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Barry Johnson

Quality Insider

Jump Start Your Operational Excellence Venture

How to drive completion of lean Six Sigma projects.

Published: Wednesday, August 12, 2009 - 12:53

You see it all the time. After an initial flurry of excitement and support, an organization’s operational excellence effort bogs down. Regardless of the tools or methodologies used, passion dies down and focus gets diverted to other issues. It doesn’t matter if a company utilizes lean, Six Sigma, theory of constraints, or other tool sets; after a period of time, project velocity decreases and cycle times grow. How can an organization kick-start and reenergize its efforts? This article walks us through this question by looking at fictional company Weaver Industries to see how they pumped new life into their lean Six Sigma effort.

Change management

A critical aspect of any operational excellence philosophy is change management. Change is a scary word for most people, and it seems like the stars have to align in order for change to happen. In effect, the stars do have to align; at least all of the elements of change must be present. Figure 1 shows the elements of change, and the consequences of not having all elements in place.


Figure 1. Elements needed for change to occur


There are five elements needed for change to occur: Vision, skills, incentive, resources, and action. If all five are present, change will occur. If, however, one of the five is missing, the result will be something else. 

If the organizational vision isn’t clear, the result will be confusion. This is not uncommon for businesses whose leadership doesn’t fully support the lean Six Sigma effort. If the venture isn’t supported, goals and priorities can be blurred.

If employees have an understanding of the vision but don’t have the skills to complete the required tasks, anxiety will set in. Black Belts and Green Belts must be properly equipped to manage their projects. If they aren’t properly trained, they will feel anxious and their projects will suffer. A good support system for new green belts is imperative. As they move from the classroom to the work arena, they may still be trying to figure out how to apply certain tools. Having a strong mentor during their first few projects will reinforce the tools and relieve anxiety. 

Employees must have an incentive to work on improvement projects. If there is no perceived benefit, they will resist putting in the effort. Organizations need to develop an incentive system specific for their environment to keep employees motivated.

Management must provide the necessary resources to complete projects. If Green Belts don't have time to work on improvement issues, or if participation on lean Six Sigma teams is minimal due to resource conflicts, frustration will occur. It's difficult to overcome the inertia of frustration, and if Green Belts aren't supported with the proper resources in an early project, it's unlikely they will be enthusiastic about continuing the effort.

Finally, change cannot happen if action isn’t taken. Too often, teams do an excellent job of identifying and defining opportunities, measuring and analyzing processes, and creating improvement plans, only to struggle during execution. If the team or the organization isn’t able to pull the trigger on their plans, the benefits will not be realized and the effort will have been wasted.

These five elements are key to driving change. When change isn’t occurring, or when projects aren’t being completed, the situation can be evaluated by identifying the observed outcomes and correlating them to a missing element. Once the owner of the missing element is identified, a direct link to what needs to happen can be established.

Hypothetical example

Weaver was in the fourth year of their lean Six Sigma implementation when their Master Black Belt, Clara Edwards, noticed they were going to fall well short of their goals. The story of how she and the Weaver leadership team were able to inject new life into their struggling lean Six Sigma program is a good learning experience for any organization who has hit a wall during their march toward operational excellence.

The first year of their journey was about getting started on the path of continual improvement. The initial focus was on identifying potential Green Belts and teaching them the lean Six Sigma philosophy and tool set. High potential employees were chosen for training, and excitement was great. Some initial projects were wildly successful; however several were disastrous as too many projects focused on the preferred interests of company leaders rather than on issues that would truly impact the business.

“It’s okay,” Edwards told Bert Harvey, Weaver’s president. “We’re making progress with respect to learning and utilizing the tools. You’ll see an improvement on cost savings next year as we get a better handle on what we should be addressing.”

As predicted, year two was a rousing success. The company felt good about the implementation of lean Six Sigma, and the business results were starting to reflect the effort. Training continued, and because of the success of year two, cost-savings goals were increased for year three. When year three’s goal was exceeded, Harvey and his executive team were convinced they had hit on the magic formula for success. 

During a planning meeting, Harvey shared his intent to elevate the year four goals for project completion and cost savings. Not wanting to set the team up for failure, Edwards expressed her concerns with the proposed targets. “The low-hanging fruit has been plucked, and a lot of the lean Six Sigma effort is now focused on strategic initiatives that take longer and have savings that can be difficult to define. I’ve also noticed our number of active projects has declined the last few months.”

“Don’t worry,” replied Harvey, “you’ve always been able to hit your goals, and I have confidence you’ll be able to deliver again.”

“That’s my concern,” continued Edwards. “It’s not about me. It shouldn’t be me hitting my goals. We have to engrain lean Six Sigma thinking into the culture and I’m not sure that is happening.”

“You’re over thinking it,” replied Harvey. “Just keep doing what you’re doing and the results will follow, just like they always have.”

Two months later, Edwards knew she had to shake things up. Projects were taking longer, the potential projects hopper hadn’t been replenished for over a quarter, and no one was stepping up to work on the projects that remained. 

At Edwards' request, the leadership team reluctantly met to discuss what was causing the slump in project completion. Edwards suggested the use of a prerequisite tree (PRT) to understand the situation. To combat resistance she was facing from executives who didn’t want to spend valuable time brainstorming reasons why "the lean Six Sigma group wasn’t doing their job delivering results," Edwards promised she could walk them through a PRT in less than 25 minutes. 

A PRT lays out what must happen upstream for a final outcome to occur. The team agreed the outcome of this PRT was the completion of a lean Six Sigma project. For a lean Six Sigma project to be completed, a lean Six Sigma team must be working on a project. From there, they noted three things must occur to allow a team to work on a project. First, a project must be assigned to a team. Second, team resources must be utilized. Third, a Green Belt must be leading the project. Each issue was further broken down to their reasonable end to identify everythng that must occur for the desired outcome to be achieved.

The PRT the Weaver leadership team developed is shown in figure 2.

Figure 2. Weaver PRT. Click for full size image.


Color coding was used to identify the objective (blue) and the status of each item. A green, yellow, or red designation was used to identify items that do not have a concern (green), those at risk (yellow), and show-stoppers (red). 

Also noted is a letter (V,S,I,R or A) correlating to which of the five elements of change (vision, skills, incentive, resources, or action) is missing. Yellow and red items include a number that corresponds to the item number on an action item list that was created to drive issue resolution.

“Now we have an understanding of why projects are bogging down,” said Edwards. “Let’s identify who can remove these roadblocks and make assignments so projects can start flowing freely again.”

Each element of change has an owner. In the case of Weaver, the president provides the vision, the master Black Belt provides skills and drives action, and functional directors provide incentives and resources. This is shown in Figure 3 below.

Figure 3


As shown in figure 4, an list of actions was developed to assign actions and give the leadership team an accountability tool. 

Figure 4. Click for full size image.


Some action items were wrapped up quickly. Black Belts and directors gathered their troops to brainstorm project ideas which were fed into the project prioritization tool. Training and mentoring continued, and templates for all tools were made readily available. 

The biggest struggle came in determining how much time team members should spend on lean Six Sigma projects and how to balance the work load in an environment of competing priorities. This analysis forced the prioritization issue onto the table, and drove some very healthy discussions around the vision and goals of the business. The leadership team recognized they wanted employees using the lean Six Sigma methodology and toolset to drive business goals such as bottom line growth. 

The mindset shifted from “what percent of time should my employees be spending on lean Six Sigma projects” to “what percent of time should my employees be spending on this function’s impact on the business goals.” The lean Six Sigma tools would be how employees would impact those goals.

During the next business review, Harvey applauded the work force for their contributions to the strength of the company. “However,” he continued, “we can and we must get better. We must never be satisfied, and lean Six Sigma is the philosophy that will continue to drive us forward.”

The message was received, and year four of Weaver’s journey revealed a renewed dedication to lean Six Sigma. As improvement opportunities were identified, teams were assigned to develop and implement new ways to conduct business. When issues arose, lean Six Sigma was the methodology used to address them. Edwards felt proud knowing she was bringing positive change to Weaver Industries.

This story demonstrates how a prerequisite tree can be an excellent tool to identify the sequential steps in a process, and understand where roadblocks are occurring. A prerequisite tree, when used in conjunction with the five elements of change, can be very effective at driving desired results.

Knoster, T. (1991) Presentation at TAS Conference, Washington D.C.; Adapted by Knoster from Enterprise Group, LTD.


About The Author

Barry Johnson’s picture

Barry Johnson

Barry Johnson serves as president of Performance Optimization Associates LLC, a performance improvement consulting group. Johnson has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Tulsa and a master’s degree in leadership from Grand Canyon University. He has more than 25 years of operations, engineering, and management experience in diverse industries such as oil and gas, automotive, consumer goods, electric utilities, and recreation. He can be contacted at barrygjohnson@sbcglobal.net.