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Let Your Business Define Your Improvement Program

February 7th, 2013

Old Six Sigma Training ModelI remember all too well when companies would be told they needed to “be a Six Sigma company” and to do so they had to subscribe to a formula requiring strict percentages of their employee population be trained as Master Black Belts, Black Belts, Green Belts and Yellow Belts.  In addition, the definitions of the knowledge those people required was equally strictly enforced.  Companies were told achieving these goals would make them a Six Sigma company and being a Six Sigma company would make them successful with their customers and shareholders.

Anyone that lived through the last 15 years of evolution in the field of Operational Excellence can recognize the folly of this prescription.  With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious the program can’t dictate to the business.  And in all honesty, I don’t wish to pick on any singular subject area.  We’ve seen the same sin from many other philosophies and disciplines.  In the excitement generated by a successful new tool or compilation of tools, we tend to pursue the expertise ahead of resolution of our problems.

As we enter a new business cycle, let’s bring all our knowledge together and recalibrate how we choose to apply it by putting the problem or portfolio of problems first.  To avoid having a snazzy tool take over what we do each day, we recommend the following path;

  • Understand where you want to go.
  • Understand where you are…which has two aspects; (i) your level of performance and (ii) your ability to improve performance
  • Let the comparison between where you want to go and where you are currently performing define what you need to accomplish
  • Let the comparison between what you need to accomplish and your ability to improve dictate what new capability you need to acquire.

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 Our BPM Overview Presentation.

When you are finished outlining the steps above, you will see something quite different than formulaic curriculum and percentages of your population to be trained.  In fact, the solution will not appear simple or fast.  And therefore it will not be as appealing as the aforementioned formula or any other formula from the array of philosophies available in the profession.  The plan that emerges is a function of applying a series of decision rules more than simply measuring the ingredients of a recipe.

But think about the obvious logic of the outcome.  Your business isn’t simple.  If it were, everyone would do it.  If your business isn’t simple, how can a solution to your challenges be simple.  The complexity of the solution will match the complexity of the problem.

Pull-based Capability and TrainingSo how and where do you start?  How do you bring order to the chaos?  The answer lies in the definition of your projects, the identification of their root causes and in grouping them together by root cause so as to build a roadmap forward.  The complexity is in the selection and prioritization of projects. The simplification comes in executing on the projects.

I spoke to an executive at a company yesterday that described the old process as creating angst.   The word itself gives you heartburn.  When I asked him what gave rise to the angst, he responded that the discipline had been forced fit.  What can you say to such powerful words as those?

If those are the feelings the prior model drove, what do we strive for today?  We strive to “PULL” the required knowledge.  We believe anyone pursuing the path above should one day describe it using words such as choice and flexible.  The emotion we hope to see at the end is relief.  That is the new paradigm.

If participants should one day replace the words “Forced Fit” with “Choice” and “Flexibility” and the word “Angst” with “Relief”, what should we see at a business level?  Well, here are some key results that should be witnessed.

  • Faster returns.  While the long path is more complex, the milestones become simpler so measured returns should be faster. The simple formula of ten years ago is monolithic and so the returns can’t be measured for a long time.  In fact, the fallacy of the monolithic argument is partly hidden by the time spectrum as you are asked not to measure for months if not years.   (A key aspect of this is discussed in our recent article “Pay as you Go”).  Armada v. Drake's English fleet.
  • Organizational Traction.  Creating a ladder of success ensures Organizational Traction by producing “wins” and establishing a foundation of knowledge and capability to tackle tougher problems.  So many Performance Improvement strategies talk about resolving the big chronic problems.  But pursuing them right from the beginning is fraught with risk. And pursuing resolution to smaller problems with the tools you need to solve big problems takes too much time and effort which is wasteful for individuals and the organization.
  • Alignment.  If you adopt a Pull strategy, you can’t help but be aligned.  Your business defines your problems which in turn define your program.  As a result, your activities are ensured to be aligned to your business.  Leadership needs to see resources dedicated to the problems they are trying to resolve.  We are all living in an environment where we must do more with less.  There is no room for unaligned activities.  Pursuing a philosophy for its own sake is a luxury no company can afford.

We see this happening every day now.  Listening to the organization and being flexible produces more of the right gains faster than talking to the organization and forcing it to fit a prescription.  Individuals get more involved with something that produces relief instead of creating angst.  Pull is significantly more effective than Push.  Let the business needs and ability define the improvement program.

Contact me if you'd like to discuss this in more detail.

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