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Lean Six Sigma Can Serve as a Change Management Tool

Yes, it is true. Lean Six Sigma drives change in an organization. It inspires people to look at their processes differently – through the data-savvy lens of waste awareness – and to discover, characterize and control their processes. In so doing, this behavior drives process improvements, which often require changes to be communicated, deployed and managed.

But Lean Six Sigma also is, in and of itself, a change management tool that will facilitate the changes that it requires, as well as those of other change initiatives in an organization. As such, even the deployment of Six Sigma enables, rather than impedes, simultaneous change initiatives.

The Benefits of Being Prepared to Change

I once worked with an organization that was deploying Lean Six Sigma in some processes, but not others. The processes that used Six Sigma as part of their management system managed projects, documented savings, documented controls, and used a backlog of project opportunities to create budget targets and objectives for their annual operating plan. The processes that did not use Lean Six Sigma instituted some continuous improvement tools, but did not manage their systems with data to the same extent.

This same organization was also attempting to institute self-directed work teams, which are teams of people whose functional role is to work together to achieve a common goal and who require a minimal amount of supervision because of their organization and self-accountability. These teams were a large cultural change for the organization because they were transitioning from a traditional supervisor-technician hierarchical approach. The change required employees to embrace new responsibilities as they adopted a completely different approach to the way they did work.

As many might have guessed, the Lean Six Sigma part of the business was much more effective at converting to the new management culture than the non-Lean Six Sigma areas. Lean Six Sigma had prepared that part of the organization for the changes. For example, because operational technicians, who make up the primary group impacted by the self-directed work teams had gained some ability to communicate in terms of data and understanding processes in a y = f(x) context, they quickly understood the vision of self-directed work teams as they embraced the changes necessary to achieve that vision. While they accepted that there would be discomfort in dealing with the “new frontier,” the operational technicians also recognized that the empowerment that results from the self-directed work team approach would make their jobs much more enriching. Furthermore, the fact that they had already been involved in Lean Six Sigma projects and were important contributors to these improvement projects in the past prepared the technicians for continual positive change as an input to success.

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This was in stark contrast to the non-Lean Six Sigma part of the organization, which relentlessly resisted the move and experienced a much more difficult transition. An inherent failure to understand the cause-and-effect relationship between key process inputs and outputs inhibited the ability of the employees to see the benefits of self-directed work teams. In addition, the employees had found a comfort zone in their current work practices, which had rarely, if ever, been challenged by opportunities to change for the better. Their natural response to mandates to improve performance had always been to work harder or wait for management to install new technology, not to participate in the identification and control of root causes, which would fundamentally change the way they did their jobs. That culture bred resistance to any change involving management and accountability structures, and ultimately prompted union actions as a response to the self-directed work team initiative. Eventually, the issues were resolved and the new management structure was instituted, but not without considerable time and effort expended by both management and labor groups. In the end, the self-directed work team system was implemented in the Lean Six Sigma areas of the organization in nine months, whereas the non-Lean Six Sigma areas required three years of change-management effort.

At a different company, in a similar situation with Lean Six Sigma versus non-Lean Six Sigma functions in the same organization, a management information system tool was installed across the entire organization. The new system forced the organization to embrace a new level of discipline in their processes. The people in the Lean Six Sigma areas were prepared – even eager – to accept the new discipline for the benefit of better information with which to manage and improve their processes. In addition, they understood their processes and the critical inputs, and could realize the “future state.” The employees in the non-Lean Six Sigma areas, however, did not see a use for the proposed benefits of the system and consequently resisted efforts to change their processes.

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These differences were ultimately reflected in the amount of consulting time and effort spent to implement the information system tool in the two parts of the organization with similar size and complexity. The Lean Six Sigma areas accounted for approximately one-third of the project cost required to implement the change in the non-Lean Six Sigma areas.

Creating a Culture for Change

In fairness to both of these examples, a considerable part of the difference observed was due to the fact that more enlightened management teams in the Lean Six Sigma areas were more effective at understanding sources of resistance and communicating visions in their respective areas of authority. A person could challenge the conclusions above with a chicken-and-egg argument, suggesting that the management culture was the primary driver of the relative success, not Lean Six Sigma. While that is a valid notion, the fact remains that regardless of the management culture, Lean Six Sigma, as a tool, at least played an important role in facilitating the changes.

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These examples make the contribution of Lean Six Sigma to unrelated organizational changes nearly self evident because of the way the methodology changes peoples’ view of how work is done. Of course, like any methodology, Lean Six Sigma can be ineffectively deployed, undermining the expected organizational benefits of the initiative. But an effectively deployed Lean Six Sigma initiative will create:

  • A process view of the organization, through which the relationships between critical inputs and performance metrics are understood. That enables managers to communicate a vision where a future state is achieved via process redesign or changes to process inputs.
  • The ability to speak with facts and data, thereby mitigating the negative impact of opinions and personal agendas.
  • A team-based problem-solving culture, which empowers employees to make improvement through process changes. That approach helps employees realize that change must become a norm if the organization is to continuously improve and also instills personal pride in performance excellence.
  • A discipline that compels decision-makers to consider the quality of input data and the risks of different conclusions (if not analytically, then at least intuitively). Such rigor tends to lend credence to the decisions, especially when the organization is familiar with the language used to describe the decision-making process.
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These are all inherent characteristics or outcomes of a robust Lean Six Sigma culture, and they are recursive, insofar as they facilitate the changes necessary for the implementation of Lean Six Sigma itself. Therefore, Lean Six Sigma represents both change and a tool for change as it supports the deployment of other initiatives.

Lean Six Sigma Serves More Than One Purpose

Taken to its conclusion, this logic naturally refutes one of the most common arguments made by management against the deployment of Lean Six Sigma: “We don’t have time or resource capacity for this, we have too many other critical initiatives.” True, there often are too many initiatives and priorities, but when Lean Six Sigma is seen in light of its true impact on the culture of the organization, then it becomes a vehicle that facilitates the deployment of other initiatives.

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