Four ways to improve how you improve

We know what it takes to make continuous improvement a success – so why do so many deployments fail?

The critical success factors for the deployment and sustainment of continuous improvement initiatives are well established "truths" for process excellence professionals. We know we need strong executive sponsorship, frequent and open communication about the change, a structured approach to change management and employee engagement and support.

Despite knowing what it takes to successfully deploy continuous improvement initiatives like Lean and Six Sigma, we still see so many organizations struggle to get the results they expect. So, what can we do differently?

Here are four ideas to help you get started:

#1: Make sure your sponsors/champions lead by example

Successful change initiatives require strong, committed leadership throughout the entire initiative’s life-cycle. The leadership needs to be seen as a cohesive unit and everyone in the leadership team needs to be on the same page when it comes to deploying and sustaining such large initiatives.

Train the right sponsors/leaders: Before we start training the sponsors as LSS champions, they not only need to be at the right level but also walk the talk! The sponsors/champions must be at the highest level (reporting to the CEO) of the company. The person initiating/deploying the change (Lean Six Sigma Director for example) also must report to the CEO.

When these factors are taken care of, then the sponsors/champions can be trained as Lean Six Sigma champions. After getting trained, it would be perfect – in an ideal world! - if the champions execute the first few Lean Six Sigma projects in order to lead by example. At the very least, the sponsors/champions must know all the phases of DMAIC to a certain extent and should be able to pass a Champion’s exam.

Refine the deployment plan (if required) and sustainment plan and seek inputs: The deployment (and sustainment) plan must be constantly reviewed and tracked for progress. The change agents/leaders must refine the plan/approach based on the leaders’ inputs and the actual progress.

Keep the sponsors engaged: The change agents/leaders must keep the sponsors engaged by having one to ones to update on the progress and also through informal updates/discussions. They must not only seek support to remove roadblocks/resistance but also showcase results in leadership meetings to keep the sponsor(s) interested in the LSS initiative. The sponsors must also be made to understand that results may not flow immediately.

#2: Focus on winning over your middle managers

Middle managers feel insecure in many ways as they are sandwiched between the top management and the shop floor (value adding) employees. In a study by independent research company Prosci, for instance, found that most of the resistance to process change can be found at the middle management level:

Middle managers are an important filter between the company’s leadership, who set the strategic direction of the company, and the frontline or shop floor staff who have to carry out the firm’s activities in order to fulfill the strategic objectives. As a result, middle managers play a pivotal role in continuous improvement deployment and sustainment.

So, how can we engage with middle management in a better way? Address the "What’s in it for me" factor first with the middle managers as it is critical to address their concerns and motivate them by not only educating them on LSS but also recognizing and rewarding them as well.

Practical ideas on how to do this could include holding governance meetings at regular (e.g. weekly/monthly) frequencies or showcasing the projects within the manager’s business unit to top management.

Remember to seek the opinions and suggestions of middle managers regularly. Constant engagement with them is the key!


#3: Emphasize employee engagement and involvement

Engaging with those employees who are closest to the work – such as shop floor workers, customer service executives, associates, etc.) - is critical to the success of any process improvement work. I call these the "value adding" employees because they are the ones who enact the process to create value for the organization.

These "value adding" employees are closer to the process (Gemba) and know the details of the process. As a result they can easily identify ways to improve their processes in small, incremental steps. They come up with unique ways of working around the system (legacy systems of course!) and their efforts often go unrecognized. So how can we engage with these "value adding" employees in a better way?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Hold Lean/Six Sigma/Innovation Fairs/Workshops: In these fairs and workshops, we can teach simple LSS tools and how they relate to their jobs. After we teach them the theory part, we can ask the employees to go on a waste walk exercise (using a waste log) and identify the wastes around them and in their processes. The observations (good as well as opportunities to improve) can be categorized into four quadrants (Process/Product, Systems/Tools, Management and Employees). We can also conduct quiz competitions, debates, case studies’ presentations and award the winners.
  • Seek their ideas, Implement a Kaizen program: As we know a Kaizen is nothing but an idea which can be implemented without any capital or minimal capital and effort. Kaizen program (points based or miles based) can be developed and implemented to reward employees for implementing their ideas. The kaizens can categorized as Platinum, Gold, Silver etc and either awarded gifts or cash vouchers and/or certificates.
  • Showcase their projects/ideas implemented to their managers/top management: Every month, the top kaizen contributors can present their ideas in front of their peers in a town hall forum or BQC (business quality council) meetings or a similar platform.
  • Include basics of LSS into a new employees’ induction plan: Basics of LSS (continuous improvement) can be incorporated as a confirmatory requirement for all employees of an organization.

#4: Secure sufficient (and the right!) resources for lean six sigma deployment and change management

Find the right change agents (LSS BBs/MBBs) with the right skill set/experience/energy level: It is important not only to find the change agents with the right skill set, but also the right number of change agents as well. The more the merrier would not work well as we run the risk of "paralysis by analysis" as well as increase the total cost to the organization.

Showcase results for each resource added: Each resource added must be paying for his/her salary by generating revenue of 1:10 or more. In this case, the more the better or merrier! Quick wins must be achieved by selecting mission-critical projects and these projects should not only address bottom-line performance issues but also customer needs.

Rewards and Recognition for change agents: The rewards and recognition for change agents/leaders must be unbiased and apolitical (if not, can become source of future resistance!). As Dan Pink states and proved through his study/book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us", there are other factors which are important (other than money) which contribute towards job satisfaction; which are sense of purpose, mastery of a skill and freedom to do what they want.

Identify and create change leaders within the organization (middle management, value adding employees etc): One way to increase the DNA of the organization in a non-linear way could be to have a train the trainer sessions (followed by certifications) to create a pipeline of internal employees to become future change agents.


There is no magic formula; one size fits all approach when it comes to deploying and sustaining such large continuous improvement initiatives. What we can do is learn from the mistakes of others and continuously learn and improvise our approach. Like in the movie Bruce Almighty, even if we (the change agents/leaders) were given godlike powers to implement LSS in the whole world, "free will" can’t be changed so easily.

"We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes" —Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

It implies that we can predict the future, in principle at least. In practice, however, our ability to predict the future is severely limited by the complexity of the equations, and the fact that they often have a property called chaos. So, each time something new happens, we need to learn from that and improvise.