Monthly Archives: April 2014

Managing Oneself: 3 Ways to Take Self-Control for Better LSS Results and Joyful Work

take-control1I’m in the process of developing a class on the fundamentals of management and was looking through a series of articles trying to find the best choices for this course, which is only four weeks long (a challenge in itself), when I came across one of my favorite Harvard Business Review articles by management guru Peter Drucker titled Managing Oneself.

Rereading the article I began to see connections between many issues plaguing not only Lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals, but business in general, primarily the problem of low engagement.

Lack of Engagement = Lack of LSS Results

There are a series of negative effects low engagement can lead to such as long project cycle times, poor project results, lack of sustainability in a LSS program, and ultimately, failure of a LSS initiative.

Gallup, arguably  the leading research organization on engagement, has been compiling data on engagement for years, and as the illustration below suggests, a lack of engagement can be what separates the low and high performing organizations.  I would argue that engagement levels are also a differentiator between low and high performing LSS teams and programs as well.

effects of disengagement from gallup










Keys to Managing Oneself

In Drucker’s article on managing oneself he argues that each of us needs to be our own CEO and take control of our own destiny by cultivating a deep self-understanding.  He suggests that to do this is a simple formula for success, which I’ve modified slightly for LSS.

True and Lasting LSS Excellence = LSS Strengths + Self-Knowledge

The process of managing oneself begins with five simple questions some of which I’ve modified to fit the LSS perspective:

  1. What is / are my LSS strengths?  What do I excel at doing?
  2. How do I work and learn?
  3. What are my values?
  4. Where do I belong?  In which type of environment do I thrive?
  5. What can I contribute that adds value to a LSS project / program?

These questions bring me back to the problem of engagement that, from Gallup’s perspective, center on 12 key elements illustrated below.  In some ways the 12 elements map nicely on top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that lead to self-actualization.  In essence, I would argue, and believe Gallup’s researchers would agree, that we need to have the basic needs met before we can progress up the ladder to the top engagement drivers.

q12 hiearchy












Looking at the 12 elements from a LSS perspective is the first step in understanding how to increase engagement in the projects we work on and the programs supporting LSS activities.

Q1-2 are basic needs such as training, software, text books, computers, etc.  Q3-6 are driven primarily by champions and sponsors.  Q7-10 are obviously focused on team dynamics.  Finally, Q11 and 12 are a combination of leadership feedback and individual growth opportunities.

My goal here is not to address all of the elements, but I believe it’s important as a LSS professional who is striving for success to have a complete understanding of all that may lead to increasing engagement, whether it be in a macro sense of achieving organizational objectives or on a more micro perspective such as a LSS project.

Managing Oneself = Increased LSS Engagement

My own dissertation research suggest we can control our engagement to some degree, and looking deeper into Drucker’s views on managing oneself I’ve developed some ways you can consider when taking control of your own level of engagement.

Tip #1 Capitalize on Your LSS Strengths and Avoid Your Weaknesses

Knowing what you do well will go a long way in driving your engagement levels higher, but sometimes what we think is a strength is not always the case.  One simple way of identifying strengths is to conduct a feedback analysis with those you work and live with.

Ask those you’ve worked with recently on a LSS project questions such as, “what did I really do well on project xyz?”, or “If I was to be your “go-to-guy / gal” on something LSS related what would it be?”.

These questions will start to develop themes in the answers that will lead to identifying your strength areas such as facilitating brainstorming sessions, telling the LSS project story to senior leaders, or taking complex concepts such as hypothesis testing and putting it into simple terms non-LSS professionals can understand.

You can also do your own strengths assessment by looking back over the last several projects and determining when you were in a state of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.  We’ve all been in a state of flow at some point in our lives when time seems to go by quickly and we get completely absorbed in an activity.

Finding flow usually comes when we are challenged to a degree that pushes us to our maximum ability level.  Something we can easily do is not likely to produce flow, but something challenging that we don’t fail at is primed for flow.

The opposite is also true when it comes to weaknesses.  Think about it this way, what’s something you really suck at doing?  Is it likely you will find flow and engagement doing this?  Highly doubtful.  Knowing what you don’t do well is just as important as knowing what you do do well.  Avoid doing what you suck at and you’re sure to get a quick boost in engagement!

“It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”  

Peter Drucker

Tip #2 Understand How You Best Work and Learn

Knowing whether you are best working individually or in a team will help you in your pursuit of engagement in addition to understanding how you best learn and process information.

Working well with others is a key element to LSS success, and knowing if you perform best as a team leader or member can be helpful in your pursuit of higher engagement.  Not all of us like to lead, and knowing this can lead to better results and higher engagement.

The roles we play in LSS are also crucial to driving engagement.  Some of us are best suited to coach and mentor while others are terrible and doing so.  Drucker also argues that knowing whether you produce the best results as a decision maker or adviser is important.  Some of us, myself include, don’t care or thrive at making decisions, and prefer the role of adviser.

Another important question is understanding how well you perform under stress.  Do you perform well under stress or do you prefer a structured and predictable environment in which to work?

How you process information and learn are also key factors to consider.  Are you a reader or a listener?  What medium do you best process information with?  How you learn is also important.  Are you a reader?  Writer?

As an example, I am far more successful when I’m working alone or with one or two people; mentoring or coaching; advising on what and how to do; working in a structured environment with low stress.

I also know that I learn mostly by reading, then writing about what I’ve read, and finally teaching about what I’ve read and written about.  For example, when I know I’m going to teach about a topic (i.e. fundamentals of management) I start by picking up an article or book (Drucker’s article), then I write about it (this blog post), and finally it’s time to teach!

“The better you know yourself, the better your relationship with the world.”  

Toni Collette

Tip #3 Know Where, What, and How You Add Value

Taking a lean view of everything you do in a typical workday from a value-added and non-value-added perspective of those around you (your customers and stakeholders) can be one simple way of determining how what you are currently doing adds or doesn’t add value.  This can also be a depressing proposition so be careful when taking it on!

Knowing where you add value is a critical element to engagement in that it leads to meaningful work.  Even though you may be performing some type of LSS task you thrive at if it doesn’t add value the work will have little meaning and decrease engagement.

Case in point, I once worked with a black belt who was a pro at using Minitab to complete statistical analysis and on one particular project he spent days analyzing data and generating dozens of graphs and statistical summaries, but when it all came down to what the team found value in all that was needed was a histogram and control chart.

All that extra work had no value to the team and he felt his work was all for nothing.  Needless to say, getting him involved on another project team was quite a challenge after this episode.

To begin the process of adding value I suggest starting with the objectives of your LSS team and / or program.  In analyzing the objectives which of them will require you to stretch to achieve the goal?  Which of the goals do you find meaningful?  Finally, which of the goals is visible and measurable?

In combination with tip #1 and #2 if you work at a task in which you are adding value, engagement is sure to follow!

“Do not try to change yourself-you are unlikely to succeed.  Work to improve the way you perform.”

Peter Drucker

Finding Joyful Work

There’s no better feeling in the world doing what you’re good at, and knowing what you’re doing is making a difference.  We as LSS professionals are blessed to have this opportunity each day as we strive to make improvements in processes that matter to our organizations.

Success doesn’t come without taking control of our careers and asking the right questions to determine where we are most likely to thrive, but by using the aforementioned tips my hope is that you will begin to understand how to become CEO of your situation and make changes as needed to find the engaging work environment you deserve!  W. Edwards Deming sums it up best stating:

“Why are we here?  We are here to come alive, to have fun, to have joy in work.”

10 Habits of High Performance Lean Six Sigma Professionals

good-habits-bad-habitsOver the past 15 years I’ve worked with and for some very successful and not so successful Lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals.  Recently, I took some time to think about what distinguished the high performers from the low performers.  Looking back, it comes down to a handful of “good” habits that differentiate the two groups.  Here’s my summary of the top 10 habits (in no particular order) that I’ve seen exhibited by top performers.

Habit #1: Pinpointed focus-Less is more!

As I’ve noted in a previous post, focused attention is critical to LSS success.  This also applies to the people performing the LSS activities.  High performers focus on one process, one problem, and one metric in the Define and Measure phases.

They also have pinpointed focus in the Analyze phase; selecting 3-5 root causes at most, which leads to just a handful of solutions to implement and monitor in the Improve and Control phases (think Pareto principle).

Minimal tool usage is also a high performance characteristic where instead of trying to use more tools high performers ask, “What are the minimum tools needed to achieve the desired result?”.  High performers know there is no correlation to number of tools used and probability of success (I would even argue it’s just the opposite-more tools = less chance of success).

Habit #2: Small documentation bites-Writing the DMAIC “story” one chapter at a time.

Telling the “story” of a project is often the last thing done in a project, and at that point there is usually a rush to complete the documentation, not to mention much of what happened early in the project is often forgotten.

High performers know that how the DMAIC story is told and written is just as important, perhaps even more important, than what the story consists of.  They start early and document often, taking small “bites” after each team meeting and phase gate to note key points of each chapter in the DMAIC story.

Habit #3: People first, process second.

I often say that LSS success is 90% people and 10% process, yet most of the focus gets put on the tools, statistics, etc. that are simply aids to achieving success through the people doing the work.

High performers know it’s all about the people and spend far more time than low performers picking team members, focusing on the emotions of team members, and constantly working to keep members engaged in the process.  In the end it’s not usually the tools that are used that lead to success, it’s the people who are chosen and are affected by the changes implemented.

Habit #4: Time management.

Time is the one resource we can’t buy, and knowing how to manage time is another habit of high performers.  Having the ability to say “no” is one common theme I find amongst high performers in that they know how to gracefully say no (when appropriate) to those asking for their help by redirecting them to others who can help and how the individual can help themselves.

They also schedule time with themselves to focus on project activities and use what I call a “set-it-and-forget-it” biweekly team meeting schedule.  This is a simple method in which you set a recurring meeting invite for 3-4 months for the same day, time, and place for team meetings.  Once you’ve set it you can forget it and focus on more important activities like planning your team meetings.

Habit #5: Creating supervisor support.

There should be no surprise that what we do at work is directly related to what our supervisor believes is important.  High performers understand that the support of their supervisor depends on how they feel about the value of LSS, specifically in relationship to the supervisor’s goals.

High performers spend time making the case not for how LSS is good for them individually, but instead link LSS to how it will help their supervisor succeed.  Making this connection increases the probability a supervisor will allow their direct report to spend the time needed for LSS to be successful.

Habit #6: Documented goals shared with others.

There’s tons of research on effective goal setting, and two common themes in the research suggest that to increase the chances for goals succeeding writing them down and sharing them with others aids in this success.

Most of us develop written performance plans, but many LSS professionals don’t document specifics around their projects that could increase the likelihood of success.  Sharing goals with fellow workers and even family members is also something high performers do frequently.  Having someone to hold you accountable will do wonders for keeping you on track to success.

Habit #7: Constant learning.

Just because you’ve become “certified” doesn’t mean the learning process should stop.  High performers recognize the importance of constant learning in all aspects of their professional and personal lives.

This type of learning doesn’t have to be pursuing a higher degree, in fact often times it’s not about adding more initials after their names, but instead a constant routine consumption of small learning bites in the form of reading blogs, trade journals, LinkedIn group postings, etc. that lead to the best constant learning activities.

Habit #8: Taking time to reflect.

In this non-stop 24/7/365 world where we are constantly connected most people don’t take time to disconnect and just spend time thinking.  Where we’ve been and what we’ve done serve as great predictors to where we’re headed in the future.

This doesn’t require a huge time commitment; just 30 minutes every week is all that most high performers need to reflect on the past and plan the path ahead.  This also falls into the “set-it-and-forget-it” category in which high performers I’ve worked with schedule a weekly “clarity break” at the same time, day, and place each week.

Habit #9: Having a mentor and / or coach.

High performers also recognize they don’t have all the answers and need help from time to time.  This help is not only technical in nature, but also emotional.  If I had to rank this list of habits this one would certainly be in the top three.

Finding someone who’s done it more than you, succeeded and failed more than you, knows more than you, and has the heart of a teacher wanting to share their experiences is difficult to do, but when you find someone like this and add them to your life it’s like quadrupling your chances of success.

On the flip side, being a mentor or coach also helps high performers outperform low performers.  Since I started teaching and mentoring I’ve found that it motivates me to learn more about what I teach and provides positive reinforcement when I see others learning because of my mentoring or coaching.

Habit #10: Business focused-aka it’s all, well, mostly, about the money!

Finally, high performers realize that long term LSS success is knowing that it’s mostly about the money.  Being able to make a business case for LSS will ensure you can describe why, from a business perspective, your project / program are important.

Without the connection to the business, senior leaders are unlikely to support LSS, which we all know is one of the most critical-to-success factors in sustaining a LSS initiative in any organization.  High performers can always answer the questions, “Why does this LSS project matter to the business?” and / or “Why is the LSS program important to the long term success of the business?”.

Parting thoughts.

These are just a few of the habits of the high performers I’ve worked with over the years of implementing LSS and executing projects.  What are your experiences with high performers?  What characteristics, habits, behaviors, etc. do you believe have led to their success?

Planning High Impact Lean Six Sigma BS Sessions

brainstormingOne of the most common challenges I find working with my clients is finding high impact Lean Six Sigma (LSS) project ideas.  I would argue that projects are the most critical element to LSS success.  Think about it, even if you have the best people, training, tools, templates, etc., it all comes down to the impact you have on the performance of the business, which naturally leads to the projects you select.

The challenge then becomes how to find these types of projects that are a good fit for the LSS DMAIC approach.  In general, what I consider a viable LSS project meets these criteria:

  1. No known solution.
  2. Ability to complete in 4-6 months.
  3. Existing process.
  4. Quantifiable from a process and business case perspective.
  5. Linked to voice of business (VOB) and / or voice of customer (VOC).

Each of these criteria help to filter ideas and opportunities that are a good fit for LSS.  If a solution is known don’t over complicate it with LSS.  Taking longer than 4-6 months almost guarantees a loss in interest and lackluster results.  Designing a new process is a great opportunity for methodologies such as design for Six Sigma, but not LSS.

If we can’t measure the process from both a process and business case perspective it will be hard to know if we’ve truly had an impact.  Finally, if it doesn’t matter to the business or your customers, finding people to commit to the project will be difficult, and perhaps more importantly, the results will have little impact.

What I have found to be one effective way in finding great project ideas comes from a year of experimenting with different ideas to brainstorm.  The following is a process that I’ve found typically yields around 10 ideas per participant.

Process Inputs

To prepare for the session your participants need to come prepared with focus areas that could benefit from the use of LSS.  Four of the most common areas I use are:

  1. Personal performance plans
  2. Team / departmental objectives
  3. Business strategic and tactical objectives
  4. Budgets

I list these in order of likely engagement levels by those taking on a project.  We are more likely to be engaged in something listed on our personal performance plan than on something in the overall organization’s plan.  In essence, there’s way more skin in the game when we get personal, which leads to a greater probability of success.

When reviewing plans take a highlighter and look for keywords such as “increase”, “improve”, “decrease”, “reduce”, “minimize”, “maximize”, and “streamline”.  These keywords hit on a number of the aforementioned criteria such as being measurable and an existing process.

Budgets are also a great place to look at where high dollar ideas may exist.  Where most of the money is being spent is likely where most money can also be saved.

Brainstorming Ideas

What I’ve found to be most effective in brainstorming sessions is to start with individual brainstorming and then move on to group brainstorming.  This past year I conducted a number of sessions and found that participants came up with 10 times the number of ideas when we started with individual brainstorming.  The problem with group brainstorming is there tends to be a lot of talking, but no writing of ideas.

I keep it simple in this process using post it notes and markers to document ideas.  I also use the following “rules” to guide the participants:

  • Start idea, opportunity, etc. with a keyword such as “improve”, “reduce”, “streamline”, etc.
  • Include the process name in the idea.
  • Limit the idea to 5-10 words.
  • One idea per post it.

By starting the idea with one of the suggested keywords we immediately get a sense of what the project goal would be (i.e. increase, streamline, etc.), and ensure a greater probability that it is something we can also measure, which leads in most cases to an obvious primary metric.  Including the process name helps identify the potential process owner / project champion and likely team members and customers.

I sometimes add an element of competition to the individual brainstorming by tracking the number of ideas each person comes up with.  After individual brainstorming, use the same process only in groups to build on the individual ideas.

With a full list of ideas, narrowing the list to the top ideas can become overcomplicated if you start scoring and ranking with overly cumbersome matrices, scoring criteria, etc.  I tend to just focus on having open discussions with participants on how they feel about the ideas and why they think one particular idea is worth pursuing over another.  Even if some ideas have greater potential for impact the ideas that have the most individual passion fueling them are more likely to succeed than those that simply get the highest ranking score.

Another opportunity of having a full list of ideas is that it provides a great input to developing a training plan for future needs.  Most organizations tend to start with some generic objective such as training X number of people (push focused) instead of first looking at the demand for those people (pull focused).  With your queue of high impact projects defined you can use them to “pull” the right number of people into the training process.

Great project ideas don’t materialize on their own, but if you follow a structured approach as outlined here your chances of long term success are bound to increase.  My advice is to not over complicate the process.  A simple structured brainstorming session or two is all it takes to find golden opportunities buried in your organization.