Leading the Way

September 1, 2009
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The lean Six Sigma methodology has the power to transform an organization. Effective implementation, however, requires that the methodology become part of the culture. For a company to maximize its return on investment, the implementation needs to not only introduce a new way of doing business, but also create and sustain an environment in which results matter and employees at all levels feel empowered to drive continuous improvement.

Transformational changes, such as lean Six Sigma, require active leadership at multiple levels. Yellow Belts, Green Belts and Black Belts each have a role in sustaining the changes required for a successful implementation. Six core leadership abilities that practitioners need to have are:
  • motivate, mobilize and manage change.
  • set and communicate direction.
  • enforce standards and use of new work processes.
  • create a culture of accountability.
  • empower teams for action.
  • coach individuals to enhance performance.
Different organizations may require different individuals to demonstrate specific levels of proficiency in each skill. However, for an implementation to be successful, there must be mastery of each skill within the team.

Technical skills produce technical results. Lasting value is built when technical skills are partnered with leadership competency. Regardless of how or why an employee is selected to be part of the lean Six Sigma leadership team, an employee who strives to cultivate these six core skills will enhance the effectiveness of the implementation and the overall productivity of the organization.

1. Motivating, mobilizing and managing change. At its core, a successful lean Six Sigma implementation is contingent on people changing the way they perform. Sustained process improvement comes only through sustained changes in behavior and attitudes. Leading change requires the ability to make people want to change, helping them to understand change and take the steps required to evoke change, while providing continuous support to sustain the changed state.

The role of motivating change is sometimes thought to belong solely to the most senior leadership of an organization. However, creating a consistent message that can be used throughout the lean Six Sigma team will enhance the effectiveness of the effort. What makes motivation effective is not seniority-it is credibility.

Everyone involved in the lean Six Sigma implementation should view mobilizing change as his primary responsibility. People do not like change. In fact, even when change leads to job improvement, such as making one’s job easier or more efficient, people will initially resist it. Therefore, to enhance the success of the implementation, each person on the team should consider what they can do to help others develop the skill and will to change.

2. Setting and communicating direction. It is often said that the most important leadership skill is communication. When it comes to something as complex as shifting a culture toward the principles and practices of lean Six Sigma, communication is not just important, it is mission critical.

Most lean Six Sigma practitioners have the technical skills to perform their job functions and play a role in the implementation process. However, the ability to set and communicate direction is a skill that can be the difference between successful and less-than-stellar results when it comes to return on investment.

Organizations should ensure that the people they have chosen to lead the process-the Black Belts-have not only an enterprisewide view of the organization, but also that they have the ability to understand the overall strategic plan and translate it into specific direction and goals for ongoing continuous improvement. People are motivated when they see that their efforts matter. If employees see a direct link between their work and the overall goals of the organization, they will perceive that their results matter.

Lean Six Sigma practitioners at all levels need to be able to communicate direction and use communication processes to build both skill and will. Organizations will not be able to maximize their results unless each person in the organization understands the direction and the importance of achieving the goals.

3. Enforcing standards and use of new work processes. Results only can be achieved when processes are implemented. Just like the person who joins a gym but never goes, it is not enough to create new work processes; benefits are realized from use alone. This means that employees accountable for delivering results must have the authority to enforce new standards. In many cases, this authority is a matter of structure. However, in today’s complex, matrixed organizations, lean Six Sigma professionals often have to rely on skills of influence to ensure that standards and processes are used. For Green Belts and Yellow Belts, learning how to influence without authority is important for ensuring that outcomes meet expectations.

4. Creating a culture of accountability. Lean Six Sigma’s transformational qualities can go beyond reducing waste and improving quality. If each person in the organization understands the drivers for the implementation and its strategic goals, lean Six Sigma also can be used to create a culture in which results matter. By helping each employee understand the impact of his actions on the overall productivity and profitability of the organization, the implementation can serve as a tool to modify the overall culture of an organization.

Few people come to work with the attitude that they want to do a poor job. It is not that we intentionally decide not to do things we said we would, it is that we fail to intentionally decide to do them. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, the majority of employees who are rated at least “good” on annual performance evaluations are in fact performing at 60% of what they are capable.

5. Empowering teams for action. No one person can do it all, be everywhere or know everything. Empowering teams to take action is a central tenet of lean Six Sigma and a surefire way to improve the productivity of an organization. Empowering teams for action means that the employees closest to the decision-and the effects of the decision-get to participate in the deciding.

Who better to understand what might improve productivity than the person whose job function relates to a productivity-enhancing decision? When those employees are allowed to have roles in the problem-solving process, creative solutions often are realized.

For example, many of the best practices in lean Six Sigma for healthcare came not from doctors or hospital administrators but from the nurses who provide direct patient care. A similar scenario could present itself in a manufacturing environment.

6. Coaching individuals to enhance performance. As employees learn new skills and processes, coaching them is the best way to enhance performance, developing in them the skill and will needed for consistent outcomes. Good leaders, inside and outside the world of quality, understand that coaching is not a function to be done in addition to their job-it is their job.

When employees’ performance is measured against the performance of other employees, helping employees to enhance their capabilities and commitment is the most important action a leader can take. Many times it is forgotten that the goal of a lean Six Sigma implementation is not the implementation itself but the sustained results that come from using new processes over time. Practitioners at all levels need to understand their role in supporting the enhancement of performance.

One of the great myths of coaching, and the greatest barrier to its consistent adoption, is that it will take a lot of time. It does take time and effort, but when coaching is integrated into other management functions, it is not added time.

Effective delegation, for example, is an opportunity to coach. Each meeting provides opportunities to observe behavior and provide constructive feedback. Lean Six Sigma has, by its very nature, many opportunities to measure and analyze performance. Each one of these provides an opportunity to enhance performance by providing effective, constructive feedback about the difference between expectations and outcomes.

An effective lean Six Sigma implementation can have a profound positive impact on an organization. The practitioners’ leadership skills are an important part of what determines how beneficial an implementation will be. Too often lean Six Sigma leaders are selected based on their technical skills, and leadership competencies are not considered or developed. However, taking the time to develop these skills can have far-reaching implications on the effectiveness of lean Six Sigma and the overall productivity and profitability of an organization. Q

Tech Tips

There are six core leadership skills required for successful implementation of a lean Six Sigma initiative. Practitioners need to have the ability to:

  • motivate, mobilize and manage change.
  • set and communicate direction.
  • enforce standards and use of new work processes.
  • create a culture of accountability.
  • empower teams for action.
  • coach individuals to enhance performance.


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