Case Study:'s Road to Achieving Full Organizational Buy-In for Lean Six Sigma

Jeffrey Cox

If ever a company needed the tools in the Lean Six Sigma toolkit, it was (eflex). Based in Madison, Wisconsin, we are a third party administrator of health flexible spending accounts, dependent care accounts, HSAs, etc., for employers across the country. Our advertising includes three phrases: Fast Claims, Fast Answers, and Web Self-Service. Therein lay our problem: Our claim processing was not meeting the 24-hour turnaround we promised. In fact, they were averaging from seven to 10 days in early 2007. That problem would have been enough, but the long processing times were causing up to 2,000 phone calls a day. Customers were leaving us, and we needed to do something now.

Here’s a Book on Lean Six Sigma, Now Let's Stop the Bleeding

It started with an invitation from our CEO, Ric Joyner, to a meeting in our conference room. Four of us from all different parts of the organization, customer-facing and not, were invited. Ric came in and asked us to take on the duty of being the Quality Team for eflex. We all agreed to be part of the team, as we were all passionate about our company and about excellence.

The next thing out of the CEO’s mouth was that we were going to stop selling actively. We needed to stop the bleeding in claims processing before we sold any more because we were not delivering our value proposition — paying claims quickly. The tool we would use to solve the problem and stop the bleeding, Ric said, was Lean Six Sigma. Ric distributed the book Lean Six Sigma for Service by Michael George to each and every one of us.

No Flavor of the Month Here: How We Achieved Lean Six Sigma Buy-In

The moment he left the room people started commenting, saying, "He’s taking another class again, isn’t he?" and "Great, another addition to the managers’ book of the month club." It was not met with excitement. But, confession is good for the soul: Secretly I loved this stuff!

From the start we faced challenges. There was not a single trained Lean Six Sigma Belt of any level. Ric only knew of Lean Six Sigma from a chapter in an operations textbook from his MBA studies. Consultants were not an option financially, and there was no outcry of enthusiasm for the decision. But we did have something critical: We had C-suite buy-in. Much has been written about how critical this element is to the success of a program.

Ric put his money where his mouth was and let everyone in the company know that this was how we would do business from that point on. To that end, as we worked on the project, he searched out online training for our company and paid for it for anyone interested in putting in the effort. He did not allow Lean Six Sigma to become a flavor of the month.

Our first conversations with the processors in claims, our frontline workers, were not breakthrough moments. The original responses were similar to those heard in businesses around the world: "This is the way we have always done it," and "The process is working just fine." Our processors were afraid for their jobs. Some had actually heard of Lean Six Sigma and had the idea that this was about getting rid of bodies. These are not easy to overcome; just read one of the many online discussions them!


To start with, both our CEO and our president told not only the claims department, but the entire company, that our adoption of Lean Six Sigma was not about reducing headcount. Normally this reassurance might not be enough, but our company was smaller and there were direct connections between the CEO, president and frontline workers. Our workers trust our leadership, so they believed it when they were told that it was not about getting rid of bodies. By the same token, Ric was blunt in stating that there was a problem. He put people on notice that they could be part of the solution or be, at best, re-assigned.

At the same time, he and the Quality Team listened to those claims processors. Our workforce is not just here in Madison, but throughout the country, so the listening sessions were scheduled to fit the time zone differences and the schedules of those who work at night. They told us what was really happening within the process and had ideas about how it could be better. And they lived the company value of taking care of our customers.

Better than just listening to the workers who do the work, we took their ideas and used them. We redesigned the process and then let them pick it apart. When they told us that we would need to retrain our workers, we did. When they told us "it would take less time if….", we changed it. They ended up helping us to re-write the job descriptions of these workers.

Assessing How We Got It Right

So here is a critical idea — we did not start with buy-in for Lean Six Sigma; we had to earn buy-in. How? Management commitment to not reducing headcount; calling on the trust built over time between management and the frontline workers; not just having listening sessions with frontline workers, but changing things they said needed changing, thus building more trust, all of these were critical to our success. Top-down deployment only went as far as saying that we were going to use the Lean Six Sigma methods and tools, it did not prescribe the way that any business process would change.

Our staff, and yours too I suspect, do talk with each other. Leveraging that first success, reducing claim cycle time to under a day, was not only about using the monetary savings or the cycle time reduction to gain Lean Six Sigma buy-in throughout the company. Imagine what kind of momentum and acceptance we would have had if we had reduced headcount, if we had listened to suggestions but not implemented any of them. Word would have gone out immediately that this was just management telling us that they know better and ideas from others are not needed. And our next Lean Six Sigma project would have died before it was chartered. How is your company, your deployment doing along these lines?

eflex Continues to Sustain the Momentum for Lean Six Sigma

We did get mileage from the results of that Lean Six Sigma project. To that fuel we added continued executive engagement — our president comes to the kickoff meeting of every project. He has read the pre-Define charter and knows what is happening. When we get to pitching our pilots for improvement, he is there, and so far has allowed at least initial exploration of every Lean Six Sigma project presented to him. He does not want anything to dampen the creative impulses of a project team.

More successful Lean Six Sigma projects combined with the consistency of message from our executive leadership continues to propel us forward. We communicate the results of our projects across the company. As a result I now have people from all departments coming to me and talking about opportunities in their departments. In fact, our sales department is now engaged in a large Lean Six Sigma project right now. They have a Green Belt in-training who will deliver a project on another aspect of sales later this spring. There are even people out there who want to take Lean Six Sigma training because of their experience in a project.

The Voice of the Customer drives us, but that voice includes our clients, the voices of members of our Lean Six Sigma project teams, department heads and all the rest of our employees. That is what is bringing us success.