Leveraging Front-Line Employees for More Effective Continuous Improvement: Words of Insight from the Lean Six Sigma Trenches

As an attendant at the IQPC Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement Summit 2009, I was able to see first hand how continuous improvement is being used and integrated into companies around the world. Speakers representing global giants such as Toyota, Walmart and The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation discussed how forging Lean Six Sigma into an organization is essential to build and maintain a competitive business.

As interesting as it was to listen to these champions share their Lean Six Sigma best practices, I felt there was a critical piece missing from their continuous improvement message—as an employee still at the "bottom of the totem pole," so to speak. What about what we want ("we" being the front-line employees)? And, it’s not really so much what we want, but what it is that front-liners need in order to make continuous improvement more effective in their companies. Granted, leadership buy-in to new continuous improvement initiatives is half the battle, but half a battle won’t necessarily win the war. The greatest Lean Six Sigma leaders can plan and visualize their strategy and end-game. However, unless they have the front-line employees to actually carry out the plan, and, more importantly, the genuine support from those front-line employees to give it all they have, the continuous improvement plan will be dead before it’s even delivered.

If You Don’t Care, I Won’t Care About Continuous Improvement

Mike Abrashoff, author of It’s Your Ship, spoke about his experience turning his Navy ship from one of the worst in the fleet to one of the best, and a particular statement stood out to me. It wasn’t a quote from Abrashoff, or even a fellow leader. It was, in fact, some pearls of wisdom from a front-line employee. The statement went something like this, "Employee ranking in a company is a little like monkeys in a tree. If you are on the top looking down, all you see are smiling faces looking up at you. If you are on the bottom looking up, it’s an entirely different view!"

Many leaders get so used to the smiling faces they see from day to day, and they just assume their subordinates are on the same page and willing to support their continuous improvement initiatives. That is the employee’s job after all, right? However, if a leader takes a little more time to "climb down the tree," so to speak, and engage with his or her front-line employees on a personal level, the view might be much different.

Sometimes leaders forget what it's like to be in the shoes of those front-line employees who work for them. I was told about one front-line employee’s experience with the upper echelon of leadership at her company. It was around Christmas time, and one of the divisional leaders was walking around with his secretary, handing out Christmas ornaments. His secretary was the one holding the box, handing out ornaments and making conversation with the employees. The leader, on the other hand, said his obligatory "Merry Christmas" and moved on to the next cubicle. While outside the cubicle of one of the employees, my friend heard him ask his secretary, "Are we done yet?" just before reaching her cube.

Fast forward to the next divisional leader who took his place. This leader took the time to regularly come down and interact with every layer on the organizational chart and, shockingly enough, not just on holidays! He asked questions about front-line employees on a personal level, shared stories and actually took time and sat with the employees to learn about what their jobs entailed.

Now if we took these two leaders and gave them each a division at the same time, and then had them each deploy continuous improvement to their divisions, who do you think would be more successful in his efforts?

For Continuous Improvement to Fully Succeed, There Must be Total Front-Line Employee Support

The fact is, a company is not going to realize the full potential of any continuous improvement initiative that is rolled out unless Lean Six Sigma leaders have 100 percent support from their front-line employees. To be sure, most employees who aren’t completely supportive of their Lean Six Sigma leaders will still carry out a request because they have to—it is part of their job. However, there will be a big difference in results from front-line employees who have to support their Lean Six Sigma leaders out of fear of losing their position, versus employees who want to support their Lean Six Sigma leaders out of mutual respect, loyalty, and, more importantly, a shared vision.

Leadership comes in two forms. One form of leadership involves Lean Six Sigma leaders who are passionate and love what they do. The other form of leadership involves Lean Six Sigma leaders who are dedicated to the development and needs of their front-line employees. As an observer of the continuous improvement process within my Lean Six Sigma leadership team, and as a participant on other levels, those seem to be the two critical components that need to be present to fully benefit from front-line employee engagement in continuous improvement, and in turn, take continuous improvement through Lean Six Sigma to the next level of being more integrated into the culture and fabric of a company.