Friday, March 20, 2009

"Making Six Sigma Faster"

I recently had a manager tell me that his company had decided that Six Sigma just “takes too long,” and that they were implementing a new mandate to “Make Six Sigma Faster.” I asked him why they thought Six Sigma takes too long. He told me that the average time to complete a project there had been 8-9 months; under the new program, Black Belts were going to be expected to complete projects (at least through the IMPROVE phase) in 90 days or less.
I couldn’t help it…I broke out laughing, and asked him “By what method?”
“Well,” he said, “we’re not sure yet, but we think if they start holding more meetings, and never go into a meeting without having the deliverable already drafted, that will help.”
I had asked Deming’s famous question for a reason. I was very familiar with this particular deployment, and I knew that the reasons their projects always ran long were many, but almost none had to do with the Black Belts or the number of meetings they held.
This organization had decided at the beginning that they just didn’t have time to do a couple of days of Champion training. They had decided instead that they could get along with a 2-hour teleconference and a required reading list. This was a big organization, and they had never bothered to set up any kind of listening posts or other pipeline-feeders, had no project portfolio management, had not coordinated with the PMO, hadn’t trained any middle managers in SPC, Six Sigma familiarization, or anything else. Black Belts were pretty much expected to find their own projects, and in many cases had to hunt down anyone willing to sign on as a Champion (sometimes, they just picked another Black Belt, because “at least I got someone who understands Six Sigma.”) Getting good data was another problem. Usually, there were no data available for even deriving a baseline, much less for stratification or for digging into cause systems to find “x’s.” Just collecting the data for a baseline might involve a couple of months’ worth of work. The organization often relied for stratification on “reason codes,” the use of which were consistently proven unreliable when tested using attribute agreement analysis.
These were the primary factors driving project lead times, but there was no plan to deal with these factors, because it meant getting leadership to change, and no one at my manager friend’s level had the ability to push that noodle uphill. So they were just going to do the usual thing…put it into the expectations for the Black Belts. All you have to do to get the variation narrower is tighten the specs, right?
This was Deming’s point; to paraphrase, “If you could cut the project time by 60 percent this year without a method, then why didn’t you do it last year? Must have been goofing off…”
Listen, executives: This is too important. Six Sigma, implemented properly and led from a systems perspective, is a proven methodology that will make your business better, your customers happier, your revenues higher, and your costs lower. But it’s not something you bolt on, walk away from, and just wait for the cash to roll in. You have to lead it, you have to be engaged, you have to remove obstacles and make Six Sigma a strategic component of a larger Quality Management System. In the end, if it fails, you can’t blame the Black Belts you didn’t support, or the culture you didn’t change, or even the consultants you didn’t listen to. It’s not that it won’t work at your company…but it certainly won’t work if you don’t lead it!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Courage a Habit?

(Originally posted as a LinkedIn Change Management answer. The question involved seeing courage as a habit, and reinforcing it in our daily work.)
I'm not sure I would characterize courage as a habit, but we could probably launch a whole new discussion group just to deal with the question of what courage is and how it's defined.
In the military, I knew any number of people endowed with great physical courage: they would--without hesitation--charge into a burning compartment to save a shipmate, jump on a grenade to save the rest of the people in their platoon, or do any number of other things that might result in death or medals for valor or both.
Many of these same people, however, would not stick their necks out an inch when it came to their performance evaluations or anything else that might jeapordize their careers. Performance evaluations were pretty much the arbiters of career advancement in the military, and this gave the person that signed your evaluation--and the committee that force-ranked you against your peers--unbelievable power over your ability to excel.
As a result, leaders who valued innovation might welcome an innovator, and welcome someone who stood up to buck conventional wisdom. Since many military leaders are conventionalists and authoritarians, however, the rule at all too many commands is that "the nail that sticks up gets hammered down."
This is one of the reasons Deming was so adamant about his eighth point: "Drive out Fear." It's one of the reasons he hated performance evaluation. Besides the fact that it's unconnected to reality, performance evaluation is a carrot-and-stick approach that engenders fear, crushes joy in work, stifles innovation and keeps peers in artifical competition that sub-optimizes organizational performance.
If you want to reinforce courage in the workplace, you have to be in a workplace that values courage, that values "speaking truth to power." Developing some political tact, the ability to speak truth to power without insulting or diminishing those in power, can help, if the leadership is open to listening.
One of the things I have always used to some advantage was an agreed understanding of the leaders' goals. If they can articulate their goals up front, bringing in new ideas that advance those goals becomes easier. When they jerk knees to try to squash a new idea, a good consultant can say, "I'm sorry...I'm confused now. I thought you wanted to get [goal] accomplished. This idea is the best we've seen yet for getting there. Do you want to get there or not?"
Another important habit is that of providing evidence for your case. Bringing data, well-analyzed and presented for clear understanding and insight, is also very helpful. Even though resistance is an emotional reaction, appeals to reason are still valuable in demonstrating the superiority of a proposed idea. It provides evidence for trialability and competitive advantage. It helps make the vision clearer and more concrete, therefore more feasible.
So, for those at the want innovation? Create a climate for innovation. Drive out fear, articulate and share your vision to build a vision community in which every contribution toward reaching the vision is valued, innovation is a corporate strategy, and creativity is recognized as a core value.
For those not so near the top, develop good communication skills and tact, provide good clear evidence for your ideas, and persist as long as possible. If you continue to get hammered down, find another place to work that DOES value innovation; in the end, that organization will be more competitive and you will be much happier.