Street Smart Lessons from a Caveman

Jeff Cole

Have you ever wondered what the oldest tool is in your Six Sigma process improvement toolbox? Some argue that Dr. John Snow’s map, which helped end the cholera epidemic of London in the mid-1800s, was one of the first uses of a concentration diagram. Karl Pearson gave us the standard deviation around 1893. Walter Shewhart drew the first control chart in 1924. In 1977, as John Travolta was strutting about in white polyester, John Tukey was working hard at Bell Labs to bring us a vital process improvement tool–the box plot. So some tools for business process improvement are old, others relatively new. I posit that the oldest process improvement tool by far in your tool box is change management.

In the Stone Age man had very few process improvement tools at his disposal. Essentially, he had a rock and a stick–it doesn’t get any more basic than that. If something didn’t work right he had two choices: A) whack it with the rock or B) poke it with the stick. Sadly, that approach to process improvement has not evolved a great deal inside many companies today. Smacking something with a rock is about one step down from "kicking the machine" to try to make things better–a tactic frequently employed by those lacking a Six Sigma process improvement methodology such as DMAIC. Jabbing something with a stick has been replaced by management prodding workers to perform better with hollow motivations such as "work smarter, not harder" or worse yet, "do this or you’re fired."

The "rock" has fully blossomed into the Six Sigma process improvement methodologies available today such as DMAIC and DMADV. They contain a wonderful array of amazing techniques to design or fix broken business processes. Consider this to be the technical side of process improvement. The fact that you found your way to this Web site and are reading this article likely means you are aware of and probably proficient in these methods of business process improvement.

There is also a human side of process improvement to consider. Here’s where the stick comes in. When our earliest ancestors stumbled out of their cave and poked another caveman to move out of their way or follow them, the art and science of change management was born. That early stick has also developed in a broad and deep set of techniques to address the human side of process change and process improvement.

What can we learn from our Stone Age friends about process improvement? A caveman would not be caught dead without both the finest rock and stick he could muster. We should not be approaching process improvement with a lopsided toolbox spilling over with technical tools and no human-side tools to encourage people to engage in your new processes. Here are three simple and free things you can do immediately to get started on integrating change management into your process improvement efforts:
  • You don’t know what you don’t know–Get curious about change management. Consider going to the library and grabbing every book on change management you can find. Skim them to start creating awareness–allow yourself only three to five minutes per book to blast through them. You may be surprised at how many things you see that you didn’t know about before. Take the most interesting of these change management books home and read those in their entirety. Don’t worry about just skimming–this is the first step in an ongoing journey.
  • Rock on–We said the rock represents the technical side of business process improvement you may already be proficient in. Use what you know! List out all of the DMAIC and DMADV tools you know and ask yourself how they could be applied to helping ensure people will follow your new business processes.
  • Study success–Look around your company and ask "what are some of the most successful business process changes we’ve made in the past?" Talk to the people involved in driving those process changes to learn what they did (and didn’t do) to make those changes successful in your environment. Look beyond just the big things and drill down to some of the more mundane, routine things they did as well–in integrating change management with process improvement, it all starts with fundamentals!