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Are Your Six Sigma Leaders Really Trained to Lead?

Contributor: Kevin McManus
Posted: 01/04/2009
Kevin McManus
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I am astounded by what organizations expect from their "trained" Six Sigma project leaders. After just a few days of process improvement project leadership training, and possibly the implementation of a Six Sigma project or two, these "certified" individuals are expected to take the organization’s Six Sigma process forward–to lead it in a manner that results in sustained success. Unfortunately, my experience with process improvement projects, process improvement teams and high performance organizations tells me that the true probability of success in these cases is low.

Even though it has been almost 25 years since I led my first process improvement team and worked on significant waste and variation reduction projects of my own, I still hesitate to consider myself a master at these types of tasks. I have both received and provided extensive training on the topics of process improvement, statistics, variation reduction strategies, project management and team leadership, and yet I am still humbled at times by the challenge of working with a new group of people on a new type of needed change. Even though I have been trained to lead–and also trained others to lead–process improvement efforts, I recognize that formal Six Sigma leadership training is not nearly enough–effective practice with meaningful, consistent performance feedback is what makes the difference.

Driving Six Sigma Process Improvement Efforts

I have been lucky. I have never worked for an organization that did not have some form of formal process improvement in place. In almost all of these organizations, we used both individual and team projects to drive our process improvement efforts. Usually we focused on both variation and cost reduction as we strived to put our process improvements in place. Perhaps most notably, we did all of this for many years before Six Sigma certifications both became public domain and the rage. Having said this, I will also tell you that all of our team and individual process improvement efforts weren’t successful. I did however learn as much, if not more, from the failures than I did from the successes.

While the majority of the current Six Sigma certification approaches that exist may be adequate for indicating that an apprentice level of Six Sigma expertise has been attained, it is quite foolhardy to expect anyone who has only sat in a few days of process improvement leadership training and completed even two or three Six Sigma projects to be qualified to be a Six Sigma leader who can handle any type of project or group that is thrown at them. Unfortunately, we take these feeble attempts at developing Six Sigma competency for granted. Because these people are supposedly learning skills that their managers often don’t understand–and even more rarely possess–themselves, management is in a very poor position to assess what a true Six Sigma expert, or a process for developing such Six Sigma experts, looks like. We think the formula for developing effective Six Sigma project leaders involves merely sitting in a course, passing a test and completing a project.

Factors That Diminish Six Sigma Training

My experience with over 150 team-based projects and 100 plus individual projects of a significant level has taught me to think quite differently about what it takes to truly become trained and certified as a Six Sigma leader. Serving for 10 years as a National Malcolm Baldrige Quality Award Examiner and learning from those experiences has only reinforced what I feel are the five main factors that make most Six Sigma training efforts much less then adequate.
  1. The formal training we provide for Six Sigma contains limited time for skill practice. When I design Six Sigma training courses, I begin with my AURA concept in mind. The AURA acronym stands for awareness, understanding, retention and application. Because most Six Sigma training courses contain a high percentage of lecture, we are lucky to progress beyond even the concept "Understanding" phase. A high level of skill practice, with timely and meaningful feedback, is needed to generate effective skill retention and application.
  2. In Six Sigma training we fail to expose people to, let alone teach them about, group dynamics basics and management practices. No DMAIC project is completed in a vacuum. Without a basic understanding of group dynamics concepts and how to manage them, the meetings that are used to help develop a Six Sigma project further will take longer than necessary and yield lower quality results. Unfortunately, few Six Sigma training curriculums contain much, if any, content with a group dynamics focus.
  3. In Six Sigma training we focus more on creating a "multi-tool awareness" instead of "focused tool competencies." Check out your existing Six Sigma course curriculum. How many different process improvement tools are covered? How many of these tools will actually be used in the first process improvement project or two? Why should you be surprised when someone misuses, let alone forgets how to use, a certain process improvement tool? Without solid practice, tool competencies can’t be developed, and practice takes time.
  4. In Six Sigma training we ignore the impact that project scope and variety will have on project leadership effectiveness. All Six Sigma projects are not created equal. Each project involves analyzing a different set of processes, engaging different peoples and personalities, applying different combinations of process improvement tools and addressing different levels of problems. This factor alones makes it requisite to complete a variety of process improvement projects, instead of merely two or three, before progress towards true skill competency can occur.
  5. In Six Sigma training we don’t utilize our limited team resources effectively. Some Six Sigma projects are more suitable for a team approach than others. Because we fail to recognize this, we tend to form teams for all of our process improvement projects, even though we have limited team resources and our leaders aren’t really prepared to manage the group challenges that come with a team setting. On top of that, we wonder why most of our teams don’t get their projects done quickly enough.
Keep in mind that these factors are the primary ones that compromise the effectiveness of most Six Sigma training processes. There are additional factors that dilute the potential impact of DMAIC process application. You should also notice that I don’t think all Six Sigma training processes are afflicted with all five of these challenges–just a significant majority of them. Your challenge involves deciding which ones are holding back your efforts to sustain Six Sigma process excellence the most.

First published on Six Sigma IQ.

Thank you, for your interest in Are Your Six Sigma Leaders Really Trained to Lead?.
Kevin McManus
Contributor: Kevin McManus