Monthly Archives: June 2015

I want to do that again!

excited-kid-clipart-excited-kids-clip-artOne of the easiest and quickest ways I use to determine if a lean Six Sigma (LSS) project was successful is to ask one simple question, “Do you want to do it again?”.

Sure, there are other measures of success we can use such as process data and financial performance, but the ultimate goal with any process improvement initiative is to build a culture that wants to continually improve, and without a want / desire to get better, achieving that goal is nearly impossible.

So why would someone want to do another LSS project?  The reasons I’ve heard are no different than any other activity that brings enjoyment, fulfillment, and a sense of accomplishment.  Some of the reasons I have heard include:

It was fun!

I learned something new.

We made a positive impact.

We helped someone who needed help.

I felt a sense of accomplishment.

On the opposite side of the spectrum when I’ve heard people say “no” that they don’t want to do it again the reasons were:

It was painful.

The process was too complicated.

It took too long.

I didn’t feel appreciated.

The effort wasn’t worth the reward.

It was a waste of my time!

If, as LSS professionals, our goal is not simply to execute projects that deliver financial results, but instead is more about helping individuals, teams, and ultimately the entire organization, flourish and thrive at what they do we need to be focused on creating the attitude of “I want to do that again!” after every project, but how do we do that?

Creating an “I want to do that again!” attitude.

I believe creating an “I want to do that again” attitude begins with stripping away all the complexity that traditionally comes with LSS.  There’s no question we (LSS professionals) like complexity, which in a sense is a good thing because LSS thrives when we focus the methodology on solving tough problems, but when you ask people if they are looking for more complexity in their work lives…well, you know the answer.

So how do we stay true to the methodology, but yet keep it simple and not overly complicated?  I often begin projects by telling a team my personal goal is to do as little as possible to achieve the goal we have stated on the project charter; in other words, I begin with the end in mind, and focus on how we can find our way to success with the least amount of energy, complexity, etc.

Part of this “lean” mindset is also looking at everything we do during the course of a project and asking, “Is this value-added?”.  One of the most common forms of waste I find in projects is excess processing; in other words, going above and beyond what is really needed (aka gold-plating).  Just because you do more doesn’t mean you’ll get more!

A single focus is also helpful in creating the attitude.  I’m fond of stating, “One problem; one number” as a way of keeping a single focus as a project gets kicked off.  There’s something magical that happens when you focus on one problem at a time and use one number to measure that problem.

Another way of reducing complexity is to take a critical look at which tools you pull out of your LSS toolbox.  We often like to strut our stuff by showing our capabilities, especially when it comes to data analysis, but many times when I ask whether or not I really need to do the analysis to get to the goal line the answer is no.

There’s nothing wrong with using complex tools when they’re needed, but often I find that they’re not needed, but we still pull them out and use them just because we find them exciting and challenging.  More than likely your team members will not have the same excitement you do for such things as ANOVA, multiple regression, capability analysis, etc.  More tools don’t always lead to more results!

Focus on serving instead of being served.

A final, and perhaps the most important, way to create an “I want to do this again!” attitude is shifting your focus from what you want to what your team wants.  We often teach about identifying the what’s in in for me or WIIFM factor when working on projects, but in reality we should be more focused on the what’s in it for them or WIIFT factor.  Having a servant perspective goes a long way in creating a want to do it again attitude.

Our “selfie” society is shifting to a me centered perspective where it’s all about me and what I can get.  This viewpoint is found in many LSS professionals as well, focusing on what they are going to get from the project.  The attitude is often about getting my certification, getting my promotion, getting my raise, getting my recognition, getting my etc.

I don’t have any quick fixes to how to shift your focus from being served to serving others, but I can tell you that when you do shift your focus to truly helping others they (those you are helping) will see your sincerity that will lead to creating an I want to do it again attitude.  The ironic thing is when you focus on serving, you too will get served, and in the end you will get much of what you want as well, in fact I often get far more than I expected when I go in with a servant’s attitude.

Going forward my challenge to you is to ask your team one simple question, “Do you want to do this again?”, but be prepared to take action if their answer is “no”.  By asking the question you are taking the first step in creating a servant’s attitude in yourself that will begin the process of showing others what your ultimate goal is-helping them thrive and flourish at what they do.




4 Steps to Identifying Causes that Matter

SearchI’m all about simplicity, but unfortunately more often than not lean Six Sigma (LSS) is over complicated by people wanting to “show off” the power of statistical analysis when, at least from my experience over the past 15+ years, more statistics are not usually the answer to getting more people to buy-in to the power of LSS as the best way to solve complicated problems.

What I propose in this post is a simple 4 step approach to identifying the causes that matter most to fixing the problem your team is working on.  The steps are easier to understand if they are framed as questions.

  1. What could be causing the problem?
  2. What are the vital causes to the problem?
  3. How could the vital causes be validated?
  4. Which validated vital causes are worth implementing solutions to fix?

What could be causing the problem?

This is the logical first step, no surprise, but what I argue is there is no reason to dig out more than two potential tools to get started.  These tools include the 8 waste category tool, referred to as DOWNTIME (read more about the details of DOWNTIME here), and the cause-effect diagram, often called the “fish bone” diagram.

How I determine which one to use is fairly simple.  Just about every project I’ve ever been involved with has either focused on getting better (improving quality) or going faster (increasing productivity).  If your goal is to get better I use the cause-effect diagram; if the problem is more about going faster the DOWNTIME analysis tool works best.

Regardless of which tool you select I always begin with individual brainstorming, and then once all the potential causes have been reviewed move on to group brainstorming to add to the list and consolidate the causes into groups or categories.

What are the vital causes to the problem?

This is arguably the most critical step in a LSS project.  If you get it right there is a good chance you will succeed; get it wrong and you’ll likely implement some great ideas, but they may or may not have any effect on the problem.

To get started ask each team member to identify what they think are the top 3 “vital” causes to the problem.  A vital cause is one that matters to fixing the problem; in other words it’s a cause that could have a big impact on making the problem go away.  You will end up with 5-10 causes that get votes from which you can start to have a discussion as to which are the top causes to the problem.

My rule-of-thumb is to pick the same number of vital causes as you have team members that will aid in the next step, and also ensure your list of top causes doesn’t get too long.  From my experience I’ve never worked on a project that required more than a handful of causes to be addressed in order to achieve the project goal.  Generally, there are just a few causes creating most of the problem (i.e. Pareto principle).

Two simple questions that work on nearly every problem investigation are:

  1. Why do you think this is a vital cause?
  2. When was the last time this cause created the problem?  When was the time before the last time?

No matter who I’m helping, what problem they are trying to solve, whatever industry they may be working in, etc. these two questions work every time.  I don’t need to know anything about the problem, process, etc. to help a team dig down to causes that matter.  The first question is focused on getting to why they think this is a cause that matters.

The second question is a way of starting the validation process.  You’d be surprised, maybe not, at how often I work with teams who are adamant about a particular cause to a problem, but when I ask when’s the last time this happened they can’t remember when it was.  If they do have a time recently when the cause happened I’ll usually challenge them to come up with another occurrence of the cause just to make sure it wasn’t just a one time event.  At the end of this process you should have a select few vital causes to use as input to the next step.

How could the vital causes be validated?

This is when you can begin to think about pulling out the LSS “big boy” tools (i.e. correlation, regression, DOE, etc.) to aid in building your investigation plan.  One-by-one you need to ask and answer the question, “how could we, preferably using data, validate this cause?”.

I view this process similar to that of a detective trying to solve a crime (your problem) by gathering evidence (validation plan) to convict or acquit someone (the causes).  Ideally, this should be done using data, but in some cases it may be hard to gather objective evidence.  In this case I suggest interviewing people familiar with the process, problem, etc.  These interviews can then be converted into quantifiable data (i.e. % who believe cause is valid / not valid).

Building your plan doesn’t have to be a laborious process.  After identifying your vital causes work through them one-by-one brainstorming the answer to the question, “what could we do to validate this cause?”.  This should start with data, but could also be observation of the process, interviews with people working in the process, etc.

Which validated causes are worth pursuing solutions to minimize and / or eliminate?

Just because a cause is shown to have an impact on your problem doesn’t mean a solution needs to be applied to it.  What you are looking for in this final step is which of the vital causes you should address to achieve your project goals.

A quick and simple way of doing this process is to assign a percentage of impact to each cause similar to what you would see as an output to a multiple regression analysis.  If you have data it may be obvious which causes will have the biggest impact when reduced and / or eliminated, but from my experience this is rarely the case.  Typically, there is some data, but many of the causes will need to be evaluated based on the experience of the team.

List out your “guilty” causes and then assign a percentage to each one and then determine which ones to pursue solutions to in the improve phase.  The good thing is even if you don’t implement solutions to all the guilty causes you can always come back to the list later if your improvement data doesn’t get you to your goal.

Keep in simple.

Identifying causes doesn’t have to be a complicated process, however, keep in mind this is arguably the most important step in the LSS process so don’t rush it.  The time you spend here will pay major dividends later when the results come.

Your efforts will also ensure you are doing just enough, not too much or too little, to achieve your project goals.  Taking a pinpointed approach to doing only what is needed will also create a greater likelihood your team members will want to do more LSS projects because they will see the results and not have to spend a significant amount of their time to do so.

4 Q’s to help get people doing what they’re supposed to do!

Aaaarg!One of the biggest challenges many of us face at some point in our lives, whether it be at home, work, school, church, etc.; essentially, anywhere people exist, is the frustration we experience when people don’t do what they’re supposed to do. Why is it people don’t do what seems so obvious they should be doing?

To better understand the causes to why people don’t do what they’re supposed to do there are four questions I ask my clients that always lead to identifying areas to improve.

Question 1: Do they know what to do?

I always start with this question, and it never ceases to amaze me, how, by simply telling people what to do, and setting the expectation in objective terms, the problem goes away. This happened to me on my first job years ago when I thought I was doing a great job only to find out my boss thought otherwise. Once I knew what was expected, in this case the number of orders to be completed in a shift, I became a star performer.

Question 2: Do they know how to do it?

If they know what to do the next question focuses on what has been done to instruct them in how to do a task. What education, training, coaching, mentoring, work instructions, videos, pictures, visual aids, technology, etc. has been used to supply ample instruction in how to do the work? You can’t do what you don’t know how to do!

Question 3: Can they do it?

Even if someone knows what to do and how to do something it doesn’t mean they can do it. I look at each task, assignment, objective, etc. from three perspectives that include physical, intellectual, and emotional abilities.

Some jobs, such as those in the construction industry, require physical abilities such as lifting heavy materials. Some jobs also require a certain degree of intellectual ability such as those as an engineer or architect. Emotional abilities can also be a critical element of success, for example, a hospice nurse who experiences death on a routine basis. We’re not all cut out to do every job under the sun. Some of us have “it” and some of us don’t, but the good news is that most of us do have the ability to get it if we want it bad enough.

Question 4: Do they want to do it?

The last question is last for a reason because the first three questions are the “easy” ones to fix. This final question gets at how motivated a person is to do the work. I’m a firm believer that you can’t force someone to do anything they don’t want to do even with the right incentives. Short term incentives may work, but long term the incentives lose power, and the people go back to their old levels of performance. However, despite the challenge of motivating others, there is plenty you can do to help motivate and reinforce what they do when they do what you want them to do (wow, that’s a tongue twister:-).

The best approach, based on years of behavioral science, is to positively reinforce a person when they do what is expected. Everyone has different things that reinforce them in a positive way. For example, I like public recognition in front of my peers when I do a good job, while others may prefer to be recognized privately. The best thing to do is ask before you reinforce so that what you do is truly reinforcing to that person! You’ll know the reinforcement is working when you get more of the behavior you’ve reinforced.

My challenge to you is the next time you’re faced with someone not doing what you believe they should be doing (it’s probably happening in front of you right now:-), ask these four questions and you’ll no doubt find a gap to fill that, with a little bit of effort, will lead to higher performance and less frustration.

Million Dollar Questions

cash-pileOne of the most common tasks the clients I work with struggle to do well is getting a new project started.  I would argue the start of a project is one of the, if not thee most, critical time in the process of effectively executing a lean Six Sigma (LSS) project.

Get it right and your team will be off to a great start with a crystal clear vision of what you will and will not be working on, but get it wrong and you will spend more time lassoing your team back to where you want them throughout the process, which leads to frustration and a high probability of not doing more projects.

In an effort to always be looking for ways to simplify the LSS process, which is far too easy to over complicate, I’ve developed a short list of questions to use in quickly framing a potential project.  These questions are typically answered by the project facilitator, usually a green or black belt, and in some cases the project champion.  The end result is just enough information that the champion can use to determine if a project is warranted, at which point a team can be formed to take on the initiative and start stacking up the cash!

The questions.

The foundation of a project is the problem you want to solve.  There are many ways to ask this question, but the easiest is simply, “what’s the problem?”.  In all of the projects I’ve worked on in the last 15 years most fall into one of two types of problems.  One problem type has to do with quality, while the second is centered on efficiency.  More simply stated, the problem is most often either failing to meet the customer’s expectations (quality) and / or taking too long (efficiency) to deliver the product and / or service to a customer.

The “so what” factor.

The second part of the problem question is, “why does this problem matter?”, or stated another way, “why should we care about this problem?”.  I call this the “so what” factor because every organization has problems, but what makes this one worth pursuing more than the others?  I often pose a hypothetical situation to my clients and ask, “if your senior leader asked you why you need to fix this problem what would you say?”.  Not all problems are worth fixing.

Passion for improvement.

With a clear idea around what the problem is and why it matters to the business, the next question focuses on who can do something about the problem.  This is as simple as asking, “who leads the people, manages the process, etc. where the problem is likely originating?”.  This is your best candidate to champion the project.

What might be the most important question comes next when you actually meet with the champion and determine their level of passion for solving the problem.  Essentially, you’re asking the question, “why do you (champion) want to fix this problem?”.  This can be a tough question to measure because very few champions I’ve ever come in contact with have said they don’t care about a problem.

There are, however, ways of measuring a champion’s level of passion for a project by simply observing them during the process of asking these questions.  You are probably a lot like me in that when I talk about something I’m passionate about my eyes light up, I talk faster, my hands start moving a lot, I walk around while I’m talking, and look out if there’s a white board nearby (I like to draw pictures)!

Passion may be hard to quantify, but it’s usually very easy to see.  If there’s no passion there’s bound to be no long term results, and sometimes the best thing to do is walk away from a project if the champion doesn’t have passion to solve the problem.

Pick a number.

We also have to be able to measure the problem and determine how much better we could be or need to be in relation to the measure.  Far too often we overcomplicate LSS projects with way too many graphs and charts, which usually leads to greater confusion rather than clarity.  I tell my clients frequently, “one problem-one number”.  What’s the one number that will tell us we have less of a problem after we’ve implemented solutions and how much better could that number be?

Show me the money!

The final question is one that will lead to either going forward with the project or not, and that’s the business case, or in other words, what is the financial impact to the business if we were to achieve the improvement goal?

The truth be told the only thing, well maybe not the only thing, but the most important thing, that matters to senior leaders is the financial impact of projects.  Thriving LSS programs deliver results, and results lead to programs leaders support, and this support leads to sustainability, but all of these are based on doing the right stuff (aka picking the right projects).

The dollars are what champions need to make informed decisions about how to best utilize their resources (people).  There is always more work to be done than people to do it, and having a financial impact will give champions a way of comparing a potential LSS project to other work that won’t be done if the project is green lighted.

Let’s talk.

The approach I’ve just outlined is part of something we call the champion interview, but it shouldn’t be an interview per se, but instead a conversation that leads to answers to these questions that lead to either going forward with a project or not.

My prescription to the clients I work with is to simply have a conversation that starts with asking about the problems they (champion) are facing at the current time.  This naturally leads to identifying why the problems matter to them and the business.  Whether they are passionate about the problem will become evident as they talk about it.

How you would measure the problem should begin to materialize as you discuss the problem, but if it doesn’t simply ask, “how would you know the problem has been solved?” to better understand how you could measure the problem.

Where would you like to be in the near future will give you some idea on how much better the measure could be that leads into how the problem is impacting the business financially.

With these questions firmly planted in your mind, every conversation you have begins to create the potential for identifying LSS projects.  You simply have to ask the right questions, listen, clarify, and confirm what you hear, and voila, before you know it your project queue will be overflowing with great ideas!

Starting a LSS wildfire!

WildfireA few years ago I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, and recently a client asked, “when do we know we’ve achieved success in a lean Six Sigma (LSS) deployment?”, which brought back memories of Gladwell’s book and the concept of a tipping point.

Success in a LSS deployment could be characterized as when we’ve hit what Gladwell describes as a tipping point, but what exactly characterizes that point?

Gladwell defines a tipping point as, “the magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire“. This is a great visual perspective in that we’ve all seen a wildfire and how quickly it can spread when conditions are right. One answer to my client’s question could be Gladwell’s definition of a tipping point, but I would argue more clarity from a LSS perspective is needed.

Defining a LSS tipping point.

A few years ago at the 2013 ASQ Lean and Six Sigma conference one of the keynote speakers, Jim Bowie, challenged the audience to make their organizations depend on them (process improvement professionals) to achieve their (senior management’s) goals and objectives. What I believe Jim was describing is the tipping point we need to find in order to classify a LSS program as a success.

Gong back to my answer to the client asking when they’ve achieved success can then be described as the point when your senior leaders are coming to you to help them achieve their objectives; that’s when you’ve done it; you’ve reached a tipping point!

The next question then becomes, how do we get to a tipping point with LSS?

Two key elements I would argue that lead to a tipping point are 1) picking the right projects / focus areas, and 2) selecting the best people to execute on making those areas better.

Pick the right projects.

I’ve written extensively about the importance of projects, and to summarize my argument to just a few words is that to reach a tipping point the projects you select need to be focused on the stuff that matters most to management.

If you’re working on things that matter to management, and are successful in achieving what management expects in relation to those things, they’re going to begin expecting more of this stuff, which leads to a higher probability of sustainable success with LSS.

When I talk with people who have been a part of a failed LSS initiative most of the time it is related to a lack of leadership commitment, but digging deeper in most cases goes back to what they were working on. Work on the wrong stuff and management won’t support it long term, but pick the right stuff and do well at it and it’s hard not to succeed in sustaining your effort.

Pick the right people.

From a people perspective we need to be picking the best people to work on projects. I often argue that LSS projects are a great proving ground for one’s leadership ability, or lack thereof. 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.

Think about it…getting others to follow when they have a choice not to.

Sound familiar? This is exactly what anyone leading a LSS project has to do in order to be successful! So are you headed for a tipping point or a breaking point? Some questions to consider include:

Review your current list of projects and ask, why would management care about this project? If you can’t come up with a good answer you may want to reevaluate whether or not to start and / or continue with the project.

Another question to ask is, are key leaders in the organization coming to me with their challenges and asking for help? If not, how can I help them see that I’m here to help them succeed?

If leaders are not coming to you asking for help sometimes it’s as simple as letting them know you’re here to help, and want to help them succeed. Fix that by simply offering to help. Ask to come to their team meetings to sit in and listen for LSS opportunities to help. Then get about the business of helping them!

Getting to a tipping point begins with you. Don’t wait for leadership to get your LSS initiative to the tipping point, in most cases you’ll never get there waiting for them. Show your leadership they need you to succeed and you will begin to create a dependency that leads to a LSS wildfire!