Every Six Sigma project and Lean event goes exactly as planned right?

There are many reasons for detours during your project journey; unfortunately, many of these are unpredictable. As much as we try to avoid these pitfalls by following established methodologies or hiring experienced project management personnel, it remains clear that some of the best lessons are the ones we have to learn the hard way.

One of those hard lessons was experienced by our company: learning how important trust is to establishing culture, changing mindsets and achieving true implementation – from picking the team members to beyond.

Lean Project – Standard Work

The value of trust was perfectly demonstrated in a Lean deployment project to rollout Standard Work (SW) for a key manufacturing process. The intent was to replace our existing standard operating procedure with a SW document to reduce variability, eliminate waste and provide a foundation for further improvement. The proposal sounded good to everyone on the management team and it was agreed that a SW document would be rolled out for the key manufacturing process within 30 days.

Now let us fast forward 11 months, where the SW for the process finally gets implemented (correctly)! The details that follow are from the project team’s debriefing sessions, as we determined the causes for the extreme delay. I find the documenting of our findings to be therapeutic. It occurred to me that others must have experienced similar issues and that perhaps the reading of this piece will serve as the basis for some group therapy!

The Project Begins

At the time of the project launch, the Production Manager was the most knowledgeable team member about the process under question, from historical and technical perspectives. He also had a good understanding of the capabilities of his department staff – a dozen operators on four separate teams who worked on alternating shifts. All scheduling and updates were coordinated and approved by the Manager, making him a true Process Owner from a project definition perspective.

When the project team was assembled, the Production Manager was an easy choice to be the Process Owner. As taught in project management and implementation best practices: “If you don’t have the Process Owner on board, you don’t have anything.” After getting buy-in from the Production Manager, the remainder of the project team was assembled from key representatives from aligned departments. The users (operators) also were selected to participate on the team.

Excluding Key Stakeholders

Although the Production Manager was on board with the project, he was adamantly opposed to including the operators on the team. His proposed approach was to take care of establishing the SW procedure himself and then roll out the document to the operators. He assumed that bringing the operators into the process would complicate matters by creating confusion with the added opinions and preferences. The rest of the project team believed that engaging the operators, understanding their needs, extracting their ideas and facilitating the approach to consistency were the way to gain the support of the users – key stakeholders in the process. The Production Manager instead believed that the users would adopt the new SW approach through deployment and training. 

The project team members realized that in order for this project to progress, we needed to yield to the Production Manager’s plan. It was clear that if the team attempted to bring the operators in, the Production Manager would follow his original plan. Although there was commitment to the project on the surface, the Production Manager’s approach was a roadblock for “true” implementation.

Team Member Roadblock

The Production Manager in this example represents a personality that is sometimes encountered on project teams – someone who requires a level of control, involvement and acknowledgment in order to provide their full support. As most project teams (and people in general) tend to try to avoid conflict, we have a tendency to make some provisions when it comes to projects associated with this personality type. It is easy to deviate from best practices to ensure you maintain buy-in from important players – in this case, the Process Owner.

If this personality type is a common fixture in your organization, especially in a position of responsibility and influence, the team will work around them (sometimes without even thinking about it). A project team is likely to direct resources to less important projects to make progress of any kind. That progress will also result in the built-in excuse to yield to the roadblock, in order to gain some improvement in that area, which is (arguably) better than no improvement and a destroyed relationship with the roadblock!

With all of that being considered (even if unconsciously), the project team stepped back and allowed the Production Manager to run with his plan. A few weeks later, a first draft of the SW was presented in which he selected the “best way” to execute the process steps. The immediate response of the project team was to question the “best way” and how he planned to ensure that the operators would follow the SW. The Production Manager believed that his experience with the process established the best practices and that implementation would be accomplished with a combination of training, auditing and constant reinforcement.

Limited Implementation

The rest of the project team was skeptical, but the Production Manager was determined to stay the course and the new SW document was rolled out to the operators. The response was lukewarm, especially by those who were forced to change their actions. There was resistance to some of the changes and to the way in which the changes were rolled out. It also was unclear to many operators what the SW process was intended for; as such, many reverted back to their own processes and techniques. After months of unsuccessful re-training exercises and follow up, it was clear that successful implementation had not been achieved.

A Reorganized Project Team

Amidst this patching process, an unexpected change in the organizational structure occurred – the Production Manager departed the organization. The immediate impact to the business was the need to fill extensive areas of responsibility. After that, relevant projects were resumed. In this case of Standard Work, the project team took the opportunity to re-start, both out of necessity due to the loss of the project lead and due to the lack of progress made.

The project team regrouped and devised a new approach that above all else would be based on the needs of the users – communicated through their direct input and active participation in the project team. Although the loss of a key position from the organization is a difficult scenario, in this instance the team identified the opportunity to change the culture in the Production department by engaging the operators from the start.

As the process, responsibilities and expectations of the Production department were re-established, it become clear that the operators were on board and appreciative of the opportunity to be involved in the process. As we progressed, the team members were open and eager to work together. The results were a striking contrast to the first implementation attempt; the second revision of the Standard Work was released in only one month. The results were a much less variable process and all operators were committed to the improvement initiative in a controlled manner.

Obvious Missteps?

It took a while for me to work up the courage to write this case study. In a way, it feels like admitting failure or gross negligence. They seem like obvious missteps. Shouldn’t I know better as a process improvement leader, Black Belt and operational excellence manager? Why did we deviate from tried and true process improvement techniques and cater to the roadblock? (It is one thing to address these issues internally, but another to broadcast your folly for the entire process improvement community to vilify!)

When it comes to process improvement in many companies, there is a lot of weight placed on “hitting the numbers.”  Achieving a bottom line dollar amount or minimum implementation level may drive the entire strategy of a business. Combine the desire to hit the targets with the tendency to avoid conflict and it is easy to see why it is easy to work around a roadblock in order to achieve some progress (even if it is just on paper and not “true” implementation).

Minimize Sacrifice

In hindsight, it makes sense to me why we continued to make concessions. It was a balance of keeping one project moving forward (striving toward that target) while delicately maintaining the relationship with a key personality within the company, who could easily become a roadblock in all other projects related to his department. But while everyone’s eyes were on the prize (year-end objectives), we did not realize what we were sacrificing. Not involving the actual users jeopardized our chances of ever achieving implementation and culture change. In this case, a unique window of opportunity presented itself, and the project team took that chance to rebuild the project approach. Only at this stage did the users feel comfortable enough to contribute. 

I am not suggesting that you simply wait for your roadblocks to move on (or force them out). That presents an extreme end of the spectrum and it is a difficult process. But you need to become proficient at removing roadblocks, whether it is targeting the what’s-in-it-for-me factor or implementing an effective change leadership approach. Awareness and education need to be built into your strategy of company objectives and project management. Don’t forget that the people in your company are your strengths and should be utilized; process improvement skills cannot be limited to just your Black Belt or Lean Master. For effective change, you need the full team engaged, from management to the process users. Many companies appear to have strong management commitment in general (saying all the right things), which is essential in facilitating effective implementation. But in many of those same organizations you may find that those individuals are not all “truly” committed to the same process. Such individuals might be more difficult to get on board, no matter how persuasive, crafty and convincing your change leaders are.

Success Goes Hand-in-hand with Implementation

It would have been easy for us to say that we accomplished our goal after we rolled out that first Standard Work revision. But it was clear that we had not achieved true implementation; the SW was not accepted, understood and owned by the manufacturing personnel. The opportunity to achieve that could only be gained from working around a roadblock. The resulting collaborative energy led to great strides in productivity, waste reduction and innovation. When the users are engaged in the process, true implementation can be achieved.

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