Monthly Archives: April 2015

ASQ Six Sigma Forum: 6 Questions on Six Sigma

questionsI was recently asked to contribute to the Six Sigma Forum journal published by ASQ by answering 6 questions related to Six Sigma.  These are some great questions to get you thinking about Six Sigma, company culture, implementation, challenges, lessons learned, and what the future may look like.


  1. What effect does company culture have on a Six Sigma implementation? How must culture change to enable a successful program?

Having the right culture is a critical input to the success of Six Sigma. Culture is often described as “how we do things around here”, and if how things are done is not always with an eye toward getting better, Six Sigma will make little impact on the performance of an organization. A successful program will only result if an organization’s culture shifts from a short term focus on daily firefighting to one of long term focus on fire prevention.

  1. How do you know a Six Sigma implementation has been successful?

The best way to know if a Six Sigma implementation is successful is when you reach a “tipping point”. This is the point at which people in your organization, specifically senior leaders, depend on the program to deliver results that help them achieve their goals. Another way of describing a tipping point is when you have crossed the point you’ll clearly know it because instead of those leading the Six Sigma charge going out and looking for projects senior leaders will be coming to them with projects.

  1. What has been the greatest challenge to Six Sigma and how did you overcome it?

The greatest challenge to Six Sigma is how complicated it can become. No one I’ve ever worked with has told me they are looking for more complexity in their work, and unfortunately, often times Six Sigma creates more complexity than clarity. What I’ve done to combat this problem is look at the process from an essentialist perspective, and focus on what matters most to achieving the results you’re seeking. More doesn’t always mean better, especially in the world of Six Sigma.

  1. Is there one thing you’ve learned from your Six Sigma experience you can share with readers that might contribute to their success?

There are two key things I’ve learned over the past decade that I believe are vital to success. The first is picking the right projects. Without the right projects leadership becomes disengaged, and that leads to a high probability Six Sigma will not be sustainable, and in all reality it shouldn’t be sustained if you’re working on things that don’t matter to the organization. Coaching is also an often overlooked element of success. Without proper guidance leading the inexperienced they are unlikely to find success.

  1. When should you not apply Six Sigma?

There are the obvious reasons when you shouldn’t apply Six Sigma. Some of those reasons include when the solution is obvious, the problem resembles world hunger, there’s no way to measure the problem, etc., but the best reason not to apply Six Sigma is when your organization’s culture is not ready for it. You shouldn’t start with Six Sigma and then work toward a culture of continual improvement. Instead you should start with a culture that’s ready, and then use Six Sigma as an enabler to drive it forward.

  1. What is Six Sigma’s future?

I believe the future of Six Sigma is a shifting in focus from processes to people. The current approach has focused primarily on the tools of Six Sigma, which back in the day when Six Sigma was primarily used in manufacturing, worked well. Since Six Sigma has now moved into the transactional world where the majority of us work, the tools are still important, but not as important as the people doing the work. The future of Six Sigma will focus more on understanding people (i.e. habits, behaviors, etc.) first and process second.

Great projects need great people! 5 Questions for finding great people.

questions-peopleI’ve written quite extensively on what I believe are the key elements of creating a winning lean Six Sigma (LSS) execution strategy.  I believe it begins with picking projects that focus on what matters most to management, but once you have a process in place and a list of high impact projects the focus shifts to the people executing the projects, which, I would argue, is the second most critical element to success.

So then how do we pick the best people to work on the projects?  In this post I’ll share some of my thoughts on how to pick great people to go with the great projects.

Where will they be in 5 – 10 years?

If our ultimate goal with LSS is to change the culture of an organization to live out the mantra, “a new day; a better way”, I would argue that you need to start by selecting individuals who are going to be the future leaders of the organization.  As goes the leadership of an organization, so goes its culture and performance!

Think of the selection process as one in which you are planting LSS seeds that will some day blossom into something beautiful.

A culture in which problems are seen as opportunities to improve; a culture where instead of pointing fingers at each other we are pointing to problems that need to be solved; a culture where we celebrate extraordinary results and the people tied to achieving the results; a culture where preventing “fires” is rewarded far greater than putting out fires; a culture where everyone strives to help first, and seek recognition second; a culture where people wake up in the morning and look forward to getting about the business of getting better; a culture where continual learning is the norm; a culture where candid discussions take place while staying respectful to one another; a culture where at the end of the day we routinely look back and see the progress we’ve made; a culture that attracts others to want to be part of an exclusive club of high performers.

This type of culture takes time to cultivate and it begins by taking a realistic assessment of those we select to become project facilitators (i.e. GB, BB, etc.).  This assessment is based on how likely they are to become a future leader in the organization.  Ideally, project facilitators will one day become organizational leaders, and if they already have the new day-better way mindset the culture will follow.

The other great thing about becoming a project facilitator is that it is the ultimate leadership test.  One of my favorite definitions of leadership comes from Jim Collins who argues, true leadership is getting others to follow when they have a choice not to.  In a sense this is what LSS project leaders do every day when leading projects.

Model those who have succeeded.

Another data point for selecting individuals to lead LSS projects is looking at others who have been successful, and determining what characteristics they have that could then be used to establish your search criteria.

For example, you could start with establishing the definition of success, which might look something like:

  • Projects complete in less than 4 months on average
  • Savings per project greater than $250K
  • More than 6 project starts per year
  • At least 4 projects into control phase every year

With this as a quantitative measure of success, the next step becomes looking at specific individuals who have met this list of criteria.  Once that list of names has been established the process gets more subjective in brainstorming a list of characteristics that describe this group of people.  For example:

  • Business “savvy” – understands how we make money
  • Do what they say, say what they do
  • Always on time, punctual, consistently meets deadlines
  • Data driven, understands how to use data and how not to use data
  • Emotionally intelligent – can relate to others, knows it’s not always just about the data, is liked by others

Essentially, what we’re doing here is establishing a list of criteria of those who have been successful, that if we could clone we would take over the world!  Who are those people in your organization, and what sets them apart from everyone else?

The next step is brainstorming and / or filtering a list of potential candidates against the success “criteria”.  A simple approach, once all the names have been listed, is to go through the success criteria and ask whether or not (yes / no) the person meets the criteria, and if you believe they do, why do you feel they meet the criteria?  What have they done in the past that specifically leads you to conclude they meet the criteria?  Keep in mind past behavior is a good predictor of future behavior.

Ask the right questions.

The final step in the process, once the short list of high potential performers is established, is to interview each candidate.  Assuming the list of people you have selected are those who actually want to become project leaders, the first question I suggest is the following:

What do you want to be doing 5 years from now, and how does becoming a LSS project leader get you closer to that goal becoming a reality?

If I could only ask one question this would be it.  If they don’t see how this role will get them closer to achieving their long-term objective they should not be considering the opportunity because it’s not helping them, and in some cases could be holding them back from achieving their goal and yours.  You want to be selecting individuals who see this opportunity as a step forward in making their long-term objectives come to fruition.

What do you believe are the most important factors to success related to this role, and what about your experience, abilities, skills, training, education, etc. make you believe you are equipped to be successful?

You will at this point have established the critical-to-success factors so they’ll know what it takes to be successful so what this question does is uncover what about themselves they believe qualifies them in meeting these expectations.

Keep in mind just because they don’t meet all the the factors it’s not a deal killer, but they need to be able to talk about how and / or what they will do to close the gap between what it takes to be successful and what they need to do to close that gap.

What is the one or two things you hope to learn while taking on this role?

Gallup, the leading organization when it comes to employee engagement research, suggests that opportunities to learn and grow is one of the most critical elements to getting people engaged in their work.  Finding out what they want to learn about and comparing it to the needs of this role will help determine their fit, or lack thereof, and potential for engagement in the position.

What do you believe will be the biggest challenge in this role?  Why do you want to take on this challenge?  What does overcoming this challenge mean to you?

I like this question because it first lets you know they know this role will not be a “slam dunk” and they will be challenged.  Being in a state of “flow” is what all of us should be craving.  Flow can be found when we are pushed to the limits of our ability, but not beyond.  Flow is also where we find challenge in our work.  We’ve all experienced flow at some point in our lives; where time just seems to fly by when we’re fully absorbed in an activity.

What impact do you believe this position will have on the performance of the organization?

Work needs to have meaningful impact from the eyes of the performer as well as the top leaders of the business, but to keep people engaged it doesn’t really matter if leadership sees a person’s role as impactful and the individual does not.  We all want to feel our work matters; that we matter.

This question gets to the individual’s view of how meaningful the work of this position will be to achieving a bigger objective than just taking one step closer to fulfilling their five year career goal.  Truly meaningful work is a beautiful thing when you can find it.  We all want our work to have meaning, and asking this question helps determine whether or not the individual believes LSS projects can lead to meaningful work from their own perspective.

Take your time.

A parting thought is to take your time in this process.  Selecting great people is, I would argue, the most important part of a leader’s job.  Do it well and you’ll spend most of your time reaping the benefits and watching your seeds grow into something beautiful; do it not-so-well and you’ll spend most of your pulling “weeds” and watching everything around you turn brown and die.