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A New Year Parable: Six Sigma and the Three Bears, Inc.

 

In a recent engagement with Three Bears, Inc., a Six Sigma consulting company had the opportunity to work with Six Sigma deployment leaders in several business units of this large multi-national organization. A quick review of several of these experiences illustrates some of the issues commonly encountered in trying to get the porridge “just right.”

The Porridge Is Too Cold

Mama Bear, the deployment leader in the consumer products unit, liked her porridge “fast.” In fact, Mama Bear usually prefered to eat her porridge before it is cooked. Her deployment effort had been under way for about a year, and had caused a lot of grumbling and growling from the neighborhood bears because they did not like uncooked porridge (lots of unfocused activity). They preferred well-cooked outcomes (real demonstrated benefits). So, the Bears executive committee decided it just was not going to put up with it any more, and insisted the deployment team make a plan for a hot breakfast.

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As all good planning processes do, the planning process began by developing a list of all the things necessary to prepare a hot breakfast (a work breakdown structure). There were several sub-teams – one to procure the ingredients (define objectives and select projects), one to do the cooking (execute the selected projects), one to set the table (address change management issues) and one to do the serving (evaluate benefits realized). Each group was asked to develop their own to-do list and estimate the time and effort required for each item on the list.

The first thing on the list prepared by the ingredients team was to conduct a survey of all the bears to determine what they wanted for breakfast. There were rumors that not every bear would be satisfied with porridge. Since all of the bears travel a lot and go to meetings all the time, the team thought this survey would probably require about six weeks. When Mama Bear heard about this she started tearing her fur and demanding honey. It was an ugly sight.

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The planning process required six weeks and concluded hot breakfast could be served next March. Mama Bear was definitely not pleased. It was suspected that maybe the other bears would not be too happy either, since they had made it clear they wanted at least one hot breakfast before hibernation. This is not a unique situtation…in the rush to execute projects it is easy to forget to make sure everyone is aligned on desired outcomes – confusing activity with progress.

After three weeks of intense debate, several visits with the Bears executive committee, and untold quantities of honey, everyone finally agreed to breakfast for all of the bears on a certain day two months hence. Porridge was to be served hot. Mama Bear was to get a special bowl – uncooked, just the way she liked it.

The Porridge Is Too Hot

Papa Bear (no relation) is the deployment leader appointed by the head IT bear. Papa was a different kind of bear. He was careful, thorough, grizzled, and he smoked a pipe. Altogether, a very considered sort of bear. Papa liked his porridge well done.

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Papa’s deployment was the first undertaken by the Bears IT group, and everyone agreed it was key to competing successfully against the Big Bad Wolf. Papa was appointed quite recently to try to get this deployment moving after several false starts. Papa and his team recruited the project management office to help them put together a plan and a budget.

They started, as did Mama’s unit, by putting together a work breakdown structure. This is really Papa’s cup of tea. Rather than argue that the teams have put in extra stuff, Papa is far more concerned they may have left something out. Perhaps off-the-shelf stoves really do not put out enough heat for Bears fine breakfast – maybe the company needs to design one to suit its own specific needs.

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If the company wants to be really sure it has got the right menu, Papa Bear suggested, maybe focus groups and in-depth interviews would be wiser than just a casual survey. And, of course, Papa was sure a quality assurance process was needed to confirm the quality of the ingredients, the preparation and the service.

To make a long story short, Papa’s team produced a plan containing 5,000 items in the work breakdown structure. About 1,000 of these items were concerned with planning the new kitchen in which breakfast will be cooked, and a new dining hall in which it will be served.

The bears may be a little hungry by the time breakfast is ready, but this will be absolutely the best breakfast any bear ever had. And it will definitely be served hot.

The Porridge Is Just Right

Baby Bear, a brash and bumptious youngster, took a somewhat different approach to all of this. Before the work breakdown structure was developed, Baby arranged a meeting with the steering committee. They worked out an agreement about the menu, determined who would be served, and decided that the preparing and serving would use existing facilities. They also agreed that something hot must be provided before hibernation.

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Baby Bear started the planning process by getting the entire team together and informing them of the results of her meeting with the execu-bears. One of the team wanted to know if they should include the cinnamon option, since the engineer bears are very picky. After some discussion it was agreed that the cinnamon option would be included in the spring meal.

So, the Baby Bear team put together its plan in about a week and agreed to serve basic breakfast beginning three weeks later. It is amazing what can be done when everyone gets his tummy rubbed.

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