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Looking Beyond Executive Leadership: How Your Local Site Leads and Deployment Champions Drive Continuous Improvement Program Success

Posted: 10/27/2009
Charles Gillis and Dennis Narlock
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In many corporations where Lean Six Sigma initiatives have been deployed with much success, a key factor has been the commitment of the executive leadership team. This commitment comes from a passionate leader setting the tone for establishing the corporate direction and the commitment to continuous improvement for both shareholders and customers. Prime examples of such would be Jack Welch at General Electric and Larry Bossidy at Allied Signal, as well as many others known for that same level of drive and commitment. The leadership commitment is critical for achieving the momentum and groundswell necessary to get a Lean Six Sigma program rolling, but what is equally important is the local leadership and support at the functional unit level. This can be referred to as the local site leads, deployment leads or local project Champions.

Leadership and leaders have both been defined in several different ways that all have one common theme, being in control from the front, making the decisions while providing direction and motivation to those under the leaders’ charge. This robs those under their charge of their own creative ability while at the same time overburdening the leader who maintains the accountability for accomplishing the tasks at hand. These leaders retain this accountability even though they have delegated the responsibility for the individual tasks. Leadership as we have chosen to define it is, "The ability to place the organization’s personnel into positions with sufficient authority to make decisions and implement change in alignment with the core mission, vision and values of the organization." Using this definition, the motivation comes from within the individual in tune with the organizational values, and transfers ownership of appropriate issues from the leader to those personnel who are actually doing the work on a daily basis. A leader must be willing to give control to those under their charge, learn to motivate through mission, vision and values, not through control and intimidation. This is where the leadership of Champions becomes critical to the success of any Lean Six Sigma project or event that is part of a larger organizational continuous improvement deployment. Champions provide the link between the mission, vision and values of the organization and the personnel who do the work and who will ultimately determine the success and sustainment of any changes that are made to the processes.

Local Leadership: Critical to the Success of Any Lean Six Sigma Program

When thinking about your Lean Six Sigma deployment as if it too were a project, a critical X in that equation is the local leadership. The local leadership is charged with delivering on management’s commitment to continuous improvement and institutionalizing the continuous improvement culture. This critical X is the voice of the corporation, echoing the commitment to both customers and shareholders. The local site Champions make a difference in the overall success or failure of any Lean Six Sigma deployment. Their ability to maintain positive relationships with the other leaders within an organization can dramatically affect the outcome of the individual projects and ultimately your continuous improvement deployment. As such, select those leaders whose actions have communicated respect, trust and confidence at all levels of the organization.

Looking back over the many sites we have been involved with as Master Black Belts and Deployment Champions, we can see the contribution of dedicated Champions, who took the time to meet with and work with their Belts as they undertook Lean Six Sigma projects. Several site leads and Champions come to mind when thinking of critical success factors, and each of them were results oriented, driven individuals that knew the importance of their role and acted on that challenge. Successful sites had a level of enthusiasm that was evident the moment you walked through the front door into their lobby. Energy and support was evident in every area of the facility, from LCD monitors in the lobby, highlighting project success, to bulletin boards posting project team’s photos and results. Team meeting schedules were posted and action items were listed. Lean Six Sigma project reviews were conducted on a regular and ongoing basis where the local leadership team was in attendance and engaged actively in project discussions. These Champions and local leads echoed the support and enthusiasm of the corporate leadership team. They helped drive continuous improvement into the DNA of the organization, and change the culture.

Local Leadership Makes Sure that Lean Six Sigma Projects Align with Organizational Goals

These site leads and Champions carefully scrub Lean Six Sigma projects and make sure that they are properly aligned with the goals and objectives of the organization. Maintaining a project hopper is key to success in any organization and the periodic review of the state / needs of the business by the steering committee are crucial in keeping top Lean Six Sigma projects that result both in wins for the business and wins for the belts. Nothing succeeds like success and good planning and effort up front by the site leads and core team is essential in fostering this success. It is this middle level of support that is so crucial for the success of any continuous improvement initiative. This middle level support becomes the daily reinforcement of the tools, methods and philosophy that drives the belts forward on their projects. Good Champions have been Belt trained and know what support is required.

In looking at these successful deployment leads, they took their responsibilities seriously, and acted as leaders. Leaders are tasked with making tough decisions, and these individuals made these decisions. When reviewing Lean Six Sigma projects in their organizations, they made the tough calls, stopped projects that were not going to materialize, reallocated resources onto more beneficial projects and in general made the tough decisions that senior managers get challenged to do. Many of these deployment leads and site champions also served as mentors for lead Belts, aiding them in career development and grooming them for higher positions in the organization.

Talent Management is Essential for Lean Six Sigma Deployment Success

Assessing poor performance in some of the lagging organizations, quite often the single point of failure was poor choice of Site Lead or inadequate Champion training. Organizations that spent the time selecting and developing these individuals enjoyed excellent return on investment, and talented individuals to move along within the organization. Site leads and Champions are by far one of the most critical elements in Lean Six Sigma deployment success. Their careful selection and training will be rewarded with outstanding results. This assignment can also serve as another stepping stone to greater leadership positions within the organization. Growing a culture of excellence from within continues to provide a pool of internal talent and provide solid career paths for future leaders.

Executive Leadership Must Chart the Lean Six Sigma Deployment Vision

Executive leadership must set the vision with specific, lofty goals tied to key metrics, the critical Xs captured by the Voice of the Customer and Voice of the Business. The goals should challenge the continuous improvement teams, achieving a careful balance between inflating their skills through easy accomplishment and deflating their motivation through unrealistic, near impossible targets. You must know as a leader that you cannot control every aspect of a continuous improvement deployment; trust your selection process, the organizational vision and values and seek to create an environment that is mutually supportive, based on trust and focused on the future. Always remember that every improvement is a change, but that not every change is an improvement. Never fail in your duty to recognize and reward success or to make course corrections to your Lean Six Sigma or continuous improvement deployment when they are required.


Thank you, for your interest in Looking Beyond Executive Leadership: How Your Local Site Leads and Deployment Champions Drive Continuous Improvement Program Success.