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Managing the Executives for Lean Six Sigma Success

Being at the focal point in the cultural migration of executing change using Lean Six Sigma, deployment leaders/deployment Champions have many obstacles and opportunities to deal with. Strange as it might seem, the people who may be pushing the hardest for the results inherent in Lean Six Sigma deployments are the same ones who can wind up becoming the biggest obstacle to success – executive managers in a company. They are the ones who define the end game, but rarely are able to define the detailed steps to get there. Or, at minimum, they think they understand what it takes, but do not have the time or the inclination to understand Lean Six Sigma enough to know how to support it and how they will actually need to change habits for it to be successful.

Deployment leaders, who are responsible for the day-to-day management of Lean Six Sigma throughout the entire organization, report directly to a senior executive, maybe even the CEO. At a minimum, they report to the director of quality, or an executive steering committee. They can be between a rock and a hard place – between the politics of the organization and the projects required to make the dramatic process improvement only Lean Six Sigma can deliver. And, politics and projects just do not always mix.

In theory, deployment leaders use data to choose projects and create an objective decision-making process in a world in which executives generally have been rewarded for putting out fires rather than systematically improving processes.

An executive with a little knowledge of Lean Six Sigma can be more dangerous than an executive who admits knowing nothing about the methodology. A deployment leader may hear, “Hey, I want my project done using Lean Six Sigma; let’s skip the calculator thing.” Or, “Why waste time building an infrastructure and collecting data. Let’s just do one of those Kaizen things. It’s faster.” If an executive sponsor is not managed properly, he or she – without knowing it – can destroy many weeks of good work at the very first tollgate meeting. Another example is when a key Black Belt project is torpedoed after many weeks of collecting statistically sound voice of the customer data. The executive sponsor can kill the initiative with these simple words, “I know the customer better than the data does…and that’s not what the customer is telling us!”

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Of course, these examples may fall on the far side of the spectrum; but nevertheless, if executive sponsors are not managed properly during the roll-out of a new Lean Six Sigma program, the results can be most difficult to overcome. On the other hand, well-managed, properly educated and enthusiastic sponsors are a key to Six Sigma success. So how do deployment leaders make the executive sponsors catalysts of success and not impediments to it. Here are a few steps to consider:

Provide Executive Sponsors with Reading Materials on Lean Six Sigma

Giving executive sponsors a 300-page book on all the statistics and tools involved in the DMAIC toolkit is probably not a good idea. But, there are several good books that are geared specifically to the executive sponsor which can be read in a couple of hours. These books go over the high-level aspects of DMAIC, Lean and Six Sigma and the role of the executive sponsor.

Survey Executives on Their Basic Knowledge of Lean and Six Sigma

A simple survey to give to executive sponsors to ascertain the level of their Six Sigma knowledge can be put together quickly, and the information collected can be invaluable. Ultimately, it is critical that deployment leaders are aware of each executive sponsor’s understanding of Lean Six Sigma. Here are 10 multiple-choice questions designed to use for surveying executive sponsors:

1. What is Six Sigma?
a. a technique to develop business strategy
b. a management style
c. a process improvement methodology

2. What does sigma stand for?
a. speed
b. variety
c. variation

3. Six Sigma originally addressed which business environment?
a. management
b. product development
c. finance
d. sales and marketing
e. production

4. What is the difference between Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma?
a. Lean Six Sigma is less complicated/rigorous version of Six Sigma
b. Lean Six Sigma means fewer people involved in the program
c. Lean Six Sigma focuses on customer requirements and removes process waste

6. What is the primary focus of Lean Six Sigma?
a. profit improvement by improving quality
b. profit improvement by improving process speed
c. profit improvement by improving quality and process speed

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7. What do Six Sigma terms like Black Belt and Green Belt describe?
a. a Six Sigma area of specialization by a consultant
b. the management level that must be involved in a project
c. roles within a Six Sigma deployment

8. Is Six Sigma Total Quality Management (TQM) under a different name?
a. yes, it is an early version of Six Sigma
b. no, it is not the same as TQM
c. it depends on what country you are in

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9. What is a Kaizen event?
a. an activity that causes an incidental problem
b. an activity that causes a recurrent problem
c. an activity that enables continuous improvement

10. What does the acronym DMAIC stand for?
a. Diagnose Manage Authorize Isolate Consolidate
b. Digitize Manage Apply Inform Consolidate
c. Define Measure Analyze Improve Control

Know Executives and Their Business Via Informal Interview

The way to get executive sponsors most engaged is to demonstrate knowledge of Lean Six Sigma and of the executive sponsors’ business and personal history. Read any available information on executive sponsors such as company biographies. Understand the performance goals of the sponsors to get them on board. Do this in preparation for an informal interview that may include the following kinds of questions:

  • How many services does your business unit offer?
  • Who is your customer?
  • Have you participated in a quality program in the past?
  • What is your business model and customer strategy?
  • Do you do customer surveys?
  • Do you use service level agreements?
  • What are the key measurements of success for your business unit?
  • Why do you think Lean Six Sigma works for you? Why not?

Get Executive Sponsors to Understand Their Roles in Lean Six Sigma

It is critical that executive sponsors understand their role in a Lean Six Sigma deployment. They are responsible for creating the vision for the Lean Six Sigma initiative – a vision that is maintained within the context of establishing business targets and strategic goals and measures. Ultimately they create the environment within the organization that promotes the use of Lean Six Sigma tools and methods. One of the best ways to do this is to have executive sponsors participate in a one- or two-day workshop to introduce them, as a team, to more detail about Six Sigma and their roles. An effective workshop might include a high-level overview of DMAIC, Lean and Six Sigma followed by facilitated discussions around deliverables and concerns idiosyncratic to the company’s culture. Many workshops also include interactive simulations that expose executives to Lean Six Sigma concepts in a realistic fashion.

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Create a Communication Plan and Leverage Executives’ Strengths

Developing a holistic communication plan around Six Sigma is critical to the overall success of any deployment. Specifically, design a plan that leverages the executive sponsors so they are key elements of the communications. Design a one-minute description of what Lean Six Sigma means to the company – what some call an “elevator speech” – and provide it to the executives. This description can be used by executives when an associate or executive from another company asks them about Six Sigma. Executives also could be asked to talk about the deployment at key employee awareness meetings.

Document the Commitment and Understanding of Executive Sponsors

In the long run, a key to the success of a deployment leader is dependent on “real” sponsorship by executives and not just “perceptual” sponsorship. This means that the executive sponsors are really on board and supportive and not just saying the right things and going through the motions. Plot each executive on a commitment curve which graphically represents his or her knowledge and commitment. Understanding “hot buttons” and the true feelings of the executive sponsors about the program is critical to successfully dealing with each sponsor as an individual contributor or an impediment.

In the end, the successful deployment is the one in which executive sponsors play their role with knowledge and passion. While politics always play some part in any deployment, negatives can be mitigated and the positives maximized. Deployment leaders must not only manage Green Belts, Black Belts and projects, they have to manage the executives – while allowing the executives to think that they are the ones doing the managing.

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