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Trained Yellow Belts Think Differently…Ask Blue Eyes

December 30th, 2012 Comments off

Some folks think for themselves from the first day.  Frank Sinatra was one of them.  Others learn to think differently.  Yellow Belts are process owners and team members who have been taught to think differently.  We detail our highly popular Yellow Belt training on our website.  While it has been out for many years and reconstituted in many flavors, people remain genuinely interested in this foundation capability.

The Chairman of the Board

By way of history, we were the first to develop yellow belt training.  Six Sigma Qualtec is the renamed Florida Power & Light’s unregulated subsidiary Qualtec Quality Services.  Qualtec housed materials developed when FPL engineers studied under Deming and documented their work.  Qualtec was spun off and acquired Six Sigma training materials and client lists.  The renamed company developed Yellow Belt from the Deming based materials as a foundation for process owners and members that were part of Six Sigma teams and who were left to manage a process after any improvements were implemented.

Like any classic, the concepts embedded in Yellow Belt  remain the foundation for any process improvement program.   In fact, we have posted how companies remain devoted to the basics of Operational Excellence methodologies.  This devotion to the basics continues to deliver results to a broad base of the organization.

Yellow belt is a distinct and valuable skillset.  But a lot of people don’t have a good feel for exactly what a yellow belt does and how it can benefit the organization.  So, I’m going to provide some thoughts here and on some subsequent posts.

As a disclaimer, since we launched Yellow Belt, just like with Black and Green Belts, there have been many others that followed such that there is really no standard out there for a Yellow Belt.   So this description is addressing  Six Sigma Qualtec’s definition of a Yellow Belt.   Yellow Belts really should think and act differently after training so, let’s first talk about what yellow belts should be thinking about after training:

  • Analyzing real data to drive business decisions, analyzing root cause to drive implementation of the right solutions, and understanding that CI (Lean, Six Sigma, BPM, etc) is all about improving business performance in terms of voice of the customer.
  • Identifying and tracking the right metrics (primary, secondary, etc), really understanding process capability and process performance.
  • How to practically get and use data and a scientific approach to solve a problem?
  • Understanding what a problem is really costing the business, the real cost-of-poor-quality (COPQ)
  • Putting in the proper process control mechanisms to sustain improvements over time
  • The project selection and prioritization process of the company to assure that the right things are being targeted, things that will make an impact.

Download “Yellow Belts Play a Crucial Role”

The Yellow Belt skillset is a foundation set of quality improvement and process control tools.  It is something that can be applied anywhere in the organization and on any process to yield wide-ranging improvements.  It is one approach, and an effective one for many, to building a solid foundation for CI in their organization.

Contact me if you want more info or would like to discuss in more detail ….

Where Process Improvement Projects Go Wrong

December 28th, 2012 Comments off

While doing some general Christmas reading I came across this June ’12 article in the Wall Street Journal’s on-line edition by Dr. Statya S. Chakravorty, the Caraustar professor of operations management at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University.  While we can debate how to improve the application of the methodology or make recommendations how to address the cited breakdowns, I think Dr. Chakravorty wrote a great article detailing many places a project or program can go off track which I wanted to share with you.  If you’d like to discuss Dr. Chakravorty’s article, contact me.

Where Process Improvement Projects Go Wrong by Dr. Statya S. Chakravorty

What do weight-loss plans and process-improvement programs such as Six Sigma and “lean manufacturing” have in common?

They typically start off well, generating excitement and great progress, but all too often fail to have a lasting impact as participants gradually lose motivation and fall back into old habits.

Many companies have embraced Six Sigma, a quality-control system designed to tackle problems such as production defects, and lean manufacturing, which aims to remove all processes that don’t add value to the final product. But many of those companies have come away less than happy. Recent studies, for example, suggest that nearly 60% of all corporate Six Sigma initiatives fail to yield the desire results.

We studied process-improvement programs at large companies over a five-year period to gain insight into how and why so many of them fail. We found that when confronted with increasing stress over time, these programs react in much the same way a metal spring does when it is pulled with increasing force—that is, they progress though “stretching” and “yielding” phases before failing entirely. In engineering, this is known as the “stress-strain curve,” and the length of each stage varies widely by material.

A closer look at the characteristics of improvement projects at each of the three stages of the stress-strain curve—stretching, yielding and failing—offers lessons for executives seeking to avoid Six Sigma failures. The discussion that follows is based on what happened at one aerospace company that implemented more than 100 improvement projects, only to determine less than two years later that more than half had failed to generate lasting gains.

Stretching Phase

When a metal spring is pulled initially, the material stretches to accommodate the increase in pressure. In much the same way, the people involved in a process-improvement project generally find themselves stretching and willing to tackle all necessary tasks in the early going.

At the aerospace company, an improvement project typically began with the formation of a team consisting of 10 to 18 members from various departments. A Six Sigma or other improvement expert was assigned to the team to guide and train them. At this stage, teams were excited to learn and apply what they were being taught.

Team members collected data on their current working environment and, with the help of the Six Sigma expert, identified the changes they most needed to make to achieve their stated goal—say, a reduction in the rate of defects in manufactured parts or fewer mistakes in order writing and billing. The expert developed a “to do” list that included action items, responsibilities and deadlines and made sure needed resources were available.

Because top executives were paying close attention to the project at this stage, managers made clear to employees that the improvement initiative was their top priority. For example, producing error-free bills became more important than processing a certain quantity of bills each day.

While daily production slipped initially when the team transitioned to the new way of working, it improved when the group grew accustomed to the new process. When the team reached its goal—say it reduced billing errors by a certain percentage—the improvement project was declared a success.

The director who was spearheading the company’s Six Sigma initiatives shared the teams’ achievements with others in the company. Team members were given rewards such as gift certificates to restaurants, and their pictures appeared in the company newsletter. The division vice president reported on the team’s success to the company’s other vice presidents and to its top executives.

Download “Project Selection and Definition – The Key to Getting Fast Results”

Yielding Phase

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

If a metal spring continues to be pulled, there will come a point when the material yields as it struggles to support the increase in pressure. Though still intact, the spring becomes permanently deformed—stretched out, for example—as the bonds between atoms are broken and new ones formed.

Similarly, in the middle stage of an improvement project—when the Six Sigma expert moves on to another project and top management turns it focus to another group of workers—implementation starts to wobble, and teams may find themselves struggling to maintain the gains they achieved early on.

With the departure of the Six Sigma expert, the teams at the aerospace company lost their objective voice and the person who performed the sophisticated statistical analysis that allowed them to prioritize the tasks that most affected performance, thus needed fixing the most. Without the expert to rein them in, some team members began pushing agendas that benefited themselves and their departments, making it harder for the team to agree on new goals.

While teams at this stage continued to look for the flaws in their current working environments, they got bogged down trying to perform the statistical analysis previously handled by the expert. Some teams started spending too much time on the improvement project, which affected their ability to meet production quotas and other daily responsibilities.

Amid the confusion and facing pressure from managers to keep up with day-to-day duties, some team members started reverting to old habits in the much the same way a person who recently lost weight might start skipping gym sessions when work and family demands heat up. The team’s performance stopped improving and, in some cases, started to regress.

When reporting on the status of their projects, teams tried to make themselves look better by highlighting what they hoped to accomplish in the future, instead of what they were accomplishing now. Some team members became discouraged and started to doubt the benefits of the improvement strategies.

The improvement director, whose salary and bonus depended on the success of the company’s Six Sigma initiatives, highlighted projects that were showing great progress and ignored those that weren’t. As a result, company executives were unaware that some improvement teams were slowly starting to crack under the pressure.

Download “The Importance of Project Selection – Why Process Improvement Efforts Falter and How to Assure Success and Sustainability”

Failing Stage

Over time, pulling will cause the material in one area of the metal spring to narrow, creating a neck that becomes smaller and smaller until it is unable to sustain any pressure at all. At that point, it breaks into pieces. Similarly, in the final stage of a process-improvement project, team members find themselves unable or unwilling to tackle improvement tasks, and the effort ultimately collapses.

With the improvement expert long gone and no additional training in Six Sigma or other improvement strategies provided by the aerospace company, team members became increasingly discouraged by their failure to build on earlier success. They eventually stopped caring about the improvement project, partly because it wasn’t tied to their performance reviews.

As morale sagged, no one stepped forward to assume leadership of the improvement project, so the team lost interest in looking for ways to improve their current work environment. The company allowed newly formed improvement teams to poach people and resources from older teams, so the only improvements that were made were those related to safety—and even then, only the bare minimum was done. Members steadily regressed to their old ways of working, and the group’s performance returned to what it had been before the project began.

With projects failing miserably, many teams reported their achievements incorrectly, giving a false sense of success. Because the director continued to communicate only about projects that were showing excellent results, it took several months for the division vice president to become aware of the widespread failures and reluctantly inform the company’s top executives.

Lessons Learned

Four lessons from our research stand out.

First, the extended involvement of a Six Sigma or other improvement expert is required if teams are to remain motivated, continue learning and maintain gains. If the cost of assigning an improvement expert to each team on a full-time basis is prohibitive, one improvement expert could be assigned on a part-time basis to several teams for an extended period of one to two years. Later, managers could be trained to take over that role.

Second, performance appraisals need to be tied to successful implementation of improvement projects. Studies point out that raises, even in small amounts, can motivate team members to embrace new, better work practices. Without such incentives, employees often regress to their old ways of working once the initial enthusiasm for Six Sigma dies down.

Third, improvement teams should have no more than six to nine members, and the timeline for launching a project should be no longer than six to eight weeks. The bigger the team, the greater the chance members will have competing interests and the harder it will be for them to agree on goals, especially after the improvement expert has moved on to a new project. And the longer it takes to implement improvements, the greater the chance people and resources will be diverted to other efforts.

Fourth, executives need to directly participate in improvement projects, not just “support” them. Because it was in his best interests, the director in charge of the improvement projects at the aerospace company created the illusion that everything was great by communicating only about projects that were yielding excellent results. By observing the successes and failures of improvement programs firsthand, rather than relying on someone else’s interpretation, executives can make more accurate assessments as to which ones are worth continuing.

Why VOC and Customer Experience are Front and Center

December 26th, 2012 Comments off

We recently completed an historic business cycle.  Before the Great Recession, our last major recession was in the early 1980’s.  From one major trough to the other, there were bumps such as in the early ‘90’s and post 9/11.  But for the most part, we enjoyed a very long expansion.  So much wealth was created during that time that a new customer emerged in both the business and consumer sectors.  Unprecedented liquidity put money in everyone’s pockets and they spent it.  Bigger homes and cars ensued for consumers. Expansion of offices to house a growing service economy went with it.  And as these consumers and corporate customers came into their own, businesses grew to know and serve them with increasing process capability.  The customers matured and businesses with their processes followed.

But the fundamentals have changed.  We have spent years healing.   Balance sheets have been restructured.  Personal debt has been reduced.  Housing continues to rebound.  We are now back to building long term wealth as a nation again.  This means much of our economy will have to change including the goods and services we bought.   And so the customers’ requirements must be reacquired, the goods and services redesigned and the processes that delivered those goods and services must be rebuilt.

Download “Voice of the Customer – Deployment & Maturity Model”

And with so much slack capacity in the economy, aligning ourselves with that dramatically changed customer moves to the fore as the most critical and immediate link in a value added chain.  It is just natural that what we need most when an economy is humming at full capacity with escalating input costs is quite different than when we have considerable slack and declining commodity demand.

As the Great Recession continued, we took this thesis to our customers and spoke to them about the challenges in their businesses.  We discovered they felt this pain acutely.  We began to work with them to accelerate their ability to listen to their customers, interpret what they heard, respond to the messages and monitor their responses.  We learned the most successful companies are making those factors part of everyday work.  These companies have completely devoted themselves to orientating to either new customers or their existing customers new demands.   A maturity model developed to assess where they are and what they need to do to go to the next level.

If you’d like to discuss what we have learned and how we developed our model, contact me.

Voice of the Customer; Getting to the Endzone

December 14th, 2012 Comments off

VOC – Getting to the Endzone

What is the fastest and surest way to success when designing a product or service?  Quite simply – Give customers what they want.  But easier said than done, right?  Which customers?  What do they want?  Which of their needs matter?  How do we answer those questions?

Let’s start by defining some basic terms.  First, user needs are characteristics or qualities that if present in a product or service result in user satisfaction. They close the gap you would have identified when you decided to produce a product or provide a service.  They are things the user wants the product or service to have in order to be satisfied.  But not all users are created equally nor will they value every need the same way.  So how do we capture their needs and stratify their relevance?

Well, while it’s not the topic for this post, to maintain a credible argument we start with segmentation.  For the greatest success, you search for the needs that are most important to the biggest segment that is growing the fastest.

Now every segment has four different types of user needs as best laid out by Kano.  The four categories depend on the way a user responds based upon either the presence or absence of the user need in the product or service.  The needs can be separated into those about which (i) the customer doesn’t care, (ii) the ones about which they care linearly, (iii) those that are must haves but for which you don’t get a lot of notice until missing and finally (iv) the latent needs whose absence isn’t noticed but whose presence delights.

It is these latent needs within the biggest and fastest growing segments for which we search primarily through observation and capturing verbal expressions.  Observation can be powerful and some argue the best method because verbal expression isn’t always understood or completely revealing.  Nonetheless, we inevitably want to speak to customers in some manner.

Download

Download “Voice of the Customer Deployment & Maturity Model” PowerPoint Presentation

So now I get to a very interesting and possibly controversial point.  I recently read a paper by Abbie Griffin and John Hauser of the University of Chicago entitled Voice of the Customer which, if I understood correctly, postulates that between focus groups and one-on-one interviews, the interviews are considerably more effective.  With a small number of interviews, you’d collect nearly the same number of customer needs than with focus groups for the same amount of man hours.   And that by the time you conducted ten individual interviews, you’d collected 90% of the customer needs you’d collect in twice as many hours devoted to focus groups.  So Griffin and Hauser conclude that on a cost and time basis, one-on-one interviews is the way to go versus focus groups to find those latent needs.

So the path to success requires three capabilities.  First, know how to segment to find the sweet spot. Second, understand the nature of needs to find the ones that illicit the strongest positive reactions.  And finally, know the best method to listen to your customers.  Still easier said than done but at least it’s a plan.  If you’d like to discuss, contact me.

Six Sigma Methodology; Select Projects to Achieve Goals

December 11th, 2012 Comments off

It is the end of the year.  You look back and wonder where it went.  You look at your goals from a year ago and honestly face what a struggle it has been to move forward.  You believe they were and remain the right goals and yet execution is constantly hindered by the demands of daily chores.  How can you change it?

First, let’s face the fact that your enemy in achieving your goals is the daily cyclone of work.  Simply put, your goals and your daily work aren’t compatible.  And the daily work always wins because it is urgent.  You didn’t fall short on your goals because you’re stupid or lazy.  You were just busy.

It’s a new year.  How can you make it different?  Let’s start by redefining execution.  Execution is about achieving your goals while dealing with urgency of daily work. So how should your plan of execution change to deal with this reality?

Unless you are going to be a full time problem solver, you really can only focus on 1 or maybe 2 projects in addition to your daily work.  And since there are more good ideas than resources, learn to say “NO”.  And since there is only time for 1 or 2 projects, then you can only pursue that ones that significantly move the needle.  The little subprojects diffuse energy and should only be done if they ensure completion of the higher order project (and not simply align to it).

Our recommendation is to really pour your energy into your project selection decision matrix and pick the ideas that rank the absolute highest.

In addition, as you work on your projects, target moving the needle of a lead measure.  If you are in a process, don’t simply measure the output.  That is a lagging measure.  This sounds simple but is actually very difficult because lagging measures naturally get more attention and are supported with more data. Everyone wants to measure the result.

Our recommendation is to look at your process map and investigate upstream sub-processes for the most impactful items and then collect and target that data.

Finally, give your actions daily visibility with a compelling dashboard.  Make it simple.  Make it visible.  Show both the leading and the lagging indicators. Make sure that when you look at it you know if you are winning or losing against the urgency of daily work.  Winning begets winning.

Download

“The Importance of Project Selection – Why PI Efforts Falter & How to Assure Success”

Our recommendation is to have regular governance meetings to monitor all your teams’ progress on projects.  Have them set short term action items and report regularly on whether they have completed them or not.

So as you head into 2013, decide you will make this year different.  You will pick only the important projects.  You will target the leading measures.  You will make progress visible and hold yourself and team accountable for short term actions ensuring that progress.  You will fight back against the urgency of daily chores and move forward.  If you’d like to discuss, contact me.