Category Archives: Project Identification

Break out a six pack to find your next LSS project!

800w-cans-fuzzy-drinks-largeThe perfect organization does not exists anywhere in the world.  This is a good and bad thing.  It is good because people like you and I who are passionate about making organizations work better have no shortage of problems to solve.  However, the problems create frustrating environments to work in that leads to disengagement and turnover in addition to dissatisfied customers who, given an option, will find what they want somewhere else.

Knowing this, and after coaching several hundred process improvement experts over the past few years, I still run into a recurring problem in which the people I coach (freshly trained LSS green and black belts) struggle to find projects to apply their newly trained skills to.  You would think that with all the problems most organizations face they would have piles of project opportunities to get after, but that just isn’t the case in most businesses.

Nobody likes piling up their problems, especially out in the open where everyone can see them.  They tend to be hidden deep in the organization, but the good news is that I have uncovered a few “secret” places to look that almost always turn up golden nuggets to make processes run more efficient with higher quality that lead to lower costs and higher profit margins.

I call these hidden locations the “six pack of opportunities”.  Let’s break open this six pack and look at each area, but first a few words of advice on how to approach finding your next opportunity.

Keep it simple.  Serve instead of being served.

Whatever you do never walk into a manager’s office and say something like, “I just went to training and need to find a lean Six Sigma project.  Can you help me with that?”

There are two big problems with this approach.  First and foremost is that your perspective has to be one of a servant.  Your goal is to serve someone else who is in need; not to be served by someone who can simply hand you a project.  Process improvement is never about you or what you will get from the effort.  Process improvement is completely about how you can use your passion to help others.

If you have an attitude of “what’s in it for me” you will not succeed in this profession that is all about serving others.  If you want to be served go to a Denny’s and order a Grand Slam.  If you want to help others get better at what they love to do and make a real difference, focus on the needs of others, and not on what you will get from the situation.

Second, you should never bring up the words lean, Six Sigma, process improvement, kaizen, or any other confusing Japanese or statistical terms or worse yet, acronyms like DOE, SPC, LSS, etc.  This will immediately turn on a filter, a faulty filter in most cases, that whoever you are talking with will use to run their problems and project ideas through that will lead to nowhere.  You are there to simply understand the challenges, frustrations, head aches, etc. the person you are talking with is currently experiencing.  Using simple language to get all these problems out is where you should start.  Business leaders could care less about specific process improvement methodologies like lean Six Sigma.  What they care about and get measured on is business performance.  Focus on the what (i.e. problems, issues, challenges, etc.) not the how (i.e. LSS).

Break open a six pack and get busy looking for opportunities.

Nearly all great LSS projects come from one of six areas.  Each of the following represent opportunities to apply the LSS methodology to help organizational leaders succeed.  The key is finding an opportunity that they have passion for that leads to improved performance.

Six places to look for projects include:

  1. Business Plans / Strategic Goals
  2. Team Goals
  3. Budget
  4. Metrics
  5. Personal goals / performance plans
  6. Pain points

Focus on the heart.

I find that starting with number six in this list is where you will find opportunities closest to the heart of the leader.  The further up the list you move the farther from their heart you get, and the less passionate they are about the issue.  Have you ever met a leader that got excited about strategic plans?  I’ve never met one, but I have met several leaders who could tell me about their pain points for hours on end!

The top five focus areas are pretty straightforward in finding project opportunities.  One simple tip I will give you is to look for some keywords such as “minimize”, “reduce”, “maximize”, “increase”, and “streamline”.  Each of these words typically points to an existing process that can be measured, two key elements to a good LSS project.

Where I suggest starting is with the pain points of a leader instead of the other five areas.  In some ways when you are just getting started with LSS you are also doing some promotion and marketing for the LSS process.  If you pay attention to any type of advertisement these days you will notice most selling is based on tapping into emotions and not on the data making a solid case to buy whatever is being promoted.

In some ways it is the same with LSS.  You need to tap into the emotions of a leader to find their pain points, and once you do and help them eliminate them you will begin to build their trust and open doors to projects in the other five areas.

To find a person’s pain points is no different than going to the doctor.  You need to first ask “What’s hurting you?” in order to make a diagnosis and take the first step in reducing / eliminating the pain.  You could simply begin with this exact questions, but some better ways to ask it are:

  1. What’s keeping you up at night?
  2. What work-related things do you think about when you’re not at work?
  3. In the last month what problem just doesn’t seem to go away that you wish would?

These are all simple starter questions that begin to develop a conversation that will lead to making a diagnosis on what is causing their pain. From their answers to these questions you will be able to start determining how or if LSS can help alleviate the pain. When you find a pain LSS can help with and reduce it you will begin to build a bridge of trust between the leader and yourself that will lead to bigger and more impactful projects. Be patient and focus on serving, and the reward for doing so will come in time.

Finding the money piles hidden in your business.

0622_money_630x420You may not know this, but there are piles of money hidden all over your business.  One of my favorite parts of doing what I do with business owners and leaders is helping them find the hidden money piles scattered all around their organizations.  Every business has them.

The challenge is finding where they’re hidden, and then doing something about it.  In this post I’ll share some insight into where to look for the piles.

Let the hunt begin!

Half the battle in getting better is determining where to focus.  If you don’t know where to look it’s hard to improve.  Fortunately, the money piles are not all that hard to uncover once you know where to search for them.

The first place to find the money is your budget.  Where you spend the most is often where you have the most opportunity to save.  If your organization is like most, your top budget item is people.  My advice is to stay away from that line item (getting better is not usually about laying people off) and move on to other line items that will typically focus on operating expenses.  What do you spend the most on?  Who do you spend the most with?  These are a few questions to use as you begin to uncover opportunities to save.

A second pile of money can be found in your metrics, you know, those numbers you use to measure the performance of your business’ key processes.  A simple way of finding the cash here is to focus on where you have gaps between where you want to be and where you currently are.  Those gaps tend to be filled with cash.

A third stack is about as close to your desk as you can get, which is documented in your team’s goals and your own personal goals.  These dollars are the ones closest to your heart so they will most likely bring out a passion for improvement unlike the other stacks of cash.  What are you and your team working on that is important to the overall goals of the business?  What are you most passionate about fixing?  What tugs at your heart and mind when you’re not at work?  These are all questions that may lead to some of the most meaningful opportunities to get better at what you do.

A final stack of cash that may not be the biggest, but is certainly the most annoying (assuming piles of cash could annoy anyone:-)) are those nagging issues that seem to come up every day that may not be the biggest challenges, but just don’t go away, and have to be dealt with just to keep the business operating.  These “pain points” can be small stacks of cash that could be viewed as those getting in the way of the bigger stacks you’d like to scoop up, but don’t have the time to get after.  These could be quality issues with incoming product, invoicing problems with customers, vendor on-time deliveries, paperwork issues (i.e. forms), etc.  They’re small issues that can’t be ignored, and they take time away from the important stuff you’d like to be working on.

Get in attack mode today!

One quick way to start attacking these potential stacks of cash is to spend the next four weeks sniffing out each of the stacks.  This is a good Friday kind of thing that my clients like to use to finish off their weeks on a high note by finding a stack of cash to get after.

Fridays in most organizations tend to be a little laid back so this is a great “casual” exercise you can spend Friday afternoons hunting and then sorting through the opportunities to determine what to attack starting Monday.  Focus on one stack each Friday and by the end of the four weeks you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get after, and in no time you’ll be counting the money that was once hidden.

Quit wasting your time helping people who don’t want your help!

crying at workOne of the greatest frustrations when leading a lean Six Sigma (LSS) project team is working with people who just don’t care much about the problem.  I see this challenge with my clients all the time.

They setup a meeting with a potential champion to discuss a problem that could be an impactful LSS project only to have the meeting request denied, rescheduled, or with no response at all.  Weeks go by as they try to find time on the champion’s calendar, but nothing happens.  They wonder, “Why won’t this person I’m trying to help take my offer to help them?!?!”

Then, after multiple attempts, they finally “push” the champion into starting the project.  This only leads to a frustrating number of months working the DMAIC process and finding the champion does little to sustain the effort.  In the end the process goes right back where it started!  Ugh!

In this post I’d like to share some advice on how to make sure you don’t end up in this situation on your next project.  Determining the potential success of a project comes down to three P’s that include:

  1. The “right” People…
  2. with a Passion…
  3. to solve a Problem worth fixing.

After close to two decades working in various organizations I’ve never found long term success where any of the 3P’s was missing.  You need all three to be successful over the long term.

Lean Six Sigma would be easy if it didn’t require people!

Let’s start with the first P – People.  This is somewhat of a no-brainer in that it takes people to make a project successful, but what / who are the right people?  There are the obvious people you need, for example, the subject matter experts in the area you are working and those with the technical skills that will be required to use the LSS process, but more importantly you need people with the second P – Passion!

These people, from my experience, are rare jewels in most organizations.  The employee engagement numbers Gallup reports are evidence that most people don’t care much about their jobs.  They tend to have an attitude of doing the minimum and simply work for the weekend.  However, there are those few individuals that always seem to have a positive attitude and are always looking for a better way; a way to provide greater value to the organization.

This can be a challenge in some organizations, but I’d suggest instead of starting with a problem and then finding people to work with you to solve the problem, focus on finding people with passion for improvement and they will have plenty of problems to work on.

You’ll know you’ve found them because they won’t refer to their problems as “problems”, but instead they’ll call them opportunities.  You’ll also recognize them because they will be smiling when they talk about the opportunities, and they’ll likely reach out to you to get started instead of you pushing them to do so.

Finding a problem worth messing with.

What is a problem that’s worth fixing?  The simple answer is that a business case can be made if we fix the problem it will lead to a positive financial impact (i.e. revenue increase, cost reduction, etc.).  I would argue when answering this question we need to dig a little deeper than simply ensuring the problem will have a financial impact, but will also have a positive effect on achieving the goals of the business (i.e. strategic plan, tactical plan, departmental goals, gaps in KPI’s, etc.).

Not every problem is worth messing with.  Ask the question, “How will fixing this problem help the organization take one step forward in achieving the key goals identified by our leadership team?”  Your answer will determine if the problem is worth fixing.

I often tell my clients the most important aspect of a successful LSS initiative in any organization starts with working on the right stuff; the stuff leadership cares about; the stuff leadership gets measured on; the stuff leadership gets rewarded on.  Work on that stuff and succeed, and your leadership team will be asking for more!

There’s no question this process is a huge challenge, and from my experience most don’t succeed at it.  They start the process, usually with the wrong elements like training everyone.  Training is important, but has almost nothing to do with LSS success.  What is important is what you’re working on and the people doing the work.  Pick the right people with a passion to get better, and the problems worth messing with will come to the surface.

The simple infographic below is a great checklist to get started with any LSS project.  You’ll notice that people are the “bookends” that hold your project together in the middle.  Nail down these six things BEFORE you start your next project and you’re more likely to succeed!

This type of work is one of the things I’m most passionate about helping clients with.  Could you use some help?  I’m here for you along with 30+ VRI lean Six Sigma experts located all around the world.  Contact us to help you succeed!

Shaking Hands and Kissing Babies

I’m what you could call a “political junkie”.  I love watching and reading the latest political news, especially around election time when things get heated up between the contenders.  While I typically look at politicians more as entertainers these days, they do offer up some things that we as lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals can learn from to actually get things done, something they can’t seem to do.  One concept is what I call “shaking hands and kissing babies”.

Less talking more doing.

A few years ago I spent several months coaching a black belt who had a passion for LSS, well, sort of.  For months we spent hours each day talking about LSS.  We explored our thoughts and experiences on deployment, training, software, statistics, etc., but after months of talk he had progressed no further with taking action to turn his knowledge and passion for improvement into results (he would make a great politician).

Then, on my last week working with him, in walked a new black belt just hired and starting her first day on the job.  After some brief introductions, she left us and didn’t return until the end of the day.  I wondered what she’d been up to all day, and when I asked her she said she had been out walking around the offices and talking with people.  She talked with them about their problems, how she could serve them in getting better at what they do, and where LSS might add value to solving some of their big challenges.

Much like a politician seeking your vote, she was mingling with her constituents trying to understand their problems, and how she might help to alleviate some of the challenges they faced each day.  From this my political mind shaped the “shaking hands and kissing babies” analogy to finding people to help through LSS.

What follows is how we can learn from this black belt, and to some degree, politicians working to get your vote.

1. Seek to serve instead of being served.

Way too often we focus on what we’re getting out of the process.  We typically have our sights set on a promotion, job title, more money, corner office, etc., but I would argue that if your primary focus is on how you will benefit from helping others you won’t succeed over the long term.  If you truly want to help others they become priority one and you come second.

You can accomplish anything in life as long as you don’t mind who gets the credit.
-Harry Truman

2. Listen more talk less.

Think about someone you know who truly cares about you.  Do they spend all the time you’re together talking to you?  Do you have a hard time getting in a word during your conversations with them?  I doubt it.

People who care about you spend more time listening to you than talking to you.  The same can be said for those you are trying to help with LSS.  Like the black belt I mentioned earlier, spend more time listening to people and they will begin to see that your focus is on helping them not yourself.

We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
-Epictetus

3. Focus on what matters most.

This is where politicians could use some help!  If you try to fix all the problems you’re not likely to fix any of the problems, and not every problem is worth solving.  You have a finite amount of time in your work day, and what I’ve found is the best people I’ve worked with (those who get the right things done effectively) are those who manage their time well.

To manage your time well you need to have crystal clear focus on the vital few things that matter most to success (i.e. Pareto Principle).  This starts with defining what “success” means to those you are trying to help.  Why do they exists?  How do they add value to the business?  What is keeping them from doing what they do best?  These are all questions to ask in determining what matters most to their success and how LSS may help.

…if you don’t prioritize your life someone else will.
-Greg McKeown

4. Know that you can’t do it all.

This is a lesson most politicians will never get, but you as a LSS professional can make a lot of progress by starting with the basis that you can’t do everything for everyone.  Principle number three feeds into this one in that if you focus on what matters most you will take a big step forward in working on the important stuff, but sometimes what matters most is an overwhelming amount of work that you will need some help in accomplishing.

Where there is passion for improvement you will succeed, so I suggest finding those who want to improve first because they will take part in driving the success and not simply come along for the ride.  To some degree process improvement is about finding people with a passion to get better first, and then determining where and how to get better.

You have to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that you want to right. If you’re not passionate enough from the start, you’ll never stick it out.
-Steve Jobs

Get out of your office!

Not long ago I heard from the two black belts I wrote about earlier.  The guy who never left his office no longer works for the company, and the black belt who was out shaking hands and kissing babies was promoted.  To succeed you have to get out and find the opportunities to use your talent as a LSS professional to help others.

It’s a rare organization in which people will come to you with their problems, but as you begin to show others you are there to serve them and not yourself, spend time to listen to their problems and challenges, focus on what matters most to success, and tap into the passion of others who want to get better at what they do you will succeed!