Why Does Six Sigma Projects Often Fall Short of Expectations

Six Sigma Blues

One all-too-common problem in the Lean Six Sigma arena stems from the fact that it’s hard to be a believer in a system when it simply doesn’t work for you. When it comes to Lean, the reasons for a project not coming to a successful completion or meeting expectations are numerous, but there are certainly a few common standouts that aren’t doing you any favors. Avoiding these mistakes can help you to rebuild what may be a tarnished faith in an effective methodology.

For experienced practitioners, these factors are gradually reduced and eliminated over time through gained know-how, but in the beginning they can represent an annoying deterrent to progress. Linkedin user Kevin Clay recently decided to put this question to the diverse minds of the internet, and got some interesting opinions back in return. Let’s use the next 1,000 words or so to explore common causes of LSS issues, and also take a look at how to overcome them.

Expectation Basics

Sometimes, something fails to meet our expectations not because it wasn’t good enough, but because we were expecting too much from it in the first place. You know that expecting your dog to learn to speak English with you would be setting yourself up for disappointment, so make sure you familiarize yourself with the characteristics of Lean/Six Sigma so that your own expectations are realistic and on target.

Speed:  One of the most mentioned points in the LinkedIn discussion was that many practitioners and their corporate audiences may be expecting results in a timeframe that just simply isn’t feasible.

LSS is primarily focused on taking problem areas and improving them in month to month, quarter to quarter, or even year to year comparisons. In short (no pun intended), you’re working toward long term improvement. When thinking about your goals, you need to make sure that the strategy you’re applying is adequate, and if not, you may just need to adjust your goals.

That said, user Bryan Sandmann brought up the point that slight distinctions between Lean and Six Sigma may also throw people:

“LEAN has come into favor in part because people see more of the ‘quick hits’ vs months to get improvements. You do a couple weeks of prep, one week or so in a Kaizen event and you get fast results.”


Strictly speaking, Lean does contain many of the types of tools that can be used on individual projects, and therefore might be completed in a shorter amount of time, yielding quicker results. That said, Lean and Six Sigma are intertwined both in their goals and their methods, so it’s probably best to not get caught up in the details and understand that being patient and having realistic timeframes will benefit you no matter which you’re working with specifically. Remember, you’re looking for a permanent fix, not necessarily a quick one.

ScopeAnother aspect of your expectations for an LSS project has to do with the scope of your endeavor. Isolating individual problem areas is a commonly recommended strategy for embarking on Lean projects, and we aren’t ones to argue; biting off more than you can chew gets people into trouble as often as any other Lean barrier.

For this reason, you need to be realistic in how much you think you’ll be able to accomplish with a project, and what types of things it’s going to affect. This is especially important if you’re trying to “sell” others on an idea; while it may seem like a great idea of ‘wow’ management with a sweeping improvement regimen, no one’s going to be impressed when you can’t keep everything running smoothly and improvement efforts start to break down altogether.

Understanding Outcomes

Unfortunately, many people believe that the implications of a Lean project are surface deep, and that, beyond the initial action or project, there isn’t a lot of upkeep or monitoring required. Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Our friend Bryan weighs in again on this point:

“What makes it work is the methodology – define the problem, test the data, fix the problem and quantify your change, then ensure people don’t revert to the old methods/ways.”

That last part is really, really important. One of the biggest parts of LSS is nurturing an evolving workplace culture. If you aren’t placing emphasis on this cultural adaptation stage of your projects, to put it bluntly, you’re doing it wrong.

Always make room to sustain your growth and changes – there’s a reason it’s a step built into 5S, one of Lean’s core tools – and it might help you to think about this in terms of an upfront consideration instead of as a last step.

With any project you implement, you should think about how it will look in five or six months, or even a year down the road. Will workers continue to use the new systems in place, or will old habits die hard and, eventually, resurface and drag you back to where you started.

If the answer is the latter, you need to think about how you can shore up the leaks that will lead to such an occurrence. Think about things like frequently refreshing training, checking in individually with your workers after a project’s initial completion, and taking seriously the complaints workers might have about new methods or schedules; worker resistance has been responsible for more than one failed continual improvement project. In considering your long term cultural changes, you’ll also be helping yourself set realistic goals by getting a gauge on just how much effort maintaining even a small project might be given enough time.

Those People Skills

User Kevin Earnest points out that people are at the center of your operation, and specifically addresses what that might mean when you’re depending on them for participation in, or at least approval of, your LSS plans. He writes:

“Regardless the type of organization change being desired, my personal experience has been that some/many/all managers do not possess the requisite level of human capability required. When managers are not “big enough” to provide value-added managerial leadership to subordinate employees, change efforts cannot advance, let alone be sustained.”


Yikes!  Those are some harsh words, but sometimes the truth hurts. If you’ve got managers or team members who simply don’t have the people skills required to empathize with other workers or communicate in an amicable and effective manner with them, you’re going to be fighting a nearly impossible uphill battle.

In most cases, these issues can be addressed head on, and you can use your own skills to coach people into being more effective practitioners and continual improvement team members. In the cases where a superior is particularly stubborn, however, you may be facing some tough choices. Basically, you either have to abandon an opposed or failing project or find a new place to work. The fact of the matter is that working against those you’re trying to help isn’t a valuable use of your time and is probably doomed from the start.

Not to end on a negative note, though, because it’s usually not all doom and gloom. As long as you’re always realistic in your goal setting, keep your audiences in mind, and have a long-term vision for project sustenance, you’ll have a winning combination already the vast majority of the time.

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