How to achieve process excellence using lean and six sigma techniques

Jonathan Gray
- Lean - Nov 04, 2014

To achieve tangible business value from continuous improvement initiatives we must move beyond the primary focus on method and tools. Lean and Six Sigma techniques have been adopted by many industries; however, we are seeing 50-70 percent of initiatives fail to reach their full potential, ‘hitting a wall’ after initial improvements. The central tenets to real business transformation are threefold:

  1. Role-modelling Lean Leadership behaviour which truly empowers employees;
  2. Ensuring improvements are connected by aligning initiatives to core business strategy;
  3. Creating targets that go beyond cost reduction to time-based and service level competitiveness.

However, there are often significant barriers which must be overcome in order to affect lasting change.

Leaders must role model change – the Lean Leadership maturity model

Leaders need to be open to learning and change themselves, and creating a learning environment for those around them. This is why Lean and Six Sigma methods and tools, when used in isolation, are not enough to deliver lasting operational transformation. Instead, they should be used as part of a broader approach to driving continuous improvement. The Lean Leadership maturity model articulates the evolution of Lean deployment in most organisations. 

Deploying rigorous standards, tools and audits initially deliver strong results, but over time improvements slow and results plateau.  Getting over the ‘wall’ needs a different approach to leadership.   Leadership must focus on reinforcing Lean behaviours through situational coaching (on-the-job).  Time spent at Genba (time spent observing from the ‘shop floor’) coaching teams and supporting continuous improvement must be the first priority, and if demonstrated consistently is truly transformational.

“How do we break down organisation silos?”

A team is by definition, a mutually accountable group with complementary skills, committed to a common purpose. However, senior leadership teams are often treated as distinct groups of high-performing individuals, while shared goals are often distilled down to financial performance, which can appear abstract in the day to day.

Finding a more perceptible shared objective can appear difficult. But in fact, it is business transformation itself that should be the common aim. The goal: drive performance improvements across the end-to-end value stream and create a rewarding place for people to work. This will result in a high-performing organisation and create an environment for true continuous improvement. Integrating business transformation governance directly into the business performance management system locks improvement activities directly to business results, creating pull throughout the organisation. To successfully secure business targets, teams must work together to mitigate risks and support each other in implementing end-to-end improvement initiatives.

Leaders must role model change – the Lean Leadership maturity model

All of the above rely on leaders being open to learning and change themselves, and creating a learning environment for those around them. Successful business transformation which delivers rapid results and lasting change cannot occur if all levels of the organisation are not involved equally.

This is why Lean and Six Sigma methods and tools, when used in isolation, are not enough to deliver lasting operational transformation. Instead, they should be used as part of a broader approach to driving continuous improvement. The Lean Leadership maturity model articulates the evolution of Lean deployment in most organisations.  Organisations start by deploying rigorous standards, prescriptive tools and audits to measure implementation with leaders driving implementation through compliance to standards.  This will initially deliver strong results but over time improvements will slow down and results will plateau; you have “hit the wall”.  To get over the wall the focus must move to flexibility, experimentation and Lean thinking.  This needs a different approach to leadership.   Leadership must focus on reinforcing Lean behaviours through situational coaching (on-the-job).  Critical to success, is the time commitment from leaders to coach and support their teams in the implementation of Lean.  Time spent at Gemba (time spent observing from the ‘shop floor’), coaching teams and supporting continuous improvement must be the first priority, and if demonstrated consistently is truly transformational.

Which organisations deliver change best?

Those that deliver change well tend to have strong values and are consistent in their approach to driving performance and implementing change, their leadership behaviours and focus on long-term impacts. Not to be mistaken with personal style which is always unique to the individual, behaviours can and should be consistent. Those leadership behaviours must support the values of the organisation and be specific to what the organisation does and how it works, and are relevant to everybody with people leadership responsibility, from executives to middle managers to team leaders.

“The worst behaviour you demonstrate is the best behaviour you can expect of others” is a powerful statement, because it is simple and true. An organisation cannot have multiple standards of leadership behaviour if it hopes to create a consistent way of working and a high performing culture delivering breakthrough performance.

Jonathan Gray is VP at Hitachi Consulting – the global management consulting and IT services business of Hitachi Ltd., – responsible for the delivery capability of the EMEA industrials practice. Jonathan has over 15 years of management consulting experience complemented with time spent in industry and finance, and specialises in Operations Strategy, Leadership and Performance Management across the value chain.

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