‘Lean Six Sigma Doesn’t Work Here’

How to create a continuous improvement culture in any organization

Ken Maynard

March 30, 2020

When educational and public sectors consider applying a proven method like lean Six Sigma, the perception persists that this “manufacturing program” will not work in a nonmanufacturing environment. Along with that limiting assumption, there is an underlying expectation within the service industry that it requires a substantially customized approach.

This makes perfect sense. It’s logical. If I’m not making the proverbial “widget”—if I’m processing transactions, delivering services, or providing a learning environment—then how do I use lean Six Sigma? It’s got a proven track record of success in manufacturing, but this success can morph into a hindrance when considering spreading the gains in nonmanufacturing.

If a different approach is necessary to successful lean Six Sigma implementation in the public sector, then how do we adapt the approach without compromising the fundamentals that lead to success?

The legacy of false starts

Unfortunately, this logical observation can lead organizations to non- or false starts at building a problem-solving culture. The assumption that it’s a manufacturing-only program—and the perceived challenge of adapting the approach to their needs—is a hurdle for any organization looking to embark on the lean Six Sigma improvement journey.

Organizational leaders say they support ongoing improvement. Who wouldn’t? But in the same breath they say lean Six Sigma doesn’t fit what they do. This means the lean Six Sigma implementation never begins. The delay is only temporary, however. At some point, every organization’s success must depend on its ability to improve its performance, quality, and cost, at increasingly faster rates during the coming years.

Realizing the inevitable, some organizations launch lean Six Sigma to great fanfare and good intentions with little or no “customization.” They vow to adapt the approach over time only to fail when the effort is met with confusion and resistance.

What is often overlooked in the debate is that continually improving processes is hard work. Once the initial fanfare subsides, sustained, organizationwide improvement means time and effort gets added to daily operations. In the face of initially increased workloads, it’s difficult to stay the course.

It takes dedicated leadership to set direction and maintain focus. All too often the difficulty is conflated with the perception that “this works for manufacturing but not us.” Many organizations fail to make it through this difficult period and abandon the effort. The resulting refrain becomes, “Lean Six Sigma doesn’t work here.”

The challenge of the ‘restart’

While the improvement efforts for an organization may have stopped—or not yet started—the organization is still duty-bound to try again at some point. Challenging markets and increasing competition make targeted efficiency and effectiveness a necessity. What can an organization do to make this “restart” successful?

The hurdle of a restart is compounded by the fact that each time an organization attempts to restart a culture of continuous improvement, it becomes that much more difficult to deploy a successful transformation. Previous false starts create more headwinds to overcome for the next launch. At this point, the common refrain becomes, “We tried that three years ago, and it lasted about a year. Lean Six Sigma doesn’t work here.”

How to make it work: Standardized customization

I’ve had the good fortune to work with great mentors and amazing clients during 30+ years of leading and supporting organizations deploying continuous improvement. I learned great lessons—often the hard way. One lesson is the need to focus on the process.

In this case, the process refers to the method of customizing the effort to fit the needs of the organization. The discussion about what a customized approach should or should not be can quickly turn into an academic debate. Instead, let’s consider a time-tested approach: learn, customize, and succeed by doing.

We’ll begin by addressing the foundational principles of lean Six Sigma that are critical to success. There is no shortage of tools and techniques, and there will always be new ones to solve the problems of tomorrow. The abundance of tools and techniques can be a trap and lead to the false starts if you don’t consider the fundamental principles of continuous improvement.

These are not my personal principles—these come from the venerated quality gurus who transformed the world and taught us new ways to work and live. Without getting into the details of the origins of lean Six Sigma, we’ll focus on the fundamental principles of continuous improvement that have become universal. I’ve been lucky to have worked with great clients that successfully put these principles into practice.

How we put these principles to use may vary by sector, but the principles remain the same. If we start with the basic utilization of the principles—applicable in any environment—then we can lay a foundation to build upon and adapt as we move forward.

Foundational principles

The foundational principles vary in wording across the different incarnations of continuous improvement, but generally speaking, they are:
• Customer focus
• Process focus
• Respect for people
• Fact-based decision-making
• Systematic approach to improvement
• Engaged leadership

Who would argue against these principles? No one. You might ask, “Aren’t we doing this already?” Most organizations agree with these principles and make efforts to put them into practice. But the business challenge is how to get better and faster at improving what we do—how to drive success for the business and the staff. This requires ongoing, organizationwide structured efforts that adapt and improve over time.

The following approach has been successfully implemented across numerous organizations—insurance, banking, staffing services, local governments, secondary education, and the list goes on. It’s quick and experiential. The idea is to improve the business and then learn how to improve the improvement process itself. Ah, there’s that process thing again!

A phased approach

The following phased approach provides a high-level road map to leadership teams embarking on—or re-embarking on—the continuous improvement journey. The timing of each phase can vary based on the size of the business and the urgency of the undertaking. The phases typically take six months and no more than 12 months each once the implementation has started. The phases are:

Phase zero: Plan fundamentals
With these phases in mind, plan where to start and whom to engage. It may not initially involve the entire organization if the logistics required would take too much time. Move quickly and get started. It’s OK to roll the effort out to the organization in stages.

Keep it simple. No need to complicate the approach. The problems you’ll be addressing will be difficult enough. Plan to expand and mature the approach in phases. To customize to your environment, begin by dropping the jargon. There are lots of foreign words in the lean Six Sigma lexicon, but there are always English translations.

Clear communication in everyday terminology is critical. Drop acronyms like VOC (voice of the customer) and use relevant examples. Focus on your customers’ concerns and tie to compelling business needs. Then go! Phase 1 fits any business. It is exciting and should be used to build enthusiasm and momentum.

Phase 1: Launch engagement
Start fast with a bias for action. Focus on the fundamentals and use basic tools. Use rapid improvement (kaizen) events for this phase. Getting together in small groups to problem solve will engage more people and allow them to practice the fundamentals and tools.

Expect roughly 75 percent of the effort to focus on learning and 25 percent on results. The results will be there and will help build momentum for phase 2. Often a functional or departmental focus is a good initial strategy. Ask each department to identify a key process in its area to improve using a rapid improvement (kaizen) event.

This approach is quick, and it drives learning and improvement. You will need to develop internal resources to support the implementation of the rapid improvement (kaizen) events. The quicker you move, the more you will rely on internal coaches. You’ll need them to conduct the event prework, explain the approach, review the fundamentals during the events, and then follow up after the events.

This approach quickly engages the organization, and focuses on the customers, processes, and facts with a systematic improvement approach. It hits all the fundamentals. At the same time, the improvement events expand easily into process management and problem solving, further building capability and producing results.

As this effort continues, you will be rapidly cultivating the organization’s capabilities and enthusiasm. New improvement leaders will emerge who can lead and support expansion. Focus on those individuals who want to engage, and on the areas of the organization that show passion for process improvement and customer satisfaction.

Phase 2: Expand scope
Broaden the scope within the organization and begin addressing cross-functional process problems with the same methods: rapid improvement (kaizen) events, process management, and problem solving. Systemic issues will have surfaced from the work in phase 1.

Address these issues with urgency and commitment. During this phase you should increase the focus on results and align with key metrics dictated by the organizational strategy. An example would be if the company is trying to improve call center service, you will most likely have projects focused on “increasing first-call resolution.”

The “newness” of the efforts may start to wear off, so take care to refresh the communications and be sure to continually celebrate success. Begin planning for the infrastructure needed to support ongoing efforts. At this point, the organization will better understand how to adapt the approach to fit the business.

Phase 3: Expand capabilities
As the effort continues, you will be rapidly growing the organizational capabilities and enthusiasm. Additional improvement leaders will emerge who can lead and support the expanding effort. Once again, focus on the people who want to be engaged, and address the areas where people are devoted to improvement.

You can begin to select the specific methods that fit, keeping in mind that foundational principles must remain the bedrock of the effort. Look to expand capabilities in process analysis, ways to create flow, statistical analysis, problem solving, and process design.

During this phase, it’s time to forge a much stronger link between the business strategy and the improvement efforts. Strategy and improvements should be aligned and part of the annual planning process.

Phase 4: Optimize efforts
During this final and ongoing phase, efforts are synchronized across the organization, and there is sustainable momentum. Continuous improvement should be treated as part of the daily job, with functional improvement becoming part of the everyday routine. Strategically coordinated projects should target the most challenging issues across the system.

Integrate improvement planning with the annual budget planning process. Establish the infrastructure to support sustainment of the improvement efforts. The infrastructure can be scaled to fit the organization, and it requires dedicated resources and people who take responsibility for progress. Key infrastructure elements include:
Training: Just-in-time training is great, but it requires strong standards and seasoned coaches.
Coaching and facilitation: There should be designated personnel to assist in the effort and mentor colleagues.
Change champions: Leadership needs to stay engaged, champion improvement efforts, set direction, and remove barriers.
Coordination: Make sure those tasked with strategic planning coordinate efforts and allocate resources effectively.

Leading a transformation

Leading the change and understanding the culture throughout this journey will be key. The organization will experience a learning curve as it applies new skills and habits. As with any new skill, the effort to implement is hard. At some point everyone will be putting in more effort than before and not get the results they are expecting.

As a leader, knowing when to push and when to pull will be critical. Unfortunately, there are no hard rules on when and how to do this. It will be a function of where you are on the journey and your unique culture. Things will get better if you can survive this ramp-up and not abandon your efforts. Leadership’s role is to help the organization through the learning curve.

Experience tells us that this learning curve is inevitable, but it can be facilitated. What can be done? Talk about it up front. Explain what it will look and feel like. Plan for the support needed to address the inevitable frustration with the transition. Remind everyone that you have prepared for this and now “we are here.”

This is part of the process and an indication of learning—not failure. Focus on the vision and recognize the progress. Be prepared to address unanticipated needs—technical and cultural—that arise from this uncharted transition.

Continued adaptation

Adapting the approach is about operationalizing the fundamentals, not about the application of specific tools and analysis techniques. With a clear understanding of the fundamentals, any organization can start with the basics and build toward maturity as the needs arise.

Once an organization experiences success with the fundamentals, there will come a time when you will need more tools and additional analysis to solve the problems. But the principles will still form the foundation. They serve as a litmus test. Any new approach that is counter to the fundamental principles will not succeed in the long run.

Within 1.5 to 3 years, the organization will have cruised past the basic methods and developed a more customized approach. An approach based on the application of the basic tools and adapting to the challenges as they emerge. Is it lean Six Sigma? It really doesn’t matter what it’s called at this point. Whatever it is, “it works here.”

Seattle’s King County successfully restarted its lean Six Sigma effort using online training after some initial stumbles. Leadership pivoted to support a select group of improvement teams that successfully cut lead times for invoicing, licensing, bid solicitation, and funding, and they never looked back. It’s all part of the county’s winning strategy to become the “best-run government.”

Bottom line

Bottom line, in unsuccessful implementation attempts, organizations invest significant time and resources only to fall short of their goals. What can you do to support nonmanufacturing organizations in effectively implementing lean Six Sigma? How do you avoid the “lean Six Sigma doesn’t work here” pitfall?

The trail has been blazed. Those who have gone before can speak to the challenge of what it takes to meet it. Share your ideas and experience. “How can we adapt lean Six Sigma without compromising success?”

About The Author

Ken Maynard’s picture

Ken Maynard

Ken Maynard is an accomplished results-driven leader of Lean Six Sigma with a 30+ year record of driving higher profitability and improved quality with clients in a variety of industries. He works with business leaders to identify and implement successful high-value projects. Maynard is also a culture change agent known for accelerating adoption and increasing the results from large scale changes impacting numerous stakeholders.