You Get What You Give: Achieving Lean Six Sigma Results through Transformative Leadership

You cannot visit a facility these days, or scroll through a company’s Web site, or read an interview of a top executive’s plan for change and growth, without coming across a description of the company’s Lean Six Sigma initiatives and its expected results.

Yet, we are all so familiar with the overwhelming failed attempts at deploying, sustaining and largely gaining from Lean Six Sigma. Many authors and researchers in the field of Lean Six Sigma suggest that 50 to 70 percent of all process improvement initiatives fail to deliver the expected benefits, if any at all. A sobering statement that would make anyone think twice about spending time and effort (and money) on Lean Six Sigma projects.

But is this really a surprise? The more I visit customers, competitors or industry peers who claim to be on their way to transforming their business through Lean Six Sigma, the more it becomes apparent to me which will fail, and which will succeed. Of course, everyone is eager to say that their company is fully on board and committed to the Lean Six Sigma initiative. Most have posted nice visual reminders everywhere in their shop of how important waste elimination is for the business. Others measure their Sigma level and publish it on indicators for everyone to see… at least at the beginning. Yet, inevitably, the indicators end up disappearing, the posters start turning yellow, the initial momentum or "temporary high" is forgotten, and the results, well, no longer justify the "investment" in time, effort and money the company had once been willing to make in such projects.

Add to this an economic recession, and away go the Black Belts and Master Black Belts once sought after for leading the company towards a better future. Lean Six Sigma is now seen as an un-necessary cost to the business, and everyone is asked to "get back to work" and re-focus.

In a recent discussion with a top executive of a major aerospace company I was shocked to hear him say that "now that we are in a recession, and are faced with overcapacity, there is no point in pursuing further gains through Lean Six Sigma initiatives." And that, my friends, is the real problem…

Achieving Sustainable Lean Six Sigma Results Comes Down to Committed Leadership

Leadership makes or breaks Lean Six Sigma. Without strong and committed leadership, without a true vision of how Lean Six Sigma can deeply transform a company from within and become the foundation of its culture, without that key ingredient, all Lean Six Sigma will ever be is a great set of process improvement tools and methodologies, and fundamentally sustainable results will never be achieved.

However, Lean Six Sigma with true commitment by the company’s leadership becomes a real competitive advantage for the business. Instead of being a set of process improvement tools, it becomes a "genetic" trait of the company. Therefore Lean Six Sigma affects everything in the daily life of the business; from the way employees and management view their contribution to the way decisions are made or how the business reacts when faced with adversity.

Leaders Must "Walk the Walk" to Fully Support Lean Six Sigma Deployment

For this to take place, for Lean Six Sigma to be completely engrained in the company’s culture, we are not simply talking about leadership being willing to spend money and company resources on Lean Six Sigma projects. We are talking about a personal and individual investment by the leadership to first transform itself.

To do so, the leadership team must embrace Lean Six Sigma and demonstrate its understanding of the tools and methodologies by becoming, itself, a practitioner. "Walking the walk" is essential not only to display active buy-in of the concepts, but also for the leaders to fully grasp the potential game changer they have at the tip of their fingers.

As a COO I have never been as successful as when my staff and their teams felt my true commitment to the cause. Such commitment was not displayed through allocating training dollars, giving motivational speeches or using clever catch phrases. It was always through action, through a physical presence on the "gemba," real place, real time, at the heart of the process. The leadership’s personal involvement simultaneously as a coach and a student speaks loudly to the rest of the employees. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean you must be a Master Black Belt or your company’s #1 Sensei. It does mean, however, that you are sufficiently involved in your teams’ Lean Six Sigma projects to provide your support and insight, or that you will not hesitate to participate in a kaizen event or value stream map alongside your team members. Leading by example through active participation will not only set the bar higher for your management team, but also start winning the hearts and minds of your employees.

Leaders Must Show Unconditional Commitment to Lean Six Sigma

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, leadership’s commitment to Lean Six Sigma must be seen as unconditional. What that translates into for all of us business leaders is that regardless of the environment or context we are in at any given time, the team at the helm must stay the course and stand by its Lean Six Sigma initiative. Only then does it become more than just another corporate mandate, and turns into an integral part of the company’s genetic map.

Weather the Economic Crisis by Maintaining Your Support for Lean Six Sigma

A recession like the one we have all been facing these past few months is a true test for us all leaders and Lean Six Sigma practitioners. Will it mean the end of our kaizen activities, Black and Green Belt projects, due to "economic" conditions? Or will it be even more reason to keep our eye on the ball and stay on top of our Lean Six Sigma initiatives? As always, our choices will have consequences.

A leadership with faith in Lean Six Sigma will inevitably demonstrate and prove to its employees that it is not just the latest fad. On the contrary, it will clearly signal that it is there to stay, that it is an integral part of the company’s present and future. Arguably, an entity culturally strong, with a solid Lean Six Sigma foundation, will not only be more prepared to weather an economic storm, but will most likely be one of the first to emerge from it.

So as we continue to debate the real value of Lean Six Sigma in our many leadership circles, and wonder whether or not it can really deliver on its promises, just remember that it is your very own contribution as a leader that determines whether or not your company will be a Lean Six Sigma success story, or another failed attempt. In the end, you get the Lean Six Sigma results you deserve…