Monthly Archives: September 2014

Lean Vision Correction: Using DOWNTIME to see hidden waste!

YEyeglasses and eye chartears ago when I was in my mid-twenties I started to notice my vision wasn’t quite what it used to be.  You can probably relate if you wear corrective lenses in the fact that it takes some time before you realize you need to do something about it, especially if you’re a man!   It was a slow fade from having to squint to see street signs; slowly progressing to not being able to see them at all.

When I finally admitted I needed to do something about it and had my first eye exam in years, the doctor confirmed I was in need of corrective lenses.  When I first put on my glasses it was an eye opening, no pun intended, experience.  I felt a little uneasy at first, but what happened was a whole new world opened up to me.  What I had not been able to see for years was now perfectly clear.

I often use this analogy to explain what it is like to work in an environment every day that has opportunity all around, yet remains unseen to most of the people working within it.  What is needed can be similar to getting an eye exam and corrective lenses to see what cannot be seen.

The various forms of waste within the lean perspective is similar to my analogy of needing glasses in that without the “lean lens” we cannot see the waste all around us.  The lens I prefer to use is the DOWNTIME acronym describing the 8 classic forms of waste.

Defects and rework.

This type of waste is the most easy to spot, but it still amazes me how we can overlook it.  Rework is especially easy to become complacent with.  How many times have you heard someone say something to the effect, “I always have to fix this problem”, or “it’s quicker for me to just fix the problem myself than do something about it”.


Overproduction can be hard to identify in some cases because we generally believe the more I do in the time I have the greater my productivity becomes.  This type of waste can be attributed to old school thinking around efficiency, which is generally calculated as output / time period.  If we can increase the work and / or decrease the time it is perceived to be a good thing when all you are looking at is cost / output.


Another classic form of waste is waiting, which can also be hard to see if you are not looking for it.  Waiting causes problems from two perspective.  First, customers who wait are not likely to return if they have options of finding similarly priced products and / or services at the same quality levels elsewhere.  Second, waiting means an increased duration between cash going out of a business to pay for costs associated with a product and / or service and cash coming back in from customers paying.

Not using people well.

This is perhaps one of the most devastating forms of waste, and also one of the most difficult to see.  I read a story about Jack Welch the former CEO and Chairman of GE who was on one of his final plant tours before retiring where he would go around the country meeting with associates at the various locations GE operates from, and during one of those trips met a guy who had been with the company for more than 30 years who told him, “All this time you’ve paid me for my hands when you could have had my brain for free!”  Talk about not using people well!


We often think of just moving product around when it comes to transportation waste, but this can also include things one cannot see such as data.  Sometimes transportation can be value-added (i.e. UPS, FedEx) when we are willing to pay for it, but in most cases moving stuff around is not something customers value.


Inventory is a silent, but deadly killer of many businesses.  I once worked with a company that was struggling to make payroll, but was sitting on top of $2+ million in inventory that was tied to no customer orders!  Unfortunately, in most cases inventory is looked upon as an asset and not a liability (i.e. balance sheet), but in reality it’s cash that has been spent for stuff that has not yet been converted into revenue and profit, and worse case, as in my example, has been purchased in the hopes of getting future orders!  If you check into the reasons why most small businesses (<500 employees) fail it’s not because they hire the wrong people or have too many defects, it’s because they run out of cash.


Taking a few extra steps here and there can add up to higher safety risks and less efficient processes.  Both can lead to greater cycle time in meeting customer demand, and again a longer cash out to cash in cycle.

Excess Processing.

Excess processing is probably one of the most misunderstood types of waste.  I often use the term “gold plating” to help others understand what excess processing is.  This type of waste is going way above and beyond what the customer has asked for, which intuitively wouldn’t seem like a bad thing at first.  For example, I used to go to a Starbucks near my house that has a drive through and would order my usual grande (medium) black eye, and just about every other day they would instead give me a venti (large).  Now Starbucks isn’t going to go broke giving me a few more ounces of coffee each day, but if they did this for a large percentage of their customers it would have a negative impact on profitability.

The point is to be operating “lean” we need to give the customer (both internal and external) what they want with minimal DOWNTIME, and deliver at a rate they want, meeting the quality level they deem acceptable-nothing more, nothing less.

Put your DOWNTIME glasses on!

The challenge you now have before you is to take the first step in correcting your “lean vision”, and to do so all that is required is putting on a pair of DOWNTIME glasses.  This is often the first step I prescribe to clients who want to get some hands-on use of the lean tools to create some excitement in a company looking to get leaner.

All that is needed is a quick overview of the different types of waste to help correct the vision of those working in the environment you want to analyze.  With their vision “corrected” they will begin to see the opportunity (DOWNTIME) to improve.

To get started feel free to use the linked template below that has some helpful tools to find the waste.  I’ve also linked a short slide deck explaining each of the waste types to help others see what has been all around them in many cases for years.

DOWNTIME templates (Excel)

What is DOWNTIME? (PowerPoint)

Listening for Lean Six Sigma: 5 Steps to Finding Meaningful Work

listenOne of the challenges we face as Lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals is finding opportunities to apply the methodology to problems facing the organizations we work within.  Recently, I was working with a client who is a green belt looking for a project to complete in his journey to certification.  He shared with me his struggles in finding a project, but told me he was scheduled to have a conversation with a manager who may have something for him to work on.

This got me thinking about how the clients I work with tend to find project opportunities, and how I often find project ideas as an outsider looking in.  In most cases my clients are “given” projects to work on, which is fine, but where I tend to find new opportunities is by simply listening to what my clients tell me about their business and processes they manage.

What I’m going to share in this post are my thoughts on how if we just keep our ears open to the words being spoken by those we interact with each day, and use open ended questions to dig deeper into these conversations, LSS opportunities will likely materialize.  What follows is the advice I gave to my client in preparation for his session, but even without a formal session such as this you can use the following to find opportunities to apply LSS in your next conversation at work.

First and foremost, I advise that LSS not be included in the conversation unless the person you are talking with asks specifically about the methodology.  In general, most people are not interested in LSS; what they are interested in is improvement in what they do and manage each day.  Start with a focus on understanding and finding ways to help, not on how to apply LSS!

Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

One of Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people is, “seek first to understand, then to be understood”, which leads to the first focal point-understanding what they do and how it is done.  Some questions to get the conversation started might include:

  • Tell me about what your team does?
  • What is / are the key processes you are responsible for?
  • Tell me about your typical day.  What do you spend most of your time doing?

These questions will lead to the first data point we’re looking for, which is a description for the key processes the individual manages and / or spends most of their time doing-this is where most of their opportunity exists (i.e. Pareto Principle).

Defining success-“good” vs. “bad” days.

Next, I like to understand how they determine success.  What goals, metrics, scorecards, etc. exist that they use to determine success.  If these are not available talk in basic terms of how they would describe a “good” day.  Even when a process doesn’t have quantifiable metrics that are being measured I always find when I ask them about good days and bad days what comes to life are key characteristics that could be measured to determine how effective the process is currently performing.

Identifying gaps.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what they do, and what determines success, the next step is to probe deeper to find out where gaps exists between where the process is currently performing and where they want it to be.  This is the gap that we hope to use LSS to close, however, not all opportunities are a good fit for the DMAIC process, but when I hear words and / or phrases such as, I’d like to “improve”, “reduce”, “minimize”, “maximize”, “decrease”, “streamline”, etc. it sets off a LSS alarm in my head that indicates there might be an opportunity to go after.

Don’t solve a problem that’s already been solved!

The quickest way to destroy a LSS initiative is to use the methodology where it’s not needed.  Asking whether or not they have a solution to the problem begins to work the conversation through the analyze and improve phases in rapid fashion to test whether or not the solutions are just ideas or if they really do eliminate the causes to the problem.

Far too often we come up with what are no doubt “good” ideas, but do they actually solve the problem?  Many times they don’t because they haven’t addressed the root causes.  If the person you are talking with states they have a solution ask them why they think it will keep the problem from recurring.  What causes the problem?  How does this solution eliminate and / or reduce the causes?  If they can adequately answer these questions don’t over complicate the situation by throwing LSS into the mix.  The worse thing you can do is force a team through DMAIC and end up at the same result you would have without using the process.

Closing the deal.

Assuming there is a problem worth pursuing, the final step is closing the deal and beginning the process of using LSS to address the situation, and taking the first steps in closing the gap from the current to desired state.  If at this point you’ve spent most of the time in this conversation listening and not talking you will have taken the first step in convincing the person you are talking with that you truly care about their problem and want to help.

By listening instead of talking you will have shown empathy to what ails them, and hopefully this leads to them believing you truly want to help, which I would argue is one of the most critical-to-success characteristics a successful LSS professional can possess.  By keeping your ears open to opportunity and having a heart to help others your LSS project list is sure to grow, and the reward you receive by helping others succeed will not only benefit them, but will also lead to one of the most satisfying things in life-work that matters!

LSS Vital Signs: 4 KPI’s to measure the health of your LSS program

heartStaying healthy is a constant cycle that if left unchecked can lead to serious issues later in life.  To stay ahead of these potential issues we often utilize preventive care.  In some respects there is little difference between our personal health and the health of the Lean Six Sigma (LSS) programs many of us manage.

While a LSS program is not likely to lead to life or death situations, having a solid plan to measure and manage your LSS program can be what determines whether or not your program lives or dies over the long term.  In this post I’ll share some of what I routinely prescribe to my clients in how best to manage the health of their LSS efforts.

Measure what matters.

There are countless metrics one could consider utilizing to measure the effectiveness of a LSS program. In general terms, all of these metrics fall into one of three categories that include 1) leading, 2) current state, and 3) lagging measures of performance.  To effectively take the “pulse” of your LSS program you need to monitor all three.

The challenge I find my clients facing is that with so many choices on what to measure they often times measure everything, which leads to confusion and disengagement.  There are no “perfect” metrics, but the four I have found that most accurately measure the LSS pulse are the following:

  1. Project queue
  2. Project starts
  3. Project cycle time
  4. Financial results

Projects are the lifeblood of LSS!

I’m a solid believer that projects are what matters most to the long term success of a LSS effort.   You can have great leadership, the best belts and champions, robust training and mentoring afterwards, but in the end if the projects used in the process don’t deliver results none of the aforementioned matters.

Building a “healthy” queue is one of the challenges many of my clients face.  What does it mean to have a healthy queue?  There are two elements to building a healthy queue.  The first is capturing opportunities that have a solid connection to what matters to the business (i.e. strategic and tactical plans, KPI’s, financial metrics, etc.).  The second element to establishing a healthy queue is ensuring there are enough resources to capitalize on the identified opportunities.

How you measure your queue can be as simple as monitoring the number of opportunities in the queue, but what does this number mean?  Is more better?  If we take a “lean” perspective on the queue we could consider all the opportunities as inventory, which is one of the classic forms of waste; not a good thing.  With this perspective in mind, keeping the “right” amount of inventory could be based on the demand (takt time) at which the opportunities are being consumed.

Another way to measure project queue is based on the age of the opportunities (i.e. average days, months, etc. in queue).  In most cases the longer an opportunity sits in the queue the more savings that is being lost by not capitalizing on the opportunity.

One final point to keep in mind in relation to the opportunity queue is that it’s also a great way to justify and determine your training strategy.  Often times I work with clients who simply decide they are going to train xx green belts without any thought to why they have decided xx is enough.

With a solid queue established, it becomes the “pull” for your training / coaching strategy.  For example, if you have 30 opportunities and want to capitalize on all of them you can then make an argument for training the right number of people to work on the projects to seize the opportunities.  Your queue ($ associated with each opportunity) also becomes your justification (ROI) for training and coaching expenses if you use external resources to do this work.  Justifying thousands for training and coaching is easy to do when you have millions in opportunities waiting to be seized!

Turning opportunity into action.

Having a healthy queue doesn’t mean much if we don’t turn opportunity into action!  A simple measure of performance is the number of projects that are started in a given time period.  Taking this a step further you could also consider cycle time to measure how long an opportunity takes to go from being put into the queue until it officially becomes a project and enters the define phase.

Speed matters.

A third vital sign to check the health of your LSS program is the speed at which projects move from define to control.  While faster doesn’t always lead to better, it’s still ideal to quickly move through the phases to get to the results at a pace that leads to sustainable performance.

In most cases with my clients we strive for a 4-6 month cycle time from define to control.  Shorter is great, but longer usually means we tried to do too much with a single project.  Aside from simply measuring the average cycle time you could also measure the percent of projects that are completed in less than 6 months.

Show me the money!

The final vital sign is honestly the only one your leadership will care about, which is the financial benefit realized by projects that have been completed.  There are a few ways to measure financial performance; the easiest is simply the total dollars as a result of finished projects within a given time period.

Another measure to consider is the average dollars per project, which by itself may not mean much, but what my clients have found this number helpful in is establishing targets for future performance (i.e. # belts active x avg $ / project = estimated $).

Keep it simple.

Far too often we LSS professionals want more graphs and charts, but this rarely leads to better results, so strive to keep it simple when taking the pulse of your LSS program.  My advice is to start with these four simple measures of performance.  If you have a healthy queue, capitalize on opportunities in the queue in a timely manner, move through the phases in less than 4-6 months, and deliver solid financial results you are highly likely to keep the health of your LSS program where it needs to be in order to deliver sustainable results.

Coaching to Win: 5 Characteristics of a Winning LSS Coach

coachingWhat does it take to win at the game of Lean Six Sigma (LSS)?  There are a number of critical-to-success factors that lead to a winning score such as great projects, leadership support, robust planning, and effective training, but in the end it all comes down to the people you have in the game.

Continuing the theme from my previous post in which I offered advice from King Solomon on how to become and effective LSS professional, we can also look to his wisdom on who we associate with in our LSS life.

Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm.

Proverbs 13:20

Think about the people you associate with.  Most likely you are a lot like them and / or they like you.  We tend to mimic those we spend the most time with.  I believe that it’s rare to find people who are incredibly successful that associate with people who never seem to win at anything they do.  This is one of the easiest ways to bring your LSS game to the next level-find people who are winning in the LSS world and spend more time with them, or at a minimum study what they are doing and put it to work in your life.

For the past decade I’ve been studying successful LSS professionals, and in this post I’m going to share some of the characteristics / traits I’ve seen in those who have found success, primarily in the space of coaching others to be successful champions and belts.

Seek wise counsel to find LSS success.

Working with my corporate clients over the past few years what has really become clear to me is that the most critical-to-success factor related to champions, and especially belts, who have gone through LSS training is not what happens before or during the training, but what happens after the training.  Rarely have I encountered anyone who has gone to training and succeeded on their own.  We all need someone to guide us in our journey when we get started.

Some of you reading this may be or are in a position to be the coach, while others are seeking a coach to help them.  What I offer next will provide both perspectives in either what to focus on if you want to become a more effective coach, or if you’re looking for a coach, what you should use as a checklist of characteristics / traits to find a good partner in your LSS journey.

People first, process second.

It all starts with people, but unfortunately we in the LSS profession have made it more about process and the tools and techniques (i.e. DMAIC, statistics, software, etc.) we use to achieve results.  There is no question we need the tools of our trade, but tools alone don’t lead to results; what leads to results are the people using the tools.

Characteristic #1: Heart of a teacher.

What has stood out to me amongst those who have succeeded in coaching others to LSS success is that they have the heart of a teacher.  You’ll notice that my LInkedIn profile shows my “title” as teacher, coach, mentor, and facilitator.  First and foremost, I consider myself a teacher.  The fruit of my work grows on other people’s trees.  Success begins by realizing it’s not about you; it’s about those you are helping.

Characteristic #2: Ask don’t tell.

Great LSS coaches know success is about helping others learn, and you can’t help others learn if you’re always giving them the answers.  This can be one of the biggest challenges in transitioning from the “playing” role of a belt and / or champion to a coaching role.  You know what they should do, but for their good you need to keep it to yourself and ask questions that lead them down the path to the best answer.

Characteristic #3: Make what is complex seem simple.

The best coaches also know how to take complex subjects, technique, etc. and make them less complex.  I do this using analogies and examples to help explain difficult topics such as p values and statistical significance.  Great coaches have the ability to make what is very complex resonate with what their students already know.

Characteristic #4: Patience.

Patience may be the most critical-to-success characteristics of a great LSS coach.  When you know what the person you are coaching should do and they’re not doing it, being patient until they get it can be difficult, but it’s an absolute must if you want them to learn.

Characteristic #5: Likable.

A final characteristic of a great coach is likability.  Some may argue you don’t have to like those you work with; you simply need to respect them, but I would suggest longterm you’re not going to be very engaged in your work if you have to be around people that annoy you.  We have to face the fact that some of us are more likable than others, but it’s not all that difficult to become more likable to others by taking a personal interest in them.

Coaching to win.

Becoming a winning coach is all about deliberate practice.  I’ve been coaching people for the past decade and I’m still in the process of learning how to improve my game.  Deliberate practice is a concept that some believe takes 10,000 hours, or around 10 years, of practice to become a master.

In the realm of LSS where we have Master Black Belts (MBB) this is in alignment from my experience with the best people I’ve worked with.  These folks tend to fall into the 10 year camp, but even if you haven’t reached that level of experience yet you can still get started in becoming a winning coach or searching for the help of one.

Deliberate practice begins with developing a winning game plan, followed by lots of practice with a robust feedback mechanism built into the process.  In essence, it’s the PDSA (plan, do, study, adjust) cycle many of you are quite familiar with applied to coaching.

Begin with building your plan to become a better coach, which should start with seeking out those who are successful and learning from them.  If you need help doing this don’t hesitate to ask for it by emailing or calling me at 661.204.9448.  I work with more than 40 MBB’s at Variance Reduction International, Inc. who are here to help you in your journey to success.  Another great resource for finding help is your local ASQ chapter.