Lean six sigma strategies and principles have dominated the industrial workplace for roughly half a century, and for good reason. To put it simply: Lean works, and Lean “blackbelts” or experts improve the flow and efficiency of (primarily but not exclusively) production-based businesses using tools that are time-proven in their effectiveness. Despite these overwhelmingly positive aspects of the Lean playbook, however, roadblocks are still common.
For both the veteran lean implementer and the new student looking to up his management game, Lean projects sometimes not only fail to deliver on the promised results, but may even fail to leave the ground altogether. The factors leading up to such letdowns vary greatly based upon the individuals and industries involved, but there are certainly a few common culprits.
A recent LinkedIn discussion by Kevin Clay and his article brought up this issue of “project closure” within the Lean community. In addition to the usual issues that individuals may have in completing their projects, it becomes readily apparent that Lean has its own associated set of issues that increase the rate of closure issues.
In the next few paragraphs, we’re going to delve into how you can not only identify, but also push through common obstacles that might be blunting the effectiveness of your Lean projects.
Six Sigma Shared Vision
What starts as a shared vision can sometimes end up ironically solitary. This happens a lot when a company or management team decides to appoint or hire one ‘Lean expert’. This is to say that only one person is tasked with being educated in Lean practices, and then bringing them back to the rest of the workplace or team.
This method of Lean delegation is dangerous, and becomes one of the largest reasons for unfinished (or never started) Lean projects; if other people don’t see the same potential in a project as you yourself do, it’s going to be hard to get enough support to see an effort through to the end in a collective way.
So, you need to get people on board with your plan; sounds simple enough, right? Well it would be, if it weren’t for the fact that there’s more than one audience you have to convince in order to be effective, which only complicates your efforts. If, for example, you want to complete the 5S organization of a certain production room, you need to not only get the workers who are directly affected involved, but you also need to get the attention of the higher-ups and convince them it’s a worthwhile effort.
Six Sigma and the Boss
Convincing the bosses is the best way to start, if you have anyone whose approval you need to seek to begin a project that may temporarily disrupt production. To start with, you yourself need to be confident in the type and magnitude of results that can be obtained. Numbers are a great place to start, so if you can observe and record the minutes lost due to employee searching in an unorganized work area, or cite a recent injury that resulted from disorganization in the space in question, you’ll have a leg up.
The bottom line is, well, the bottom line; your boss(es) needs to be convinced that a short term interruption to complete the project is going to pay off in the long run. Make this equation as easy for them to see as possible, back it up with credible observations or case studies, and be able to show a clear plan of action. A LinkedIn user (Bryann Sandmann) involved in the discussion on Lean project closure rates had this to say with regards to relating tangible results:
“Quantify the benefits – in financial terms. Let’s face it, your business is out to do one thing – make money. If your project does not affect the top or bottom line of your organization, support is going to be tough. Cost avoidance projects can work if there’s an upcoming planned financial spend which can be obviated, but other than that, it’s really tough.”
5S Guide: Improve efficiency with effective organization
When the workplace is a mess, processes slow down. 5S, a systematic method for workplace organization, keeps spaces clean and clear of clutter so processes run more efficiently. This 5S Guide explains the steps of a 5S program, how to start a program,
and what tools you’ll need to make 5S a success.
Convincing workers is also important, and sometimes more difficult as there are often multiple affected individuals who need to be sold on a project idea. “Need” is a strong word, because technically with management on your side you don’t have to have every worker on board, but it will certainly be smoother sailing if you do, and is highly recommended.
Your workers will need to be convinced of the potential efficacy of your project as well. It’s too easy for people to get annoyed that you’re interrupting their normal schedule. For these discussions, you should focus less on the money and bottom line, which is more important to the business owners, and pay more attention to how the new project will benefit workers themselves. In the example of the 5S’d room, you can tell employees how the same injuries won’t be repeated, how the time they have to waste looking for items can be reduced, etc.
Finally, when talking to any kind of internal audience, consider the old copywriting trick of highlighting the benefits of a product over its features. If someone invents a life-changing miracle pill that cures all of your troubles, an effective advertisement is going to focus on how great you’re going to feel and all of the things you’re going to accomplish, not on the fact that the pill works by targeting X,Y,Z receptors in the brain and converting cortisol to serotonin (or something like that).
So don’t say your workplace will be cleaner, say that output can be increased by X amount per hour. Don’t say that your Lean project is going to eliminate a bottleneck at your packaging station, say that you’ll be able to put out 25% more products every week from here on out. Make sense? Good!
Partner in Crime
Getting a partner in crime is a great way to ensure that your Lean projects make it to completion as well. If you’re sharing your Lean duties with another regular position, it may be hard to stay focused and motivated throughout. Having more than one person form a team to tackle efficiency projects can help to ensure that workload is spread out and that ideas stay focused.
Having more than one member evaluate and work on a plan can also be a big help in showing the value of your project to others. If you’re approaching people about a strategy or project type with a name they’ve never heard of, you’ll naturally find yourself up against some resistance to change. If, however, you can show that multiple individuals have brainstormed or considered a plethora ideas before arriving at the currently proposed strategy, your idea comes off as much more reasoned, considered, and ultimately more credible.
Six Sigma Education
It should obvious by this point that one of your biggest obstacle and weapon in getting your Lean projects approved and carried out to completion is education. Effectively teaching and relating Lean and its benefits will help you break down barriers and move more easily toward successful outcomes. Both formal and informal methods of meeting with concerned parties and talking them through project plans should be used to ensure you’re communicating effectively with various types of individuals. Keep these things in mind during your own Lean projects, and you’ll already be ahead of the game.
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