Monthly Archives: June 2014

6 Tips for Telling and Selling Lean Six Sigma Project Stories

onceuponatimeEveryone loves a good story, but even the greatest story doesn’t come to life unless the storyteller tells the story in a way that draws in their audience.  To some degree a Lean Six Sigma (LSS) project is a story that progresses through five “chapters” of the DMAIC process.  In this post I’ll share some tips on how to effectively tell your LSS story to help inspire others to get excited about wanting to use LSS to improve their own processes.

Tip #1-You are foremost a salesperson for LSS.

When I work with new champions and belts I always tell them that your objectives with all LSS projects are twofold.  First, you want to achieve the objectives set out by the champion and your team outlined in the project charter, but a second goal also exists in which you want to create LSS “disciples” of your team members and those affected by the project who will help spread the LSS “gospel” (aka good news) throughout the organization.

To some degree the second objective is more important early on in the deployment process where you are trying to change your culture by using a structured process such as LSS.  Each project has the potential to create 5-10 LSS disciples who will either spread the good or bad news about LSS, depending on how you approach your project.

How you “sell” LSS to others is no different than selling any other product or service.  First, you identify a “need” for improvement (i.e. the problem, opportunity, etc.).  Second, you provide the method (i.e. DMAIC) to address the need and resolve the issue identified by your prospect.  One way to do this is through telling your LSS story in a way that relates to the need of the person you are talking with.

Tip #2-Know your audience.

This is where I see many belts struggle.  The key to telling your story is to know your audience and what they care about.  For example, management could care less about p values and control limits, but often times I find belts trying to explain what these numbers mean-what they mean to management is confusion and over complication of LSS; neither of which lead to leadership engagement.

Knowing your audience means you need to have multiple versions of your story to tell.  The three most common versions I find helpful are leadership, technical, and grass roots.  At the leadership level you need to be able to tell the story in dollars and sense.  I say “sense” not in the financial perspective, but in the practical application sense.  Leadership cares primarily about one thing-business results.  Telling your story with a bottom line impact is 99% of what it takes to sell LSS to leadership.

The technical audience is that of primarily your peers or those who you may see as potential belts who have a passion for problem solving, systems thinking, and statistical analysis.  These are the people who get excited about p values and conducting DOE’s.  Telling a story to these individuals is one you want to include p values, graphs, charts, etc., because this is the stuff that gets them excited!

The final group are the ones who really have the power to change a culture, what I call grass roots individuals.  These are the individual contributors who are primarily in team member roles, but also do the “real” work each day.  In many organizations they are the fire fighters putting out the fires each day, and when they see the power of LSS to help them put fires out and prevent them from recurring a culture begins to change.

Tip #3-Keep it short and sweet.

Have you ever heard someone tell a story and after a few minutes you find yourself thinking, “enough already, get to the point!”.  Many a LSS project story has been told that fits into this perspective.  Think of how you might Tweet your project story in 140 characters and you’ve captured the attention span of most people these days where we are constantly fighting to maintain focus.

Some questions to consider when telling your story are:

  • What was the problem / opportunity?
  • Who contributed?
  • Why did it matter to the business (i.e. business case)?
  • What was the starting point (i.e. baseline metric / process)?
  • What was the biggest cause to the problem?
  • What were the top solutions implemented?
  • What was the result (i.e. primary metric and financial)?
  • How were the results sustained?
  • What were the lessons learned?

Staying focused on answering this short list of questions will lead to a story that gets to the key points quickly.

Tip #4-Minimize the PowerPoint madness.

PowerPoint is the most preferred medium for telling our story, and it can do a good job if used effectively.  There are a list of issues you have no doubt encountered while sitting through a presentation such as too much text on a single slide, too many slides, overly complicated graphs, charts, and illustrations, etc.

I suggest starting with an essentialist perspective when creating your slide deck.  Begin with one slide per phase and ask the question, “What is the one thing my audience needs to know about what we did in this phase?”.  Build from this and work to minimize the number of slides and the volume of text on each slide.

Another suggestion is to use an alternative approach to telling your story such as a video or a presentation using PowToon.  I’ve done a few PowToon presentations and the result was exactly as I wanted in that people left telling others about what they saw and heard-exactly what you are aiming for after telling your story!

Tip #5-Practice makes perfect.

This seems like a simple tip, but far too frequently the first go around on the presentation is at the actual report out.  The problem is usually one that leads to not having enough time to present the full story, which leads to rushing through the best part-a happy ending!

Practicing at least a handful of times before an actual presentation will ensure your story matches the time available, and allows for a refining or polishing of your story to hit on all the key points.

If you do use PowerPoint I suggest using the record option to narrate your slides.  This will give you an opportunity to not only put yourself in the presenter role, but also to play the role of an audience participant.  Sometimes we think we come across clear and understandable in our presentations, but later on when we do have an opportunity to listen or view the presentation our perspective changes.

Tip #6-60 seconds to culture change.

My final tip is to always have a 60 second version of your story ready to tell anyone you might run into at work, home, grocery store, church, etc.  Every day we have the opportunity to spread the good news about LSS, but we can’t do this unless we have our story ready to tell.

One way I’ve found this to be helpful is when someone tells me about a problem they are having at work.  It’ll start out with something like, “We just can’t seem to do xyz without making mistakes and causing our customers a lot of problems.”, to which I’ll reply, “I’ve encountered a problem like that before and here’s what my team and I did…”.  This will usually end up leading to questions about how they might apply LSS, or at a minimum one of the tools, to improve their process.

Telling your LSS story is just one more way to help change a culture, but if you can’t effectively tell your story to others it can backfire, causing others to believe LSS is too complicated and technically focused.  Your ultimate goal in telling your LSS story is to create converts to the methodology by simplifying the approach and selling the potential results that come from taking on a project.

By learning how to effectively tell your story in a way that draws in your audience you are more likely to get the response of, “Tell me more about this LSS methodology and how I might use it to improve my situation.”.  With that as a starting point you are bound to have a happy ending to the story!

Less but Better: Becoming a LSS Essentialist

essentialismRecently, I’ve been reading a book titled Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, and it got me thinking about how we as Lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals tend to overcomplicate much of what we do in the pursuit perfection.  What I’ve observed in myself and many of the clients I’ve worked with over the past decade is that we tend to pursue more rather than less when completing projects.

Pursuing more tends to work against one of the goals, arguably the most important goal, we strive for when deploying a process improvement program / methodology such as LSS.  That is the goal of changing a culture from one of fire fighting to fire prevention.  What I’ve seen with clients and organizations I’ve been an employee in is that when we overcomplicate the process people tend to run, not walk, in the opposite direction!

I can understand why this happens because as someone who love tools, statistics, templates, etc. related to process improvement we tend to use more than is really needed to get the desired results.  The problem is that more tools usually doesn’t lead to better results; it leads to more confusion, complexity, and stress for our teams.

What I propose in this posting is a new perspective on LSS from the viewpoint of an essentialist-what I’m calling a LSS Essentialist.  My hope is by sharing some of the essentialist techniques I’ve been using for the past year I might kick-start some thoughts in your daily LSS activities that will lead to greater engagement in LSS activity, and ultimately sustained culture change.

What is Essentialism?

The short definition of essentialism is the disciplined pursuit of less but better.  This sounds easy, and I would argue it probably was 10 years ago, but today with smartphone technology and communication outlets such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook constantly following us around in our back pockets it becomes quite challenging to do anything to a lesser degree.

Think about the last time you were truly bored and had nothing to do to keep you occupied.  Hard to do isn’t it.  With our smartphones and tablets at our disposal no matter where we are unless we actually unplug and walk away we live in a world of constant connection that can lead to trying to do too much.

The saddest part of this is that with all the technology we now have, and the information at our fingertips when we want it, we are more likely to pursue even more NOT less!  Unfortunately, from my experience this leads to doing a bunch of stuff that is average versus a few things with excellence.

The challenge is how can we get better at LSS (or anything that consumes our time) by doing less?  I believe it starts with the mindset that perfection is a myth (sorry Womack and Jones), and chasing it only leads to frustration.  Instead of chasing perfection we should simply pursue improvement over the current state with an essentialist mindset, but what does that mean?

Becoming a LSS Essentialist.

To become a LSS Essentialist we need to begin with the definition of essentialism, specifically on the key words of less and better.   How, as a LSS practitioner, can you become better by doing less?  I would argue it starts with understanding what is essential in effectively executing a LSS project.

If I were to sum up the “essentials” of a successful LSS project they would include the following:

  • Clear problem statement
  • Metric(s)
  • Goal / vision of success
  • Current state process understanding and performance
  • Root causes
  • Solutions / improved process
  • Validated results of solutions
  • Sustainment plan
  • Financial validation

To become an essentialist begin with the mindset of what is the minimum I need to do to effectively to achieve the goal(s) of my project?  This becomes the foundation for action.

From a practical standpoint here are my thoughts on how to take an essentialist approach to a project.  Beginning with the problem statement, the essentialist will focus on only one problem. More problems equals more time, more challenges, more causes, more metrics, more solutions, more complexity, more stress, and doesn’t necessarily equal more results.

One problem leads to the next step in becoming an essentialist, which is one number to measure the problem.  I suggest one number to measure the process performance and one number to measure financial performance.  With both you will know the current and improved state of the process from both a performance and financial perspective.

One goal is the next step in becoming an essentialist.  What will be your target for performance?  Aiming at multiple targets leads to complexity and confusion.  Pick one and be done!

Tools used in the DMAIC process can be another big source of anti-essentialism.  We as LSS practitioners love our tools and can sometimes believe more is better, when more tends to be a turnoff to those we are working with.

Often my clients tell me, even the technically oriented ones, that too many tools is the reason their teams leave a project spreading the word that LSS is too complex and overly complicated; exactly the opposite of what should be happening after a project.  Focus on selecting the 1-3 tools in each phase that best help you address the key activities of the DMAIC phase you are in.

When it comes to root causes and solutions the LSS Essentialist knows that the key to success is identifying the few high impact causes and addressing them with just a handful of effective solutions.  I find that my clients like to have guidelines defining just what “few” means so I quantify this with the suggestion of identifying 3-5 root causes and then addressing each cause with a single solution.  I also suggest that there be no more solutions than team members.  Ideally, each team member will be assigned a single solution to manage.

One final suggestion is in the development of the sustainment plan.  Far too often we believe more controls lead to better results, but what I find is that more controls usually leads to more complexity and a blurred focus on what is really important.

The LSS essentialist will determine which are the most critical behaviors, actions, etc. that lead to sustaining the results.  What 2-3 things do process participants need to do in order to sustain the new process?  By focusing on the vital few you are more likely to sustain performance with less stress, less training, less new habit forming, and less resistance.

Ready to become a LSS Essentialist?

The challenge is now in your hands.  For many LSS practitioners doing less is a monumental challenge.  We want to use all that is at our disposal (i.e. tools, software, graphs, etc.), which is a great place to start, but instead of bringing out everything in the toolshed, start with the end in mind and select the one tool that will get the job done.

This will require a deeper analysis on what is most likely to lead to project success, but in the end your team will leave energized by the process and spread the LSS gospel throughout the rest of the organization, leading to the ultimate goal of building a culture of continuous improvement through the pursuit of excellence.

Want to find out how essentialist you are?  Take the quiz here.


Lean Six Sigma Kick-Off Meeting Success Tips Part 3

kickoffIn parts one and two I discussed how to prepare and conduct a kick-off meeting for your Lean Six Sigma (LSS) project, respectively.  In this post I’ll finish the series by discussing what to do after the meeting.

Don’t wait too long to document and reinforce positive behavior. 

My best advice for what to do after the meeting is first and foremost to do these actions right after the meeting.  Waiting only leads to the likelihood that nothing will get done until an hour before the next meeting!

First, you guessed it, send out your action items and any minutes you may have collected.  Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the traditional meeting minutes that capture who said what, general discussion topics, etc.  If you want to know what happened at the meeting start by showing up!

What I do suggest is using technology  as much as you can.  I take a lot of pictures of whiteboards, record video, etc., and by doing so you save a lot of time having to transcribe the info, and in the end less is lost in translation.

All projects will eventually have to be documented; what I like to call the “DMAIC story”.  Don’t wait until the Control phase to document your project!  Budget 15 minutes after every meeting to document what the team did that will help tell the final story.  A simple tactic here is to schedule a 15 minute meeting in your calendaring system with yourself after each meeting.

One final, and perhaps most important action, to do after a meeting is giving recognition to those who deserve it, aka positive reinforcement.  The best time to do it is at the meeting with the person present, but sometimes people don’t consider public praise to be positive, and would rather have an email or hand written note praising their effort.

Use a few minutes after each meeting to determine who should be recognized and then go to work recognizing them!  Doing so will improve the probability of repeating the behavior you have reinforced.

Parting thoughts.

Before closing out this series I’d like to offer a few final tips that my clients and I have found useful for not only the kick-off meeting, but also any LSS meeting you may have as your project progresses through the DMAIC process.

Two common challenges I see my clients facing, especially in the kick-off meeting, are team members who want to jump straight to solutions, and members who take over the meeting by going off topic / agenda.

I’m convinced we are wired with a “let’s get this over with” mentality, which can be good if the solution is obvious, and using LSS will only complicate the process, but in most cases if you’ve made it to the kick-off meeting the solution is probably unknown, so jumping to a solution at this point without identification of root causes is unlikely to lead to success.

You need to be careful not to cut off your team members when they do bring up solution ideas because you may run the risk of never getting them to open up again later on when you really want their ideas.  A nice compromise is to time box a short discussion (5-10 minutes) in which you ask team members to provide all the ideas they have, which are then document for later use in the Improve phase.

What typically happens is that when the Improve phase begins and the team has a list of the top root causes identified and I bring back the solution ideas they provided in the kick-off meeting the two have little to no linkage.

A great visual facilitation technique to illustrate the point is to use post-it notes for both root causes and the solution ideas, and then ask team members to draw lines connecting the root cause that will be eliminated and / or minimized by the solution.


What tends to happen is the linkage doesn’t exists between the two.  Typically, the ideas are “good” ideas, but they tend to have little to do with the actual problem and / or causes the team has been working on.

A second problem faced by many of my clients in the kick-off meeting is a team member that wants to discuss all the problems under the sun related to the process, which leads to meeting chaos.

There’s nothing more challenging than having a team member that just won’t shut up and stick to the agenda!  Here again you run the risk of alienating the team member if you simply cut them off.

A simple tactic to help close their mouth and show respect for their opinion is based in the thought that for many of us it is quite difficult to talk and write at the same time.  With that in mind, I suggest setting up a “parking lot” for each meeting, which can be a simple sheet of paper on the wall where you can stick post-it notes for each item.

When a member of your team begins to derail the discussion you might suggest the following, “Scott, that’s an interesting thought and it may prove beneficial later to this project so would you mind documenting that in our parking lot?”.  While the disruptive team member is writing, you as the facilitator will be able to get your team back on track.

Getting off to a great start sets the foundation for your LSS project, and team meetings are where most of the “work” gets done, so taking a structured approach in planning, executing, and following up after your team meetings will ensure a greater likelihood your project will succeed. I’d love to hear your thoughts on successfully managing team meetings.  What’s worked for you?

Lean Six Sigma Kick-Off Meeting Success Tips Part 2

kickoffIn part one I discussed preparing for your team’s kick-off meeting.  In this post I shift the focus to facilitating the session, and offer some tools to help you get started.  With that as the preface to this post, one thing I didn’t mention in part one was the “people” side of the process.

At the heart of Lean Six Sigma (LSS) are people, which often is overlooked since most of us are focused on tools, stats, software, etc.  I often say that LSS is 90% people and 10% process, and I’ve yet to find someone to argue it’s more about process than people, but yet we find most organizations, consultants, etc. spend little to no time on this side of LSS.  The kick-off meeting is the perfect opportunity to introduce some of the people tools / processes.

Conducting the meeting.

Conducting the meeting really is the “easy” part if you have a well defined plan.  I like to start by writing my agenda out on a whiteboard so it’s constantly visible to the group.  I also place a check box next to each agenda item so as the team progresses I can check them off one-by-one.  I find that this gives the group a sense of accomplishment as you move forward with the session.

Agenda Item 1: Building trust amongst the team members.

Building trust is perhaps the most critical element to team success.  Patrick Lencioni’s book, The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, offers a great perspective on what makes teams effective.  At the foundation of team effectiveness is building trust.










There are a number of approaches to building trust that I like to use.  Each of these exercises is focused on learning more about one another, which ultimately leads to greater trust.

Personal stories are a great way to get to know one another.  These are stories that describe some type of personal and / or work event that has had a significant impact on you.  The event doesn’t need to be something tragic (i.e. family member death); instead it could be a major turning point in your life.  I like to share lessons I learned after getting fired from one of my first jobs as a paper boy.

Opening up your purse or wallet is another way to find out more about one another.  What we carry in our purse and wallet tells a little about us.  In my wallet you’ll find a couple debit cards, no credit cards, a library card, and usually a bunch of receipts from travel expenses.  This tells you something about me in that I live a debt free lifestyle, like to read, and travel a lot.

A modern version of the purse / wallet share is to do the same with smartphone apps.  I’m finding many younger people don’t always carry a wallet or purse, but nobody these days seems to go anywhere without their smartphone.

The apps we have on our phone is a great way to find out what each of us are interested in.  For example, on my iPhone I have apps for managing my finances, exercise tracking apps, and church apps.  Sharing photos and music that is on your smartphone is another great way to get to know one another.

Agenda Item 2: What is LSS?

This is an optional step if your team has already been through a LSS project, but in many cases this might be the first time team members have been exposed to a structured approach to problem solving.  If you skip this step team members usually want to jump right to solutions, which is usually the case no matter how hard you try to keep the team focused on using the DMAIC approach.  Your goal in educating the team is not to make them experts, but to simply provide the roadmap to how the team will get from D to C.

Agenda Item 3: Project charter review / agreement.

This step is the heart of the session and where most of your time should be spent.  This is also when you may want to have the project champion talk about “why am I here?”.  I suggest the champion address this question specifically for each team member to make it personal (i.e. Scott, you are here to provide guidance in the LSS process; Joan, you are here to help us understand the current state of the process, etc.).

At the center of the project charter are four key elements that include:

  1. Problem statement
  2. Performance metric
  3. Cost of Poor Quality (COPQ) / business case
  4. Goals / vision of success

All LSS projects start with a problem and / or opportunity.  Everyone on the team has to be in agreement on what we are working on and what we are NOT working on, which starts and ends with a great problem definition (see a previous post about writing great problem statements).

How do we know how big the problem is and how well we have addressed it?  This question will be answered in the performance metric selected for the project.  This is where we as LSS professionals can go crazy with the charts and graphs.  More is NOT better when it comes to this step!  Pick one number, maybe two and move on.  I like to have one number to measure from a process perspective and a second number for the financials (see a previous post about picking a winning number).

The final two elements work hand-in-hand with one another.  The business case will correlate in many cases with the goal of the project.  For example, if we were to reduce the performance metric of cycle time by 50% the savings would be $500K, but if only a 25% reduction took place the savings would be reduced to $250K.

I often lay out the savings to percentage correlation to help the team determine what is realistic, and what is worth pursuing.  Sometimes the savings just isn’t there and the project cannot be justified, but in most cases if you’ve made it to the kick-off meeting the project champion believes a business case can be made.  (see previous posts about setting goals and counting LSS cash).

Agenda Item 4: Setting your meeting cadence.

How frequently and how long to meet are probably the most common questions I get from my clients.  My default answer is to meet every two weeks for two hours.  Having a session every two weeks instead of every week allows for an “off” week when team members can work on action items and their “regular” job duties.

Weekly meetings tend to be too frequent and will in some cases turnoff your team members to future LSS projects.  I always tell my clients you are serving two purposes in facilitating a LSS project.

First, you are focused on addressing a problem / opportunity, and second you are working to create disciples of LSS who will go out and spread the LSS gospel-leading to more opportunity and culture change.  Too much LSS (i.e. too many meetings) can work against both of these.

From my experience I favor a 2 hour meeting and here’s why.  A one hour meeting is just long enough to get started, but in the end nothing gets finished.  With two hours you have 10-15 minutes to get warmed up and aligned on the goals of the session leaving a solid 90 minutes of activity time, followed by 10-15 minutes at the end to document next steps, action items, etc.

Agenda Item 5: Action items.

No meeting is complete without establishing action items.  If no actions come from a meeting I often wonder did we really need to meet?  The goal of a meeting is to not only make decisions, but also to drive activity that leads to results.

One common mistake is to create far too many action items.  As a project facilitator nothing is more frustrating than having to constantly chase after team members who don’t get their action items completed.  I take an essentialist view on action items and finish meetings by asking two questions of each team member.  First, “what could I do to help the team achieve the project goals?”, and second, “Of those potential actions, which ONE will have the most impact?”.

Basically, what I’m asking each team member is what is the one thing they can do to help the project be successful?  Not everyone will have an action item after each meeting, but if after several meetings you see a theme that a team member never seems to have action items you should consider whether or not they really need to be on the team.

Parting thoughts and help if you need it.

A few additional things to also consider include having something in what I call your “back pocket” and completing a plus / delta.

Your back pocket is something to have just in case you finish with your agenda early.  I always tell my clients to be thinking ahead to the next meeting and what will be the focus then.  My standard back pocket tool is the SIPOC diagram that makes for a simple brainstorming session by your team focusing on identifying suppliers and inputs (the P, O, and C and usually defined before the kick-off meeting).  Other tools to consider are macro and micro process flows, and planning for baseline data collection.  Anything that falls into the “what’s next” category is legitimate back pocket material.  Just be prepared to facilitate the activity in case the time is available.

Finally, a great way to finish every meeting is with a plus / delta.  This is a simple exercise that takes no more than a few minutes in which the team lists what went well (plus) and what needs improvement (delta).  As the facilitator you can use this information to plan your next meeting and look for opportunities to improve.

To help facilitate your kick-off meeting here is a link to a template I use.  I’ve also included some info about Variance Reduction International, Inc.-the group I work with.  We have associates located around the world to help if you need it.  For over a decade we’ve worked with companies with just a few employees on up to Fortune 5 organizations.