Sustaining a Lean Six Sigma Training Program During an Economic Crisis: An Interview with Mark Fendley of BMW Manufacturing

Mark Fendley

With the onset of the global recession, most companies have had no choice but to cut certain internal programs. Lean Six Sigma training is no exception. In this Six Sigma IQ interview Mark Fendley, Continuous Improvement Manager for BMW Manufacturing in South Carolina and an advisory board member for Six Sigma IQ, describes how the recessionary pressures have affected many companies’ Lean Six Sigma training programs and discusses how BMW is sustaining its own Lean Six Sigma training program amidst the economic crisis.

From what you have observed with other companies that practice Process Excellence and continuous improvement, how has the economic crisis affected Lean Six Sigma training programs?

I think it is hard to imagine a company that has not been forced to reevaluate priorities and focus during this recession. All of us are part of organizations that are most likely more cautious about expenditures than ever. But I do believe that this recession separates those companies that simply, I like the word you use in the question, "practice," continuous improvement and those that make continuous improvement and process excellence part of their culture. Those companies that dabble in or practice continuous improvement have most likely done several things. They may have cut their training initiatives for continuous improvement education for their employees. They might have reduced the number of initiatives so that they can focus all resources on immediate business needs. In addition, they have even cut their workforce, eliminating valuable years of experience. And in the worst cases, they might even publicly associate the reductions in workforce with Lean initiatives. Finally, those companies may ignore their growth by reducing product and service launches or investment in research and design to improve their products. To me, this is a "circling the wagons" mentality and not a growth strategy.

On the other hand, those companies that truly have continuous improvement as part of their culture see the recession as an opportunity. I am part of a company—and I can also say that I see this at some others—that has used this time as a perfect chance to educate more associates to understand and practice the tools and methodologies of continuous improvement. If work schedules are light, rather than laying off employees or reducing the work force, use the time as an opportunity to train more employees to add value to the continuous improvement culture. In addition, even before the recession—and especially now during the recession—the number of projects and workshops to achieve even greater efficiencies has grown. The sense of urgency to improve among all employees is most likely more acute during these downturns, so why not harness that to lead to even a higher level of performance? I tend to find that those companies that are most serious about process improvement are remaining loyal to their employees. They understand the value of the experience of their workforce and the contributions that they make towards improving the company. So, while hours may be reduced or contract/temporary service employee work force reductions might occur, those companies are remaining committed to their employees. Finally, those companies continue to be focused on growth through improvement in their product and service portfolio.

In light of the upheaval in the automotive industry, are there any unique challenges that this industry faces in regards to maintaining a Process Excellence and continuous improvement culture through Lean Six Sigma training?

I think the automotive industry challenges are like many other industries and business segments. Although the automotive industry experiences some rather intense, if not unique, factors as part of the business. Among those factors are government regulations for product safety, fuel economy and emissions. Then we also are sensitive to raw material and commodity price fluctuations. Beyond this are rapid technology development for fuel efficiency, emissions, safety and telematics that the industry will place in future models. All of this must be managed and accommodated during an unprecedented decline is global volume. And at the end of the day, the purchase of a vehicle is a psychological purchase—you buy a car when you feel good about and secure with your future. For me, these are even more of a reason for the industry to remain focused on continuous improvement.

How has BMW handled the pressures of the economic crisis in relation to its Lean Six Sigma training program?

We have remained committed. And if anything, we are accelerating our training. From my perspective, we are one of those companies that has a continuous improvement "gene." It is part of who we are. As an example, we are now including partners from our value stream in our in-house training initiatives. It makes sense to educate them. If they improve, then we benefit from those improvements with better products and happier customers.

What do you think separates the companies that have decided to continue with their training programs from companies that have decided to cut back or eliminate training all together?

I think this comes back to my first point. Again, using your word, I think some companies practice continuous improvement just like you might practice a hobby. It is a "nice to have." But if times get tough, they lose their focus and their desire. On the other hand, those companies that stick with it during the tough times have it as part of their cultural DNA. To reach this state requires leadership that sees, understands and demands the long term value derived from a continuous improvement focus. It has to be a core value of the company.

Obviously, many companies have had to reduce their numbers since this economic crisis. How may attrition affect Lean Six Sigma training and talent management for companies in the future?

I think a huge mistake some companies have made is associating continuous improvement with reductions in their work force. It is not uncommon to see a few statements each year in the media where an executive might say something to the effect of, "We instituted Lean two years ago and have now consolidated three locations into two, one of those in Mexico." This is not a Lean culture. These are Lean tools deployed to reduce the work force.

Beyond this, if a company does reduce the work force due to the recession, it can only impact training and talent management. Bottom line, you lose knowledge and experience, with those remaining possibly altering their behavior in the aftermath. None of this benefits the culture. As an example, I read a recent article about a company that had a reduction of work force of almost 500 employees, with an average tenure of 15 years. My first thoughts were that this company just lost 7,500 man years of knowledge, talent and experience and that the remaining employees will be wary of any more "efficiencies." Unfortunately, I think some companies follow a pattern of hiring for the good times and reducing in the bad times. I would like to see more companies deploying a deeper understanding of continuous improvement—which has a huge element of respect for the individual where the employees are an asset and not a liability or cost—during these recessions.

What tips do you have for companies that cannot avoid cutting back on their Lean Six Sigma training programs? What parts of their program should they at the very least maintain?

I think something that most companies can continue to do, even if formal training is cut, is to make sure their experienced Black Belts, Kaizen leaders, etc. are partnered with potential candidates for projects and workshops. The goals of the experienced Black Belt and/or Kaizen leader should be not only to lead successful projects, but also to bring along the less experienced person. There are tools and methods that can be learned just by working with those who already possess the skills. You can call it an apprentice approach or a veteran/rookie approach. Another practice is to develop your own internal training competence. Rather than relying on outside resources to lead your training and develop your curriculum, develop this competency in-house. If you have your own Master Black Belts, with a curriculum suited to your company, you should be able to train and develop as much as the company wishes to focus on training and developing the continuous improvement skill set. As far as what to maintain—I think most companies can allow their trained Lean Six Sigma practitioners to continue to lead Six Sigma projects and Lean workshops. Even if you cannot add to that knowledge pool, you can remain committed to those who already have the skills by focusing them towards value added projects.

Interview by Genna Weiss