March 17, 2015

Learning how to 'slow down to speed up' with Lean Six Sigma

Ellen Burts-Cooper, PhD
Ellen Burts-Cooper, PhD, is an adjunct professor at the Weatherhead School of Management and senior managing partner of Improve Consulting and Training Group.

Everyday I go to work, I use my Lean Six Sigma toolkit. I can't imagine leaving home without it. It helps me understand the process for just about anything and allows me to help my clients increase their productivity, reduce their costs and increase the quality standards of their products and services.

But I didn't always feel that way about Lean Six Sigma. In the winter of 2000, I had a new boss come to my organization with a process improvement background. He quickly announced that we were going to implement Lean Six Sigma. At the time I ran a global team and was entrenched in the belief that I didn't have time for new methodologies.

Besides, I had seen other methodologies come and go and thought, “This too shall pass,” so I didn't take it seriously. Shortly thereafter, a person called a 'black belt' came into my group and said she was going to help me. Yeah right. I did my best to ignore her because, remember, I was too busy running my operations to learn how to run it better. Shame on me. I was producing widgets and our revenue was consistently growing; however, I was neglecting the bottom line.

In the process of making a lot of money, I was also making a lot of scrap and unnecessary mistakes that were costing our company and our clients. One of the first things the "black belt" did to get my attention was run an analysis called the cost of poor quality. That number added up all the inefficiencies related to my process: unnecessary scrap; running the plant longer hours to make up for defective parts; additional dollars to pay for special disposal for defective parts; issuing warranties; reshipping to the client; unnecessary checks and audits; technical service, etc.

When I looked at the number, I found that I could keep running inefficiently, but it was going to cost me. After you see the number, it's hard for any good leader not to make the decision in favor of reducing costs. I wanted to do something about it, but I didn't know what.

She said, "I can help you with that."

Finally, I was listening. She walked me through the five phases in the DMAIC Methodology:

  1. define,
  2. measure,
  3. analyze,
  4. improve, and
  5. control.
By the time we got to "analyze," I could see my problem as clear as day. Before that, we were just turning knobs in the dark and trying this and trying that until something worked; documentation was not even an afterthought. We were moving too fast to get bogged down with all of that. I finally understood the saying, "slow down to speed up."

We put together a team for 2 1/2 months, while still running the operations, to work on this issue. We isolated the problem and removed the defect, and as a result, our quality increased drastically. It was a nice conversation to have with our customers. By the way, we had a lot more customers. Now, not only did the top line look good, but so did the bottom line.

I've been sold on Lean Six Sigma ever since. I now understand process improvement to be a vital component in organizations. So vital that it makes up most of the work I do now.

Being able to turn things around like that sounds great, right? So why isn't everyone using it? Well, three components have to be considered when using Lean Six Sigma:

  1. the methodology,
  2. the tools, and 
  3. the organization.

You can imagine the vast number of organizational factors that prevent people from using the methodology. Factors include resistance to change, insufficient budget, not having the skill set, lack of leadership buy-in, comfort with status quo, poor functional integration, etc. The one I hear most is,   "I don't have time." We claim that we don’t have time to adopt a proactive methodology to increase quality, but somehow we find time to fix problems. Interesting.

I have seen the methodology badly misused; some people are working from a history of mismanaged projects. It's hard to forget that. From a basic human nature standpoint, people don't like to be told what's wrong with the process that they work so hard on every single day. I used to take this approach, walking in and asking, “What’s wrong?”

Now, I approach it from a more appreciative standpoint. I realize it's okay, even when there are issues, to find out what's working well first. I found that this approach allows people to talk freely about what they do best, and eventually the problem is isolated anyway. Lean Six Sigma is a defect-based methodology, and let's face it, there are a significant number of defects in organizational processes, but we can still appreciate things that are working well and leave them intact.

Many organizations face the same challenges that mine did and many employees probably feel the same way I did when I first learned about Lean Six Sigma. But here’s the question. Do you want to learn how to fix the root cause of your problems and truly do better?

If so, there are programs like our Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Certification or our Master of Science in Management - Operations Research and Supply Chain Management degree at Weatherhead School of Management that train participants to use the Lean Six Sigma methodology and equip them with the tools that made such a significant impact on my work and organization. Participants will learn to use enhanced problem-solving tools and the DMAIC process along with critical tools such as regression analysis, chi-squared analysis, 5S, value stream mapping and others. Our Green Belt Certification helps employees serve as trained operational excellence team members within their function-specific area of the organization and learn how to "slow down to speed up" to make a positive difference.

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