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What is program leadership for the Lean Six Sigma professional?

In my prior post, I introduced the concept of program leadership in the Lean Six Sigma context and articulated the value that I saw as part of the process of certifying Master Black Belts. Based on some of themes that emerged in correspondence, I thought it might be beneficial to articulate a few more thoughts on the difference between our traditional process improvement projects and some of the potential goals that could be achieved through a programmatic approach.

While projects are typically smaller in scope, the goal of a program in a Lean Six Sigma context is typically to move a metric that is critical to the customer experience or to a critical cost driver. These programs are typically associated with a key strategic objective for a business unit or organization (e.g. a business could focus on the top 3-4 key programs to move the needle in a given year) and have an intent to provide broader transformational change, thereby enabling strategy. Unlike projects which will typically last under 6 months and carry small execution risk, these programs are usually higher risk and higher visibility and could last over a year and include multiple sub-projects.

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The role of a Master Black Belt in such a context differs greatly from that of a project manager in that the focus is typically outwardly focused (on context), with a greater emphasis on ambiguity and the strategic context in ensuring that the right portfolio of projects are incorporated to drive material strategic shifts. Unlike projects which will typically be led by a Champion, governance typically will play a greater role in ensuring successful outcomes. The primary outcome of a program is to move the needle on a critical metric or business driver for a business unit or organization.

I’m not advocating that programs should take away from a focus on project execution but do think that a blend of programs as part of an overall deployment will greatly help ensuring strategic alignment and focus while demonstrating broader business value.

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A few examples of where programs could bring strong business value:

  • In a complex call center handling multiple streams of calls, the goal could to increase first call resolution. This would likely involve multiple projects after a thorough assessment of the key drivers of call transfers. Each one of these would be prioritized streams and projects within the overall umbrella program.
  • In an investment bank, the goal could be to improve overnight funding processes. Separate projects could address funding improvements for different lines of businesses which would have different forecasting processes as well as projects to improve overall funding processes facing the street and projects that could potentially optimize the blend of funding sources.
  • In a supply chain where the goal would be to improve the “on-time arrival” of supplies within 1-hour committed time slot to maximize loading docks, there could be multiple projects to address different root causes of delays, improve the overall dispatch process and perhaps other improvement projects within the warehouses.
  • Finally, within a manufacturing context, the goal could be to improve the overall performance of a critical customer metric (i.e. how to decreasing in-flight shut-downs of aircraft engines) which could be enabled through a portfolio of different projects addressing key root causes and areas of focus.
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Based on examples that I’ve seen over the years, such programs typically start with a discovery phase where the problem is understood, measured and analyzed at the surface (fairly similar to DMA phases in a Six Sigma project). Once key root causes are identified, projects are then identified and prioritized (success is often measured by whether these projects can be kicked-off within weeks of the start of the initial discovery phase) while overall program governance has been defined. The portfolio of Lean Six Sigma projects will typically be iteratively kicked-off based on the prioritization model. Occasionally, further refinements to the analysis of key drivers for the “Big Y” metric may iteratively take place in parallel with project execution which will collectively inform the overall program direction.

I welcome your thoughts and ideas around the theme of programs within the Lean Six Sigma space. Have you experienced or seen other programs that have yielded tangible business benefit?

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