The City Buzz: The Word From Chicago On What’s Current in Process Excellence

Megan James

On my return from the recent IQPC Process Excellence Week for the Service & Transactional World I couldn’t help reflecting on some of the conversations I had on site. Since the recession hit us a year back how has the landscape changed? And with this in mind, just what is it that makes a star quality Process Excellence leader in the new business world? For instance, what really differentiates the good from the great Lean Six Sigma practitioners, and what is it that fundamentally causes some programs to fly and others to flop in challenging times?

If I had to pick one thing out from the conversations across the week, it simply has to be "it’s all about results." What I mean by this is that while perhaps in the past the end result had been overtaken by enthusiasm for the methodology and commitment to the cause, today it’s simply about hard tangible results that can be measured, benchmarked and recognized in the business bottom line. Most importantly, it’s about finding new and more innovative ways to drive down costs and push profit. The war is by no means won but how do we go about doing this?

Insight 1: It’s about taking it back to the foundation of hard statistics

One thing that struck me in comparison to last year’s gathering is every action this year comes back to validation and measurement. In short, doing everything by the book.

Debate falls around if it’s the case that too many process improvement programs prior to the recession simply got lazy or perhaps that statistics were viewed as inaccessible or out of mode for non Lean Six Sigma practitioners. However one thing is for sure—never have I heard in the last few years such a focus on business case, facts, figures and garnering real time business intelligence. The feeling is, analyze the business first and then prioritize Lean Six Sigma projects to match critical need rather than searching for projects for the sake of projects. No one after all wants to be the one to make the mistake, and gut feeling just isn’t enough in the current climate.

The growth of the business intelligence market certainly reflects this new desire across the entire business and the feeling of that you can’t make the same mistake twice.

Insight 2: The customer more than ever is king

Clichê I know, but as with the desire for business intelligence grows so does the need for market intelligence.

Again, this is not just the gut feeling of "our customers are telling us this" or "our market as always preferred it this way"; this is about collecting in-depth information every square inch of the customers thinking and decision making criteria (and this stands true for both B2B and B2C).

As such, gone are the days where Lean Six Sigma focused on internal savings alone. Pioneers in Process Excellence evolution have earmarked the customer as the critical component to the recovery plan and an imperative for investment. Questions coming to the forefront are, "How do you more accurately gather and measure VOC?", "What is the quality of my customer feedback?" and "How can this feedback more seamlessly be fed back into critical business decision making and operational improvements?"

The simple fact is, customers equal revenue and even with the best cost cutting program in history, without revenue Lean Six Sigma cannot really do much to influence organizational turnaround. Ergo, as companies fight for the now significantly smaller chunk of market, the customer has truly become king for 2010 and beyond.

Insight 3: Innovation has come out of the clouds and into the every day world of operations

Perhaps 2010 could become the year when companies really get a handle on innovation—when it becomes less of a buzz word and more of a tangible methodology that leads the business forward into a new era.

What exactly do we mean by innovation? And more importantly how do we achieve this with minimum levels of risk? Quite frankly, despite years of talk it seams very few people have a grasp of this.

But a new age is dawning. Training Lean Six Sigma Belts on tools for systematic innovation is fast becoming front of mind, and deployment leaders are frantically searching for the golden ticket to success. The Motorola workshop at Chicago certainly put forward a case where innovation is real, deployable and measureable but there’s certainly a long way to go over the next few quarters to put a system in place.

Insight 4: After a period of resource cut backs, now is the time for serious investment in upgrading Lean Six Sigma skills

Even the top rung Lean Six Sigma programs have not been without hiccups, and I don’t think any business has come out of the last year with a growth in workforce. Following this period of knowledge and skill loss, my prediction is that 2010 will be all about developing new and the right Lean Six Sigma practitioner talent, honing the essential skills and making sure you really do have the "A grade players" for the job (and your competitors don’t!). In short organizations can’t be complacent and you need resources that can bring results in tough times and not just the smooth.

One thing is blatantly clear—the recession has left it mark on all of us. But I’d like to think it’s left us stronger, more ready to tackle the challenges of tomorrow, less complacent and above all eager for improvement, because at the end of the day that’s what it is all about.

Lean Six Sigma is now on a mission to prove its worth again to the rest of the business community and it needs to forge it place and in a new and scary business environment. In the words of Jack Welch himself in Winning, "Real change agents have courage, a certain fearless of the unknown" and that’s what Lean Six Sigma leaders will need to really separate the good from the great over the next few months.