3 Lessons for Sustaining Changes in the Control Phase

3 Lessons for Sustaining Changes in the Control Phase

Have you ever completed a DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) project only to discover that months or years down the road performance has eroded and the gains from the work were not sustained? Or perhaps you have been in a situation where you were asked to take on a project that has had a few cycles of improvement work that have not been sustained?

Years ago I was in the second situation – asked to lead a large improvement initiative that had two previous improvement cycles that achieved gains that were not sustained. I was encouraged to meet with the people who had led the two previous improvement cycles to learn more and plan to re-kick off the initiative. At the top of my list of what I was interested in learning about from the previous project leads was what their approach had been to managing Control and their perspective on why the improvements were not sustained.

In discussion with the previous project leaders, I learned that they had involved the appropriate stakeholders in the work, done robust voice of the customer work and data analysis, dug into root causes, and developed and piloted a number of promising solutions to the problem. Their work had led to improvements and they lamented the fact that those improvements had not been sustained. But they did not have a clear understanding of why they had not been sustained. I knew I had my work cut out for me and that I wanted to be the last improvement leader to work on this initiative.

My work (or technically rework) on this project led me to learn much about the complexity of what I now think of as the “people side” of the Control phase. Below are some of my lessons learned that I continue to reflect on and pull from to inform my work in the Control phase of projects.

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1. A Great Solution to a Problem Is Only One Piece of the Equation.

I had exposure to GE’s Change Acceleration Process when I went through Green Belt training early in my career. Working on the third iteration of the project I mentioned above brought the Change Effectiveness Equation to life. This is represented with equation Q x A = E, where Q represents the quality of the technical work, A represents the acceptance of the change and E is the effective results.1

As an improvement leader it is critical to focus not only on working with project teams to identify a high-quality solution to a problem, but also to address the change management aspects of preparing teams for a change. With this equation, you can see what happens to the effectiveness of the results when your acceptance is low. For example, if Q = 100 and A = 0, then 100 x 0 = 0!

2. Development and Implementation of Standard Work Is Just the Beginning.

Implementation of new standard work is part of an effective Control phase. Standard work needs to be communicated effectively and staff must be provided with ample opportunities for training on the new standard work. A good rule of thumb is to tailor your communications and training approach based on how much someone’s day-to-day tasks are impacted by the new standard work. When thinking about instructors for your training approach, your improvement team members can be a great resource as they are well informed about the project and can share first-hand experience about the improvement journey the team has been on.2

In order for new standard work to be successful, it needs to be implemented in an environment where there is strong leadership support for standard work and a continuous improvement culture. Having systems and structures in place to support that ongoing feedback loop between leaders and staff on standard work is an important part of the sustaining of the improvements. This can take the form of standard work audits or structured mentoring, for example, to promote ongoing support for staff education on the standard work and drive accountability.3

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3. Control and Close Are Very Different Words When It Comes to Projects.

Moving into the Control phase of a project should not mean no one is still focusing on it. When a project is moving into the Control phase in the DMAIC process this does not mean it is “closed.” DMAIC projects are strategic organizational initiatives and moving into the Control phase involves ongoing monitoring and defined accountability for sustained performance.

Control plan templates have some variation in format based on organizational preferences but in general, there are two main sets of information provided.

  1. Details about what key performance indicators (KPIs) will be tracked and how
  2. Details who will be accountable for analyzing, monitoring and acting on the performance data. A “a well-defined control plan allows” you “to quickly and easily address slips in organizational performance”4

The Control phase represents a key handoff point between the improvement leader and the process owner. The process owner needs to be involved in the development of the KPIs and control plan to set the Control phase of the project up for success.


  1. Polk JD. (2011). Lean six sigma, innovation, and the change acceleration process can work together. Physician Executive, 37(1), 38-42. Accessed March 2021.
  2. Potter D, Szalay Batulis, N. (2019) Lean Six Sigma Guide for Improving Healthcare. Mindstir Media.
  3. Boettcher PA, Hunter RB and McGonagle P. (2019). Using lean principles of standard work to improve clinical nursing performance. Nursing Economics, 37(3), 152-158,163. Accessed March 2021.
  4. Murphree P, Vath RR, Daigle L. Sustaining lean six sigma projects in health care. Physician Executive, 37(1), 44-48. Accessed March 2021.

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