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Curing Lean Six Sigma Weak Points

Posted by Diane Kulisek on December 14, 2009

The following question was asked on LinkedIn by Bill Rushmore, Principal at Rushmore Technologies, a degreed Chemist and Engineer:

For those who have experience with Six Sigma or Lean Sigma, what is the one (or two) weak point(s) that you would fix with a Six Sigma or Six Sigma project? I am looking into how to improve Lean Six Sigma and have my own factors. I am looking for other opinions or experiences to expand the possibilities.

Diane Kulisek’s answer, one of many posted, was selected by Bill as the ‘Best’ Answer.  Here it is:

I think two things need to change:

  • 1.) There needs to be less emphasis upon the correctness of the terms used to describe what is being done and more emphasis upon doing it; and
  •  2.) There needs to be less elitism associated with those accountable for employing the methodology.

Let me say I believe that Six Sigma and Lean will continue to be terms used for at least the next five to ten years, however, I also have started to hear many of the same criticisms of “Six Sigma” and “Lean” that I used to hear in relation to “SPC”, “Quality Circles”, CPI and “TQM”. All six of these terms (Six Sigma, Lean, SPC, Quality Circles, CPI and TQM) entail top management support, problem-solving methodologies, process improvement tools, and, potentially, improved value or economy. All six of these terms could also be costly to implement. All six of these terms are subject to failure during top management changes. All six of these terms also, unfortunately, can be categorized as “fads”. When you peel back the glitzy layer of names, they are all essentially the same thing. You can garble them up with new terms to describe old concepts. You can claim that they do things differently from one another (which they certainly do, slightly). You can say that the next one made the previous one “obsolete” or old-fashioned (which is not necessarily the case)…. but the bottom line is, they all have so much in common that you can pretty much expect Six Sigma and Lean to take a nose dive the minute enough negative momentum about “THOSE words” has been achieved…. and it’s on it’s way.

My advice would be to stop using trendy words like “Six Sigma” or “Lean” and talk about the fundamental tools being used. More people will understand and the continuity will be better through the turmoil of management changes. So, that’s the language aspect of it.

Secondly, business managers were taught to beat the “quality-is-everybody’s- responsibility” drum for decades. Then, along came Six Sigma. Only the best/brightest were drafted into the Six Sigma ranks. Their grasp of finance needed to be as great (or greater than) their grasp of technology or methodology. They were subjected to extremely expensive (often) company-sponsored training programs…. out of which they emerged, with the green beret of the Six Sigma special forces. Proud and overly confident, many freshly-belted (pun intended) Six Sigma initiates blundered out into the production workspace only to be shot down by older, wiser and angrier personnel lurking in sniper positions.

 The elite division of class that is so often identified with the “Six Sigma” black belt mystique has created far more problems, in my opinion, than have been solved. In fact, I would venture to say that there are more people working to be sure a Six Sigma Black Belt falls smack dab on his or her nose than there will ever be willing to help them in an otherwise just cause. The problem is that nobody likes to be treated as a “lesser than”. Six Sigma Black Belts (and even other belt designations) seem to be taught a smugness that acts like a bullseye on their butt cheeks and foreheads.

My recommendation would be to get rid of the title. Again, focus upon the fundamental tasks being performed. Define the roles from the perspective of basic tasks. “You will be accountable for improving the performance of this process. Accordingly, you are henceforth our Process Improvement Project Manager.” EVERYbody can understand what THAT is.   Well okay, maybe not everybody…  but more than understand ‘six sigma black belt’.

What is a “Six Sigma Black Belt”? It’s an abstraction, especially for those who have NOT (nor likely ever will) been through the training to become one. Why create mystery where openness is the key to improvement? Why create an “elite class” when collaboration at all levels of the organization will be essential to creating desired change? It’s counter-productive, at best. Drive out the use of the terms “Six Sigma and Black Belt”. Use role definitions and job titles that EVERYBODY can understand… and support.

Postscript from Diane:  I suppose it might be worth mentioning that I’m actually starting to see the word ‘quality’ reappear in job descriptions, perhaps not in the titles, but in the responsibilities.  People in charge of hiring people who need to know how to use quality improvement tools and methods have not yet become quite bold enough to venture that a rose is a rose by any other name, but they have begun using ‘other’ terms to avoid using “six sigma’, ‘lean’ or ‘lean sigma’ in many of the more recent position descriptions I’ve been seeing on the open job market.  Examples of ‘new’ quality-related titles include: “Continuous Improvement Project Manager”, “V.P. Organizational Excellence” and “Director of Business Performance Reporting”.  It is …. a start.

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“Quality” – Is it a Four-Letter Word?

Posted by Diane Kulisek on June 11, 2007

No QualityThis past weekend I found myself in Palm Springs at the annual Regional Leadership Training for American Society for Quality (ASQ) volunteers (a.k.a. “member leaders”). One of the things that we did at this event was to brainstorm about what we, as member leaders, could do to bring more value to our fellow ASQ members and to our communities. Sitting at a round table with approximately a half dozen other seasoned professionals, I was immediately stricken by two things: 1.) the declaration by one participant that he did not consider himself to be a “quality” manager and that he did not like having the word “quality” associated with what he did for his company and 2.) the emphasis upon needing to do more to reach out to fellow employees outside of “our” profession with “lean six sigma” resources and to purposely avoid using the word “quality”, because it put people off. Good heavens! These were supposedly “quality” professionals… or at least “quality” practitioners! We were THERE because we were members of the American Society FOR “Quality“….. and these people had a problem with using the word “quality”?! Since when had “quality” become a four letter word?!

Some increasingly heated discussion took place about how “quality” was everybody’s job these days (to which I say, “If its everybody’s job, it is nobody’s job.”), how the best “quality” managers work themselves out of a job by making quality a way of doing business for everybody in the organization and eliminating the need for a “quality” manager (true, perhaps… with many qualifiers required), and how many organizations are, in fact, eliminating separate “quality” departments or personnel, transferring accountability for quality instead to operations, customer service, legal and/or information systems departments (again, this may be fine… but there should be many prerequisites).

I had actually written an article earlier this year about how one company’s top manager started a meeting with me by telling me how he had nothing nice to say about “quality”, how bad his experiences with “quality” had been and how “quality” always seemed to get in the way of other (apparently more worthwhile) business objectives. My point is that this was not my first exposure to this weird anti-“quality” mentality.

Anyway, back at the training meeting round table … we ended our discussion with my asking what the point was to being part of a society dedicated to “quality” if “quality” was no longer (as a minimum) our common interest. We did not have time to address that question, unfortunately.

From my perspective, it comes down to this. If we don’t use the word “quality” to describe what it is a customer requires or is willing to pay for…. what other word (or words) should we use? Without customers… why would it matter what a business does? If a customer requires “quality”, and organizations are no longer willing to provide it, how can those organizations expect to stay around? What would they be providing… and to whom? Perhaps more importantly…. why would anybody want it?

Earlier this year, there was an indication that the word “quality” might be dropped from the title of the “Baldrige National Quality Program”, replacing the word “quality” with “excellence”, instead (which, by the way, will require a congressional act). The rationale was that “quality” was no longer a popular term among top business executives and was diminishing participation in the award process. But … not all customers expect “excellence”… and, even if they did, “excellence” in relation to what? In order to “excel”, one must at least have a point of reference… a minimum level of requirement. You can have “excellent quality”, “excellent price”, “excellent responsiveness”… but.. “excellence” cannot stand alone. It has to be attached to something. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this nasty business, though.

Some might argue that the word “quality” cannot stand alone, as well. To an extent this is true because quality is always inherent to something else…. a thing or a service, a deliverable. Nonetheless, “quality”, in my humble opinion, has always been most simply defined as “that which makes something that which it is supposed to be… according to the customer”. I define customers here, loosely, as those willing to exchange something of value for something else of value. Customers therefore require, as a minimum, “quality”. Customers may prefer excellent quality, that is, customers may be willing to pay more for goods and services that exceed their minimum expectations… but still, as a minimum, quality is required.

So… how many other ways could one simply describe this fundamental requirement? How many other ways could one simply express the need for something to be what it is supposed to be? “Quality” is really the only word that sums it up nicely… for me.

There is no denying that the word “quality” has fallen from grace with some, even with many. Perhaps this is because of how the word “quality” has been abused by those who clumsily or in a self-serving manner hooked it up with abstractions and distractions and used it to sell all manner of unpleasantness.

Let me make this more clear. “Quality” is NOT the same thing as “Lean Six Sigma”. “Quality” is NOT the same thing as “a management system”. “Quality” is not the same thing as “regulatory compliance”. While it is true that the tools and methods of “Lean Six Sigma” can be used to enhance processes that may lead to a better quality deliverable, those tools and methods are a means to an end… not the end itself. While it is true that an effective “management system” can better assure the adequacy of processes that impact the quality of deliverables, the system is again, a means to an end, not the end itself. While it is true that a customer may expect compliance with applicable regulations as part of “what makes something that which it is supposed to be”, there are many other expectations that go beyond regulatory compliance in order for all of a customer’s minimum needs to be satisfied. This is also why “compliance with specifications” falls short of adequately defining “quality”.

So… again… I struggle with the question…. if not “quality”…. how else can we describe: “that which makes something that which it is supposed to be for the customer”? I need to know… because, while customers know VERY well what they mean when they say “I require a quality product (or service)” it appears that our business engineers, managers and executives do not, have become confused… or, at the very least, are irrationally and stubbornly, refusing to use “THAT WORD“.

Now that so many former “quality” professionals and practitioners are becoming unwilling to use “THAT WORD“, …. what should they call themselves? Is this truly an identity crisis… or have they just lost their way?

Well, I haven’t lost MY way. Until I hear of another word (or brief, simple, easy to remember and consistently repeat phrase) to describe what it is that I do…. that being: “assure things are what they are supposed to be for customers”…. I’m sticking with “quality”. I am a “quality” professional, “quality” practitioner, “quality” advocate and I am passionate about “quality”. I’m open, of course, to other suggestions…. from my customers.

Diane

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