Lean Six Sigma – Quick Wins and Momentum

How do you define a “Quick Win” in Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma improvement efforts are often long, complex, and require a lot of investment from multiple parties and groups within a system. All of these aspects make such efforts especially susceptible to a loss of support and, as a result, sometimes complete failure or shutdown as well.

Now, what individuals choose to do with this information tends to vary widely from company to company and from individual to individual. Some people opt for intricate support schemes that give specifics levels of information to specific groups on a “need to know” basis, and others opt for blanket education or training that seeks to get everyone on an even playing field. Others still may opt to not do much at all about it – and that’s usually a mistake.

In any event, one LinkedIn poster decided to share a concept he uses to help retain momentum and support for lean six sigma (though he more intentionally addresses the Six Sigma side of things) called “quick wins.” The poster, Kevin Clay, then asked other users, assuming they used the concept as well, how they defined it.

Lean Six Sigma Discussion Overview:

In a blog post on Six Sigma DSI, Clay admits that the term is largely open for interpretation, but defines the concept generally as something like the following: Quick wins are goals and ‘wins’ achieved in the smaller intervals throughout an overarching project. Their primary purpose is to show progress in small steps and to help retain support, enthusiasm, and project momentum. The main idea is that a series of quick wins, like a trail of rewards, will lead people to an end that, without the intermediate steps, may have seemed too far away or difficult to reach.

From purely a psychological point of view, quick wins make sense because of the way we’re wired; it’s long been known that humans become extremely motivated at the prospect of immediate gratification, in fact our brains crave it. We have a desire, as Clay says, to “solve the problem now,” and the idea of quick wins plays directly into that concept.

Quick Wins and Risks:

The quick wins concept is not without its problems, however, and poster Bill Holden was more than happy to provide a few examples from the other side of the court.

Finding something where there’s nothing.

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One problem is that quick wins by nature require recognizable progress in a short amount of time, this isn’t an actual problem, unless real progress really hasn’t been made in that time. At this point, you may be left scrambling and looking for anything that would validate a small victory, rather than being objective about what the facts are telling you.

Let’s say a project is intended to improve a company’s output per quarter. In the first month of the project, that output is up slightly, but you know that, based upon how much has been done, the increase is likely due to natural fluctuation rather than anything to do with the lean six sigma project just yet.

Now you’re left in a tricky situation, do you tell people, or at least cultivate the idea of, “See, it’s working!” and risk them seeing through the facade and losing faith altogether?  Or, conversely, if it’s known that you’ve been working on a project for a month without a notable “win” to boast about, do you risk losing support for what you’re doing?  Sometimes, you yourself may even be fooled, and jump on board with a quick win that could be slightly misleading just because you were looking for it.

Interpretation Bias.

In a similar vein of thinking, you may be tempted to compare metrics and ideas that don’t actually have perfect parity. Again, this gives a skewed idea of what progress you’ve made. I think both of these points show that one of the biggest risks to be aware of and avoid when using quick wins is that it can get really easy to see what you want to see, and you never want to mislead, you should make sure real progress is being made whenever you’re going to frame it as such.

Setting Your Criteria:

So, you understand what to not do, but what should you be defining your quick wins as?  Like clay says, it’s all relative, but here are some good rules of thumb to keep in mind in order to keep your quick wins genuine and uniform.

When you first pitched a project to your clients or bosses, or set out on the project in the first place, you likely laid out a list of checkpoints of where you want to be and when. Meeting each of these checkpoints could definitely be considered one of your quick wins. Likewise, you may be able to further break these down into smaller goals to use.

A quick win can also be getting ahead of schedule or completing something in exceptional time. It’s especially easy to motivate people when using time-based goals because people feel like they are “better than average” or really getting a hang of the project strategies if they’re able to complete them ahead of the expected schedule. Of course, you also want to make sure people aren’t feeling rushed – striking a balance is key, as always.

A “Common Sense” Fix.

Straight from Clay, the concept of any best-judgment call of what constitutes a good fix or move of forward progress can make up a quick win. Sometimes, this could actually mean that something didn’t quite go according to plan throughout a project and a team was able to figure out how to get things back on track and ‘fix’ them. While you’ll want to avoid these kind of unforeseen events as much as possible, try and use them to your advantage when they do occur; quick wins are a great way to do this.

As A Control Method.

This last one will probably be the most controversial, as many people seem to jump up and down screaming that if you need any kind of behavioral control tools with your workers, there’s something wrong with the workplace culture to begin with. While I agree this is true for especially punitive measures, I think that oftentimes our behavioral policies are what shape our work culture to a large extent.

Think about how you might be able to get a good two for one effect out of using quick wins both as a way to inspire confidence in a project and also as a means to keep people working toward those goals and in the right ways in the first place. Quick wins could also even be framed as contests between teams to see who can reach a goal or come up with a solution or fix first. Done wrong, they’re cheesy and condescending; done right, they’re fun and keep progress moving at a great pace.

Win with Lean Six Sigma

Whatever you decide to do with your own quick wins system, or whether you choose to even use them or not altogether, there’s a lot to be said for creativity. The concept is largely a flexible one and, as long as you avoid some of the aforementioned pitfalls, you’ll surely be able to come up with a system that works great for you. But talk and theory are only half the battle; above all, get out there and get winning!

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