Lean Six Sigma is one of the most widely used and respected Business Improvement methodologies in the world. However, one criticism often raised is concerning the length of time it can take to make progress.
This can be detrimental, not just in terms of the cost of delay, when the pressure is on to find a solution. As the length of time from the beginning of a project to when you can reveal positive changes increases, the less engaged people will be and the more momentum is lost.
Furthermore, this false reputation for long-winded projects can cause many companies, including small businesses, to discount Lean Six Sigma before they have even started. If you think a project will take months to deliver return on investment, it can be difficult to justify spending the time even if you know it will pay off.
Contrary to popular belief, Lean Six Sigma programmes needn’t be drawn out and slow – there are things businesses can do to fast-track project benefits. Most of the time slow progress is down to problems with the deployment including selecting the wrong project, collecting the wrong data, inexperience or lack of support.
The wrong project
When Green and Black Belts are just stretching their Lean Six Sigma wings, they can find it difficult to find the ideal project: One that’s not too small to render the DMAIC process unnecessary but not so big that it becomes unmanageable.
It’s important to also consider the urgent vs important scale. It is essential that a good project is important, but not urgent – as urgency can create pressure that results in missed steps. However, if a problem is not important enough, it will not gain the support necessary so it could fizzle out.
While it is vital to pick an important problem, tackling a Quick Win early on can help a new Belt avoid facing pressure for results before they have completed their project.
The wrong data
The whole aim of a Lean Six Sigma project is to deliver benefits, whether these are benefits to the company, shareholders or customers. With this in mind, you would expect that a pretty big aspect of illustrating the return on investment of a project is to show exactly what the benefit has been.
However, one of the main problems with this is that many businesses either do not collect the correct data, or do not collect it accurately enough. Unless this issue is identified at the start of a project, and steps put in place to ensure the data is as robust as necessary, there will not be adequate proof of improvement. This can cause projects to rumble on, without the benefits being announced, because there simply isn’t the data to show what has changed.
Many projects stall or take longer than expected because the data that is needed to understand root causes or prove the current state just doesn’t exist. Even if it does exist, the data might not be fit for purpose or robust enough. This leads to the Green or Black Belt having to set up data collection exercises which inevitably cause delays in the project, resulting in frustration.
Both of these problems can be missed or exacerbated by an inexperienced Green or Black Belt. It takes strong technical knowledge, experience and analytical skills to run a successful project smoothly.
Inexperience often manifests itself in the Define phase as Belts are unsure how to define the project tightly enough, leading to project spread and more time as complexity increases.
The Measure phase also presents challenges as it involves data collection, which is itself a mix of art and science to understand what information is, or will be, necessary to collect. As mentioned above if the wrong data is collected Belts may need to collect more data or, where this is not possible, will not be able to show the benefits and have to close the project.
Issues with time management, prioritising the project over other workloads, managing a team effectively and navigating any politics are also easier and quicker to overcome with a Belt who has had experience with them in the past. While this is not something a Green or Black Belt can avoid entirely, awareness will ease the challenge.
One of the main underlying causes of problems with any Lean Six Sigma programme is lack of support. Picking the wrong project, failing to collect the data required and getting side-tracked mid-way through a project are all issues that are easily overcome with the support and investment of senior stakeholders in the business.
Senior leaders can help pick a project that is relevant to the goals of the business and will therefore be given the time and resources it needs. Support from senior level will also ensure that Belts are not put under pressure to start a project before they have collected the data necessary to identify root cause and prove benefits. In addition, managers are able to help newly qualified Belts who may struggle with areas such as smoothing out politics, selecting a good team and keeping a Belt focused on maintaining the momentum of the project.
No temporary fixes
The last area that leads to supposed delays in Lean Six Sigma project delivery is the confusion between temporary fixes and final solutions. Frustration is caused when a problem is allowed to continue as the Lean Six Sigma Belt insists that the root cause be found and the process be followed in full. This is, of course, correct but a good Belt will put in, either at the Measure or Analyse phase, a temporary fix which will stop the bleeding. This will remove the immediate pressure from senior managers and stop them thinking that it takes a long time to solve a problem with Lean Six Sigma.
The secret is that the fix is only temporary and the Belt must continue to solve the problem to eliminate it. Too often a Belt puts in a quick fix, the bleeding stops and they then forget about solving the root cause. The result is the problem comes back and people conclude that Lean Six Sigma doesn’t work.
A high level of training, that includes coaching during the completion of project work, and a senior management team that actively champion Lean Six Sigma within the business can help you avoid hurdles to a timely delivery.
Lean Six Sigma delivers the best possible outcomes for businesses when everyone within the company is invested in its success. With small businesses particularly, pressure on time can be the difference between continuing with Business Improvement, and abandoning it. Talk to us about how we can help you identify Quick Wins and train you to fast-track project benefits.