Monthly Archives: May 2014

Lean Six Sigma Kick-Off Meeting Success Tips Part 1

kickoffOne of the most common questions I receive from my clients right after they go through Lean Six Sigma (LSS) training is, “What should I do at my team’s first meeting?”  No matter how much you love or hate meetings they are the primary mechanism we use to drive LSS projects from Define to Control, and how you use your team’s time in those meetings can make or break a project.

To describe this process I’ve broken it into three unique phases that include 1) preparing for the meeting, 2) conducting the meeting, and 3) what to do after the meeting.  In this post I’ll address how to prepare for the meeting, and in parts two and three I’ll cover conducting the meeting, and what to do after, respectively.

Preparing to Meet.

Getting off to a great start is key to overall success of your LSS project, and to do so requires planning.  You can almost guess where to start in planning an effective meeting; you guessed it-creating an agenda!

While it seems so simple, I often find this basic step is something most people skip, which leads to the inevitable meeting that wanders from one topic to the next; getting nowhere fast!  My approach is simple and straightforward and includes 5 key agenda items that are as follows:

  1. Introduction to the project by the champion
  2. Basic overview of LSS (i.e. DMAIC process)
  3. Agreement on project charter
  4. Action items
  5. Meeting cadence

Why are we here?  What is my role in this project?  Why should I care about this problem / opportunity?  These are all questions the project champion should address in kicking off the meeting.  Every team member needs to feel their time will be well spent, and their unique knowledge, experience, etc. are critical to the success of the project.  The project champion needs to be able to convince the team members without them success is unlikely.

I also find that for many people involved in LSS projects they know little to nothing about the process and want to jump right to solutions-something I’m convinced is built into our DNA!  To avoid this from happening you as a facilitator need to provide a basic overview of the DMAIC approach.  A simple tactic I often use is to go right to the idea of just jumping to solutions and what skipping the DMA phases could look like if we did so.

For example, if you ask the team “What if we skip the define phase?  What could we expect?”  You’re likely to hear, “Well, we’d probably be improving something, but without clear definition of the problem it may not be the right thing to be working on.”

You can also do the same for the measure phase that would lead to not knowing if we’ve made an improvement since we don’t know where we’re starting from.  Essentially, you want the team to understand that if you skip phases it will only lead to less than stellar results.

The heart of the meeting (75-90% of the meeting) should be spent on the project charter.  I focus on 4 key aspects that include, 1) problem statement, 2) 1-2 performance metrics that can be used to determine the size of the problem and how we’ll know we’ve made an impact, 3) the business case or how we translate the problem into dollars, and 4) the goal or vision of success for the project; typically measured as a percent reduction, increase, etc. in the performance metric.

Action items are always a great finishing, and eventually starting point, for all meetings.  Keep it simple with no more than one or two action items per team member.  I like to ask, “What’s the most impactful thing each of us can do based on what has been discussed today?”

One of the most common frustrations I find my clients telling me about is the job of babysitting other team member’s action items, which is usually due to taking on too many action items and not having enough time to complete them.  In the end more action items almost never leads to more results, it just leads to more facilitator frustration.  Having only one action item also gives little wiggle room to team members for making excuses.  Nobody wants to have to report they are so poor at managing their time that they couldn’t even get one action item completed!

A final, yet highly impactful agenda item, is determining your team’s meeting cadence.  I find that teams who plan one meeting at time tend to take far longer to complete their projects compared to those teams who use what I call a “set-it-and-forget-it” approach to scheduling meetings.

The set-it-and-forget-it approach is simple.  Pick a day, time, location, and cadence that the team can agree on, and then use your organizations calendaring tool to set a recurring meeting for the next 3-4 months or however long you feel the team will need to meet.  Once this is done you can forget about trying align team member’s calendars for every meeting-a real hair pulling exercise for most of us!

A few other things to consider are checking out the room before the meeting to ensure it meets the needs of what you have planned; doing a technology check to ensure projectors, laptop connections, power outlets, etc. are functional; and sending out any pre-read materials that will speed up the process and / or add to the discussions.

Keep it simple. 

Taking a simplified approach to kicking off your project will ensure you don’t try to do too much in the first meeting; a common failure mode for new belts.  Often, I find newly trained belts think they can cover a dozen topics in the first meeting only to find out they can get through just a few.

Your primary focus for the first meeting should simply be to ensure everyone is on the same page with what you are trying to do, how it will be measured, and what success looks like from both a process and financial perspective; in other words agreement on the project charter.

5 Tactics to Successfully Starting a Lean Six Sigma Project

startHow well you finish a Lean Six Sigma (LSS) project can depend on how well you start it.  For many of my clients getting a project started is a challenge because as a project facilitator they are usually stepping into a process, problem, etc. that they are not always directly involved in.  This can sometimes be interpreted as, “I’m here to fix a problem you couldn’t fix on your own.”

As the person sitting on the other side of the table from the LSS facilitator (this is usually a champion, sponsor, etc.) you can imagine this doesn’t lead to a good start unless they are completely open to the belief that all processes have opportunity for improvement.  We all know this is the case, in that no process is perfect, well, no process except the ones we own!

So how can we get off to a good start with a LSS project so that we have a higher probability of finishing strong?  In this post I’ll share five tactics to successfully starting a LSS project that are simple, yet effective, in getting off to a great start.

Tactic 1: Keep the conversation “friendly”.

Nobody wants to have a confrontational discussion where you begin by focusing in on a problem the other person has the power to fix, but has yet to do anything to resolve the issue.  The goal of the initial conversation is not only to build your knowledge of the problem, but also to begin developing a trusting relationship.

In his best selling book, The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni argues that the first aspect of having an effective team is building trust.  Although you’re not building a team at this point of the process you are building a relationship with the project owner, and establishing a trusting relationship is critical to success.  So how do we build trust?

Trust comes from knowing one another, and one simple way to do this is to get to know one another from a personal perspective.  Some ways of getting to know one another can focus on questions relating to growing up, going to college, career path, etc.  Start with getting to know the other person.

Tactic 2: Avoid starting an argument.

Starting a project can become confrontational if you begin attacking the problem right from the start, which often leads to an argument.  I was watching a show on the Food Network last night where a restaurant owner was struggling and asked the “professionals” from this show to come in and help him turn the business around.  The consultant began by having the restaurant owner cook some of his sauce, which was a recipe that had been handed down from two generations of his family.

After tasting the sauce the consultant said it tasted like battery acid.  You can imagine what happened next.  As a proud Italian the owner got confrontational and instead of building trust the consultant put up a wall between the two of them.

A better approach to this situation would have been for the consultant to gain agreement that the owner needs help, and by working together they will succeed, which leads to the third tactic.

Tactic 3: Get the other person saying “yes” immediately.

Focus in on the problem and determine where you will have agreement there is opportunity to improve.  I like to use data for this tactic because it doesn’t focus on the person, but instead on the process.  In the previous scenario the consultant could have used the declining sales data for the restaurant to get the owner to say yes that the restaurant is struggling and help is needed.

This works the same for a LSS project if you go in with data to point out there has been a decline in process performance, customer satisfaction has been declining, etc.  This takes the discussion away from the people in the process and centers on the results of the process, which is ultimately all that matters.

Tactic 4: Show respect for the opinion for others.

Many times my clients go into a situation and think they know how to solve the problem and spend all the time during the initial project scoping discussion laying out their opinion instead of spending most of the time listening to the process owner and their perspective on the situation.

One simple way to show respect to the opinion of others is to say nothing, but simply listen and wait until the data comes in later to dispute their opinion, if necessary.  What happens quite frequently is that when the data does come in their opinion is correct.  In either case it’s better to keep your mouth shut and your ears open-a simple tactic that will show respect with little effort on your part.

Tactic 5: Throw down a challenge.

This final tactic is one that can be used to motivate the other person to take the initiative to move the project forward.  I tell my clients over and over again that the most critical element to long term LSS project success is the level of engagement in the champion.  If you have an engaged champion you’re likely to succeed long term, but with little engagement once the team disbands after the project is complete, long term sustainment is unlikely.

Years ago Charles Schwab had a plant manager at a steel mill who was struggling to meet production demands so one day he walked into the plant and took a piece of chalk and wrote a giant “6” on the ground leading into the mill.

When the night shift came in they asked about what the number 6 meant and were told that’s how many heats the day shift completed.  In the morning when the day shift came to work they found someone had replaced the 6 with a 7; the number of heats the night shift completed.  This began a friendly competition between the shifts, and before long they were producing more than 10 heats per shift.

Sometimes historical data can be used to show the other person they and their team are capable of doing much better than their current performance.  You can also use benchmark data from other companies as a source of motivating others that they are better than the competition.  However you do it, a challenge is something an engaged champion is likely to latch onto and use as the fuel they need to energize a team to improve.

Getting of to a good start.

How you begin doesn’t always predict how you will finish, but starting strong by using these tactics will increase your chances of getting a champion engaged in a project that leads to long term results.  As a facilitator you are simply there to get the process started and use the DMAIC approach to determine where to focus, what to do, and validate short term results, but LSS is not about the short term; it’s about making long lasting improvements that stick.

By keeping it friendly, avoiding conflict, gaining agreement, respecting others, and laying down a challenge you are more likely to walk away from a project in the Control phase with the confidence that years later the results will continue.

p.s. The aforementioned tactics are a modified version of Dale Carnegie’s ways for how to win people to your way of thinking from a LSS project perspective. 


4 Steps to High Performance LSS Project Mentoring

memlossDo you remember your first day of Lean Six Sigma (LSS) training?  If you’re like most of us you probably remember the day, but not most of what was covered in the training session!

The curve below illustrates the potential magnitude of the memory loss in that just 24 hours after training up to 70% of what you have learned is typically forgotten, and within a week the loss has increased to 90%!  This curve, referred to as the “forgetting curve” was a theory developed by Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 1800’s.  

Whether you agree with the curve theory or not, I would suggest most of us agree we forget more than we remember most of the time.  

learning-retention curve









One of the key elements I’ve discovered that is critical to long term LSS success is having a mentor to help you apply what you’ve learned in training.  Over the past several years I’ve worked with clients who have gone through training, and those that have been mentored in almost all cases do better than those who don’t seek out a mentor.

Many of you as experienced LSS professionals are in a position to offer mentoring to those you work with, and in this post I’d like to share my thoughts and process for how to become a high performance LSS mentor that ultimately leads to a much flatter learning curve.

Step 1: Define what “success” means to you and your mentee.

How you define success should be the first step in the mentoring process.  Many of you are no doubt familiar with the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of which is beginning with the end in mind.  What does the end of the mentoring relationship look like?  What will the mentee be able to do that they couldn’t do before the mentoring relationship began?  These are questions to consider with your mentee when starting your relationship with one another.

To look at this from a LSS perspective, the following are a few ways I define success with the clients I mentor.

  • Certification achieved within 2 years after training.
  • Consistent progress in which overall project cycle time is 4-6 months from Define to Control.
  • Demonstrated applied knowledge of the LSS tools.
  • Completing projects that have a positive business impact related to financial performance, risk reduction, safety, reliability, etc.
  • Communication of success through a documented project “story”.

Step 2: Determine how to measure success.

How do you know you’ve achieved success if you don’t measure it!  I like to use the analogy of going on a diet without a scale as a way of looking at setting a goal (i.e. losing weight), but without some quantifiable way of validating progress (i.e. stepping on the scale each week) you can’t be for certain you are making progress.

It’s no different with LSS mentoring in that we need to determine how we will know we’ve been successful by using some measure of performance.  Back to my aforementioned list of objectives, we can measure being successful with some of the goals in somewhat of an attribute way (i.e. yes/no for certification) while others can be measured in a more continuous way (i.e. project cycle time in months).

Some goals can also be considered “leading” indicators or goals, such as project cycle time, while others are more “lagging” indicators, such as achieving certification within 2 years after training.  I like to have a combination of both types of goals in that if we are on track with the leading indicator we are most likely to achieve the lagging indicator linked to it.

Step 3: Pinpoint the few critical behaviors that will lead to success.

Once you’ve identified the goals you and your mentee are focused on and how they will be measured the focus shifts to taking action, aka behaving in a manner that leads to success.  99.99999% of success, I would argue, lies in what we do after setting goals, and understanding what behaviors lead to success is a concept applied behavioral science refers to as “pinpointing”.

Taking a page from the Pareto Principle, the same applies to behaviors in that just a few critical behaviors drive the majority of results, so the challenge lies in determining what those critical few are.

When considering critical behaviors you will also want to keep in mind that a behavior is something you should be able to observe and measure.  A simple brainstorming session is all that’s needed to identify critical behaviors.  I’ve also learned over the years of mentoring numerous LSS professionals that a common theme in certain behaviors always seems to lead to success.

One simple example is having a routine team meeting cadence.  I’ve found that those I mentor who have a “set it and forget it” approach to setting up recurring team meetings on a bi-weekly basis tend to be far more successful that those who work from one meeting to the next, which often leads to several weeks and / or months between meetings, all of which significantly increases project cycle time; a key performance indicator I use to measure success.

Step 4: Monitor critical behaviors, provide feedback, and reinforce performance.

Now all that is left to do is monitor performance and reinforce the behavior to sustain or correct it.  This goes back to getting a handle on your ABC’s of behavior knowing that what happens after a behavior is observed is the most critical to sustaining or correcting the behavior.  To get the best results behavioral science tells us that positive reinforcement is the best way to sustain desired behavior.

Keep in mind that what I find to be positive reinforcement (i.e. public recognition) others may not find reinforcing so it’s always a good idea to understand what your mentee considers reinforcing.  I often incorporate this into the first step of this process by developing a list of things the mentee likes and then randomly selecting from the list as needed.

A final consideration in this step is that for the reinforcement to really have impact it needs to take place during or soon after the behavior is observed.  If the mentee also knows that they will very likely receive reinforcement it also adds to the likelihood the reinforced behavior will be repeated.

One simple way of giving positive reinforcement for one of the goals stated earlier related to LSS tool usage is to give public or private (depending on your mentee’s preference) as they are using a tool in a session and / or directly after the session.

Feedback is also critical to success, but is not the same as reinforcement, a consequence (the “C” in ABC) that comes after behavior takes place, but is instead an antecedent (the “A” in ABC) that provides input to the behavior.  Effective feedback should be specific and directly related to the critical behavior that is desired.

For example, in the case of tool usage, reinforcement of the desired behavior of applying the tool correctly to the project is a great opportunity to provide positive reinforcement (i.e. “Great job using the C/E diagram to drive out potential causes to problem XYZ!”) and also an opportunity to provide feedback for the next time the tool is used (i.e. “The next time you use the C/E diagram you may want to consider stating your effect in the form of a question, which may increase the number of potential causes the team comes up with.”).

Using a robust process leads to high performance relationships and results!

Long term LSS success, I would argue, is not what we do before, but instead what we do after training.  Mentoring is just one of the activities that takes place after training, but from my experience it is the most critical to success; especially when we start to consider how much is lost after training.

Having a mentor will increase the probability that the mentee’s loss curve will not be nearly as steep as it would be without a mentor, and taking this four step approach will ensure a robust process and relationship develop, ultimately leading to success.

What’s worked for you as a mentor and / or mentee?  Is having a mentor as important as I’ve eluded to in this post?  I’d love to hear your comments!




The Millennial Challenge: 3 Predictions for The Future of LSS

crystal ball_2What does the future hold for Lean Six Sigma (LSS)?  How will LSS professionals have to adapt to the future to continue to add value?  What should LSS professionals be doing to prepare for the future?  These are three questions I plan to address in this post, based partially on facts, predictions, and my professional opinion.

Future of LSS: The Millennial Generation

First, there’s no denying that the future is about Millennials.  For those of you who don’t know what a Millennial is they are, according to Pew Research Center, individuals born from 1981-2001, and, according to The Washington Post, will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025.

What this means for LSS professionals is that we are likely to be working primarily with Millennials in the not-so-distant future, which suggests we better start preparing now how best to tap into their abilities, characteristics, beliefs, values, etc.

Jessica Brack at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School argues that Millennials are unlike previous generations such as the Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers who believe in a more command-and-control approach to management, work as individuals, perceive managers as the experts, and look to their organizations to plan their careers.  In some respects this group can be characterized as “cowboys”.

Millennials, on the other hand, are characterized as “collaborators”.  They tend to be tech-savvy multi-taskers, view managers as coaches and / or mentors, and are constantly in pursuit of learning opportunities.  Some other characteristics of Millennials are that they are the most educated generation ever, are achievement oriented and socially conscious, and expect their employers to act in a socially responsible manner.

The YouTube video below is somewhat sarcastic in nature regarding working with and managing Millennials, but not too far off from what the research suggest, and my personal experience managing and working with this generation.

The Future of LSS aka LSS in 140 Characters or Less

Without question the foundation of the future of LSS will be Millennials.  One of the biggest challenges I see facing those of us preparing for this shift in demographics is the short attention span Millennials are perceived to have.

Prediction #1: Gone are the days of 2 and 4 week classroom training. 

I’ve already noticed the short attention span not only in Millennials, but many of the older students I’ve taught in recent years.  Teaching in a traditional classroom is a battle for attention from distracting technology found in our pockets and on our desks.  There is no evidence to suggest this is going to get any better with fewer gadgets entering the workspace, so we’d better deal with it in how we conduct LSS training.

An argument can be made that much of the traditional model of training currently used (i.e. 2 week GB, 4 week BB) from a lean perspective of “value” can be considered waste if it is not used shortly after training, which is often the case with the vast majority of the training material we currently use.

Think of it this way, look back on your first few projects and then compare what you learned in your training to what was actually needed to complete the project and if you end up with more than 25% of training materials used in your projects I would classify you as an “outlier”.  The challenge then becomes how do we tackle the issue of short attention spans and create greater focus and perceived value, which leads to the next prediction.

Prediction #2: Asynchronous online and face-to-face JIT coaching will replace classroom training. 

To some degree this prediction is already coming true with all the online training available, but most, I would argue, are still taking a traditional classroom approach, but that will change as more Millennials become LSS professionals.

Asynchronous online training offers a number of advantages such as bite-size learning opportunities to create a narrowed focus, catered training to match the needs of a specific project, and the ability to collaborate with other learners; three challenges / problems with the current classroom approach.

Taking an asynchronous approach to training also allows for greater flexibility in training, which is also a key trait of Millennials in that they prefer flexibility and an unstructured approach to work; both of which are hard to achieve with the traditional classroom mode of training.

I also believe that coaching will become a more critical element to LSS success as Millennials take center stage in the world of LSS.  Brack argues that Millennials have been raised on constant coaching and feedback and expect it in the workplace.  This also plays into my belief that positive reinforcement (see my previous post on ABC’s) is one of the most underutilized resources a LSS coach can use to motivate a new belt.

The above YouTube video made fun of the constant need for positive feedback, but in this digital world where we are all receiving feedback and reinforcement thousands of times a day from our gadgets we too expect it from those with which we work.

Prediction #3: Less-is-more will be the new norm in LSS training and application.

Some of you will probably be thinking at this point how are we going to teach all the tools, concepts, etc. related to LSS if we have less time!  The answer is we aren’t going to teach it at all!  The current model of teaching requires that we teach everything because our audience is everybody, but in the future if we are working one-on-one less-is-more will become the new norm.

This means as a coach we’ll need to determine what is needed and then deliver training and coach JIT based on the need.  Millennials want to understand the “big picture” and have to see value in what they are learning that will help them make the picture become reality, which the current classroom model of training doesn’t do very well.  We will need to constantly be thinking about what and why we are teaching / coaching a Millennial because that is exactly what they are doing when we present topics, concepts, techniques, etc. to them.

The Good News

The great thing about the Millennial generation is that they are primed for success.  Much of the research, and my personal experience, suggests that Millennials are continual learners, they seek knowledge once they have a need (i.e. the teacher will appear when the student is ready!).  They are also more inclined to collaborate and work as a team instead of seeking individual glory; another key element to LSS success.

We have a choice as to how we approach this generation.  We can be “cowboys” and try to force Millennials to conform, which in most cases they will simply wait us out to retire and die and then do it their way, or more likely go work for someone who understands them better, or we can face the challenge, or perhaps better stated, opportunity, head-on and start facing the reality that they are the future of LSS!  What are you going to do?