties there were a series of competing approaches to networking. Customers could base their networks on technology such as token-ring, IPX/SPX, DECNet, NetBEUI, SNAor TCP/IP. Now the industry has settled on TCP/IP.

This relentless standardisation has continued in spreadsheets, word processors, operating systems, databases, and ERP systems. Mainstream customers like a dominant player (800lb gorilla) with a second choice in case they fall-out with the gorilla.

Another aspect is simplification (I discovered there is a Six Sigma for Dummies). Mainstream customers like simple messages and easy to follow processes. What would constitute the core of Lean Six Sigma without affecting integrity? Would it be suitable for a mainstream audience?

I believe an industry designed “Sigma Lite” that is ratified by say ISO would be a step in the right direction for customer adoption. This would draw on all best practice (including ISO 9004) to produce a cut-down version for the mainstream.

Of course every consultancy will challenge this to describe how they are better than the average. Not sure if the Six Sigma Green Belt is already the lowest level of abstraction to support continuous improvement?

Comments 6

  1. Mike Carnell

    As you said "every consultancy will challenge this….." I will be the first to challenge but not tell you why we are better. The strength of a Six Sigma deployment, over the long term is a function of how well the Green Belt program works. Unfortunately GB’s don’t work well over the long term without BB mentoring and BB’s get dragged into a bunch of nonsense unless they have MBB’s. BB’s also need another level of expertise. So we are at some level of agreement. GB’s alone will not produce and there are well intentioned companies with good leadership that have tried to drive this model.

    I do believe that to many BB’s is an issue. Unfortunately there are people who sell training. They want wave after wave. Long term that can cripple a deployment when you attempt to keep them in meaningful projects.

    I think if you read Andrew Downard’s blog and your together you will get a pretty good picture of what needs to happen. There is some level of iteration in the deployment model that is necessary driven by the unique nature of a companies culture (not the "we are different" comment to justify not doing anything). The course content never changes for us.There is no reason to change the methodology. The methodology works independently of the deployment strategy.

    I worry about these things titled for Dummies. We have been locked into KISS for a long time but the flip side of that is that for every simple solution there is an unsolved problem.


  2. Robin Barnwell

    Thanks Mike

    Just to confirm, I was looking at Small & Medium Enterprises that do not have sponsored programmes, teams of GB/BB/MBB and budget for training. They are concerned about financial survival and see Six Sigma as a discretionary purchase.

    I was exploring the idea of a “cut-down” version of Six Sigma for this market. Where a business manager can rapidly acquire knowledge and gain incremental benefits. In effect they are a green belt without any infrastructural support.

    The question is, is this achievable?


  3. Mike Carnell


    I think it is achievable but I don’t think it is a model that will prove successful on a large scale (now we are talking opinions so we know what this is worth). Can people learn it? I believe they can. Will they do it? I believe they will not.

    I have worked with a large firm that has a huge number of GB’s and I believe the Management Team has a lot of integrity. The span of control for support is about 1 BB to 100 GB’s and no MBB’s (we target 1:4). There are verifiable results but the amount is probably close to break even. The entire model could be shrunken down in size and produce easily a 20X result. The issues are there to be addressed.

    It takes a very special person to self motivate themselves to drive change in a company unless there is a strong support structure. Don Quixote de la Mancha is portrayed in a comical light and I don’t think many people are willing to be viewd in that light. When you ask someone to drive change without support and infrastructure you are setting them up to joust with windmills.

    Maybe if the GB’s as you proposed reported directly to a strong CEO or a member of their staff. Someone who demanded performance and still rewarded it and was not afraid to take out roadblocks.

    Like I said we are into opinion now. Maybe I am so locked into my model that I have become the issue when it comes to change?

    Just my opinion.

  4. Sue Kozlowski

    I appreciate your dialog on this subject. I’m the education coordinator for our Lean Six Sigma work, and have just taken over the training from our initial consultant. I am frequently asked to simplify the training, cut down the number of days, create an executive version with "just the bullet points", etc.

    So far I have resisted. If you’re going to be a BB or GB in our organization, there’s one way (and that includes facilitating projects as well as completing training). If you want a "Lean Six Sigma Appreciation Course" I can do that too, but that’s different.

    Having said that, I am considering creating an Executive Champion course that covers the basics, with the emphasis on their responsibility i.e. holding leadership accountable, not just the belts!

    As far as GBs in a small-to-medium company, I agree that without a very strong infrastructure it would seem problematic. Is it Lean Six Sigma if you don’t have GBs or BBs, don’t have formally chartered projects, and don’t have report-outs? Would that be called Stealth-DMAIC?

  5. Mike Carnell


    I don’t think the infrastructure precludes the small business but I think it changes the way you build that infrastructure. The whole thing is scalable. First I think most large deployments have to many BB’s to begin with. We broke even at 6 months on the Lonmin deployment and netted 206,000,000 rand in year one (about $32,000,000) with 23 BB’s and about $108,000,000 in year one at the previous deploymet with 36 BB’s. A smaller company needs less. If you have less then you need less infrastructure.

    Normally I have a full time Benefits Capture Manager (not a Cost Savings Manager) on a larger deployment who does financial modeling on all projects. A smaller deployment would not have a full time person but whoever that person was would have to understand what is needed and their rewards and reconition system would have to be adjusted to make it a priority.

    Change Management should be easier in a smaller company simply because it should be easier to communicate. So there are lots of things that are easily scaleable.

    The issue we have seem in smaller companies is that the culture can be more difficult to move. It has been them against the world for survival for so long that if they decide no to move they don’t move. For us it is finding those informal leaders in a smaller company and getting them involved in the design.

    We always hear about the cost of SS. If you do the ROI calculation – not as a driver but as a business metric – cost issues go away. Regards

  6. Robin Barnwell

    Mike / Sue

    Thanks for this feedback.

    It would appear from your comments that the minimum Lean Sigma product is more than the tools & techniques and must include items such as supporting infrastructure, training, sponsorship and governance processes.

    So the opportunity to scale it down to fit a small business budget seems limited unless the individuals involved are highly motivated.

    I found this useful as I spent the majority of my early career in small business and am familiar with the constant fire fighting, excessively long hours and need to cover multiple job-roles simultaneously. Would I have considered the Lean Six Sigma approach in the constant need to just do it? Probably not.


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