"Get with it or get out": Why it’s time to assess how your operational excellence program is really doing

Paul Nelson

We have all heard the stories of failed deployments of lean six sigma programs, writes contributor Paul Nelson, so why aren't we more concerned with measuring the effectiveness of our own program?

I am from the southern region of the United States – where gentility and common courtesy normally dissuade the use of a direct address like "get with it or get out," for fear of offending the sensibilities of others.

But, I think this is a phrase that those of us in operational excellence should probably say to ourselves from time to time to make sure that what we’re doing really benefits the business (i.e. "get with it") or whether we’re just redundant overhead (i.e. "get out").

Let’s begin with a couple of questions that are useful to ask ourselves: Firstly, "What is my purpose?". Secondly, "Why does my company need me?"

While these questions are quite simple, I wonder how many of us toil away on a daily basis not concerned about whether our purpose is being seen by the senior management and judged as ‘successful’. Such perception matters - entire operational excellence programs have been dismantled when they’re not perceived as fulfilling their purpose and delivering benefit to the business.

Three years into our lean six sigma deployment, I was asked for an assessment of our program by the senior executive sponsor. A convenient approach presented itself in the form of a consulting group who had the expertise and the desire to perform just such an assessment.

Yes, we bit -and then it bit us back. The assessment was completed in perfunctory fashion, and the picture was painted to be extremely bleak - doom and gloom - with very little progressing well and almost everything in such a state that (you guessed it) only a consulting group could possibly resurrect it - and it could be fixed for the nominal fee of an arm and a leg…

Well, as you might imagine, we were quite motivated to find an objective, data-driven approach to assessing our lean six sigma program; in essence, to answer the questions regarding success and fulfillment of purpose and the sustainability of the program.

Where to begin? Our stated purpose seemed to be the logical place. We had a mission and vision of what we expected from our seven year old program.

We had gone through the process of ensuring that our purpose was both tied to the organization’s strategy (and necessary to achieve it) AND rooted in best practices for operational excellence. Thus, we were well grounded strategically both internally and externally. The resulting program may look familiar, as elements of this are likely to exist in many operational excellence programs in other companies:

  • Change Leadership – ensuring leaders stay engaged, focused, and leading the Operational Excellence program
  • Effective Process – ensuring that business processes are defined and that they are improving and progressing up a maturity curve to deliver the required results in the appropriate way
  • Culture of Continuous Improvement – continuously questioning the ways work is accomplished and searching for a better way
  • Effective Change Management – communicating the need for change, anticipating and mitigating resistance, promoting sponsor engagement, and having our people feel uplifted by the change experience

So…we agreed that we knew what we were SUPPOSED to be doing – the question remained: Were we doing it well and fulfilling our purpose?

To answer this we used a number of vehicles – informal discussions, semi-formal analysis (e.g., year-end after action review performed by the operational excellence team members), and a formal survey of the organization.

We found this survey to be the best form of objective data – not only for analysis to elucidate what was going well and what needed attention, but also for root-cause analysis and for gaining buy-in for the mitigation tactics to improve.

For example, in the area of Change Leadership, 57% of the leadership team answered ‘Always’ or ‘Very Often’ to the question "The leadership team proactively communicates interest and enthusiasm in the Operational Excellence program."

Only 29% of their subordinates answered that question the same way. With such a clear gap between what leaders think they do and what their subordinates think the leaders do, that is a very strong platform for change.

Bottom line, the answer to our question of fulfilling purpose was a ‘yes’, in general. The deliverables that we were seeing three years into our program matched well with other companies that we were benchmarking and showed some good signs of progress in each of the four elements described above. However, there were pockets of stagnation that needed to be addressed (especially in the areas of change leadership and culture – both extremely important for program sustainability). The best news of all was that we had objective data to use for analysis, mitigation strategies, re-aligning the leadership team, and communicating to the organization.

Imagine – generating data to define the problem, measuring to quantify it, analyzing and prioritizing the cause, improving the greatest gaps, and controlling with reinforcements. What a concept!

I recently shared our story of operational excellence program assessment at a conference of practitioners and invited the audience to share their own assessment techniques and stories. I was shocked to see that only a very small portion of the audience had any sort of mechanism in place to assess the effectiveness of their program!

We have all heard the stories of failed deployments of lean six sigma programs, so why wouldn’t we be concerned with measuring the effectiveness of our own program? Whatever happened to Plan, Do, Check, Act – especially when it comes to our own actions?

So, while I am sympathetic that the operational excellence program participants may be hesitant to receive feedback this is uncomfortable, I feel compelled to deliver the warning in clear and certain terms: it is indeed time to get with it and assess, while there is still senior level support to do so.