Change agents involved in an effort to introduce Lean Six Sigma into an organization go through a honeymoon stage where there is consensus on the following:

  • There is a need to become a quality-focused organization.
  • The Six Sigma path to quality is all about customers’ needs and expectations.
  • Decisions should be based on data.
  • This will be a continuous learning-doing-improving cycle.
  • Quality is the goal.

What cannot always be agreed upon – and in numerous occasions is not even asked out loud – is an honest assessment of the organization’s maturity in the continuous improvement process and its readiness for adopting a Lean Six Sigma culture. In order to meet the expectations and requirements of the internal organization, those leading the deployment must mind their “Ps,” answering two fundamental questions:

Will Lean Six Sigma be rolled out through a push approach or a pull approach?

And, in order to help make that decision in an objective fashion:

How is the company positioned on the quality learning curve in terms of culture and infrastructure?

At a recent Lean Six Sigma roundtable in New York, Michael Fischbach, senior vice president from Bank One, presented the concept of the Continuous Improvement Maturity Assessment Model (see figure below). Fischbach’s premise – based on more than 15 years of experience in the change management and continuous improvement fields – is that not all environments are ready for a wide-scale rollout of Lean Six Sigma. Specifically, services organizations and financial services in particular, need to understand where they fall on the readiness continuum before choosing an approach to incorporating Lean Six Sigma into their environments. Although a global rollout across all functional processes and platforms is ultimately the approach with the biggest return, a pilot project is a viable precursor to a broader implementation.

Position on Learning Curve Indicates Readiness for Lean Six Sigma
Position on Learning Curve Indicates Readiness for Lean Six Sigma

Finding an organization’s place on the assessment curve is as much a political act and art as it is an objective process. However, Fischbach believes that – at minimum – to demonstrate an organizational grasp of continuous improvement basics, a company should already be utilizing or be knowledgeable of the following:

  • Metrics
  • Scorecards
  • Business reviews
  • Simple problem solving
  • Voice of the Customer (customer data available)

In addition, there may be other elements to consider as an organization does a gut-check of where it falls on its commitment to quality and its readiness for Six Sigma on a grand scale. Examples may be:

  • Quality standards such as participation in TQM, Baldrige, ISO 9000
  • Strategic plans that link to projects, quality functions, mission statements
  • Customer satisfaction programs, segmentation, retention programs
  • Project management methodology, planning, implementation, project office
  • Continuous improvement programs, cost of quality, process mapping
  • Human resource programs, leadership development, teams formation
  • Training that includes quality, facilitation, feedback

Understanding an organization’s position on all of the elements above will help senior management objectively determine whether it is just starting on its way to establishing a quality-friendly environment, whether it has already developed the capability to execute in a quality fashion, or whether it has achieved quality as a way of life.

Pull Approach Versus the Push Approach

If the company is in the early stages of the process, it makes sense to utilize a pull approach for the introduction of Lean Six Sigma and pilot a project in the area of true need. This pilot project approach, coupled with high support from the management group, leads to a high probability of success. The key is to make a true commitment to execution in order to demonstrate success in terms of payback and speed. This is the catalyst that will create interest and the pull for more Six Sigma projects in the organization.

If, on the other hand, the assessment of the organization shows that it is much further down the path of quality, then a larger-scale rollout is less risky and will have greater payback in a shorter period of time.

Here is a synopsis of push and pull approaches with pros and cons.

Approach What Is it? Pros and Cons
Push + Management believes that Lean Six Sigma will fundamentally transform the way company does business
+ Management is ready to make the rollout the single most critical imperative for the company
+ Management is committed to achieve “full deployment” in 6 to 12 months (Full deployment = 1%+ of employees as Black Belts)
+ Overwhelms organizational opposition
+ Largest mass generates largest results and momentum
+ Highest ROI from economies of scale on cost and acceleration of benefits

+ Requires intense top level headroom and commitment
+ Requires intense planning effort upfront

Pull + Typical commitment is to only one or two waves (25 to 50 Black Belts and 5 to 10 Champions)
+ Typically no major impact to broader organization; may be large impact if focused in just one or two business units
+ Pilots used as test cases for decision on further deployment and through success create interest from broader organization
+ Low total cost
+ Exposure to other organizations’ application of process
+ Good approach if “experimentation” is a key objective

+ Smaller business impact
+ Higher risk of rejection because organization may not think management is serious
+ Sample size may be too small to validate approach

Regardless of the approach, the following principles need to be at work for a small- or a large-scale deployment of Lean Six Sigma:

  • Management engagement
  • Dedicated and well-respected deployment Champion
  • Accountability for project results
  • Dedicated resources
  • Black Belts with leadership and process skills
  • Value-based project selection
  • Recognition of the history and culture of the organization

Getting agreement on what is being sought is easy. The q everyone is striving for is quality. Quality can be thought of as the ability to deliver products and services that fulfill or exceed the requirements or expectations of all stakeholders. Bottom line, quality is primarily about getting the right answer for the ultimate customer. But, by saying “all stakeholders,” it is important to realize that change must move through the halls and corridors of the organization (associates, internal customers, management and culture) before there can be any delivery to the streets upon which the final customers reside.

In other words, the company must meet the expectations and requirements internally, before it can deliver the right answers externally. To do that, the organization needs to mind its p’s (understand its position on the curve, push or pull) to get the q (quality).

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