Leaders need to take charge of identifying projects, determining the business case, defining the scope, establishing the goals and estimating the project timeline. This helps to ensure that projects are truly strategically important to the business.

By Jack Norwood

The Lean Six Sigma methodology has a well-deserved reputation for getting successful process improvement results in a wide variety of organizations. But not all organizations have the same positive experience. Why do some do so well with Lean Six Sigma implementations and others have less satisfactory results? Leadership is often a key difference between the two scenarios.

Losing Leadership Focus

When implementing anything new in an organization, there is a higher degree of success when employees are engaged and take ownership. Lean Six Sigma is no exception. To be successful, all levels of the organization must be involved – from senior management to front-line employees. For leaders, including those who will be project Champions, this means completing more than simply two or three days of Lean Six Sigma training.

Champions are expected to identify projects and provide ongoing support for Black Belts and their projects. If a Champion’s only background is a short, introductory training session, it can spell disaster for a deployment. When leadership does not have a strong presence in the program, the responsibility for Lean Six Sigma is then handed off to the Black Belts. In these cases, leaders may understand the general theme of a project, but not the true project definition. Responsibility for choosing the correct project – one that has value to the business – is being delegated.

Negative Effects

In the past, more Six Sigma deployments, projects followed something that might be termed the MAIC (Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology, not DMAIC. In these deployments, projects are usually defined by leadership and then handed off to the Black Belt or Green Belt with clear, well-defined goals for success. The goals are based on what was important to the customer and also the business. This definition method results in leadership being more intimately involved than is sometimes the case. Some organizations have taken DMAIC to mean that the Black Belts should be responsible for selecting and defining projects, thereby allowing leadership to hand off the most important aspect of the project.

This delegation of project definition can have serious consequences, including:

  • The wrong project is chosen. This means a project that does not have significant impact to the business or is not aligned to the business strategy. People may be tempted to work on the “squeaky wheel” principle – the problem that just happened to be on many people’s radar. Sometime projects are chosen because they are the “pet” project of one particular manager, even though they are not truly significant to the business. A better approach is to have leadership strategically determine the project based on rankings of importance to the customer and to the business.
  • The correct project is chosen, but with the wrong focus. Again, this situation requires leadership to create the focus based on the short- and long-term goals of the organization.
  • Projects take too long. When the project is not strategically important, leadership may allow the Black Belt to set the timelines, cause the project to lag. Or, it may be difficult to acquire the proper resources when the project is not a priority.
  • Projects have insignificant results. There may be results, but maybe it took too long to achieve them, or because the project was not scoped or chosen properly, the results are not significant to the organization’s strategic goals.

Having leadership involvement and ownership helps to prevent these problems. It also sends a clear message to the organization that Lean Six Sigma activities are important to the business. This is critical when trying to change a culture.

Taking Action

Lean Six Sigma is about problem solving and process improvement, but more importantly, it is about changing the culture of an organization. Culture is not projects, Black Belts, Green Belts and teams. It is how the organization thinks about process and process improvement, and this begins with the leaders. Organizations are a reflection of their leadership. If the organization wants to be a Lean Six Sigma-driven operation, the leadership needs to be visibly involved.

This means leaders must be responsible for defining projects, and not simply identifying an area and a theme and handing it off to the Black Belt. Leaders need to take charge of identifying the projects, determining the business case, defining the scope, establishing the goals and estimating the project timeline. This also helps to ensure that the projects selected are truly projects that are strategically important to the business.

To get Leadership involved from the beginning, but more importantly, engaged thoroughly with Lean Six Sigma, the following six steps are essential:

  1. Verify the core needs of the customers and the business. All too often the customer and business requirements get lost in the day-to-day running of the business. Also, most organizations do not have a formal process to periodically validate customer and business requirements. If the requirements change, the organization is too often not aware of the changes or the impact to the customer.
  2. Identify and map suitable metrics that are aligned with these requirements. This may require the creation of new metrics and possibly the elimination of outdated measures.
  3. Understand the performance over time for each of the metrics. Understanding the variation in the process will help leadership determine goals and decide which projects to work on first.
  4. Strategically determine which projects have the highest priority. This would include any existing projects – whether or not they are related to Lean Six Sigma. This can be easily accomplished with a matrix that the leadership works through. Leaders will need to determine the criteria for the matrix, and having them work through the matrix creates ownership. This priority matrix will need to be reviewed by leadership periodically to ensure that the correct projects are the ones being worked.
  5. Provide the resources for projects. This will start with a Champion to help guide the project, secure the resources and report progress to the leaders on a regular basis.
  6. Continue the cycle of involvement. As projects are completed and results achieved, leadership must begin the process of continuing to determine the next projects, provide resources and so on.

Coaching for leaders is another key ingredient for success. Therefore, Champions should attend coaching sessions with the Black Belts and Green Belts. During the coaching session, the Champion can get first-hand knowledge of how to improve business processes. The Champion begins to understand the logic and flow of the project, and what responsibilities they have for successful completion of the project. The Champion can listen to the coach – typically a Master Black Belt – and learn what questions to ask, what work is being done and get a sense of the effort required to improve processes. Attending the coaching sessions also will give Champions a better understanding of the abilities required to be a Black or Green Belt. This continues the process of leadership learning and involvement.

Leaders Focus on D

It is time for organizations to put the D back into leaDership. This means that the D (Define) in DMAIC is a leadership responsibility, and leadership involvement is key to the success of Lean Six Sigma. The best way to get involvement is to make leadership responsible and accountable for results. Without strong leadership involvement and ownership, it is hard to expect the best results from Black Belts.

About the Author: Jack Norwood is a Master Black Belt with Norwood and Associates. He has more than 20 years of experience in process quality, as a practitioner, consultant and teacher. His clients have been in both manufacturing and service industries, and include automotive, computer, banking, insurance and pharmaceutical companies. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author