Banishing The Lessino Grin F!@k - Part 1

"Trust me."
Ah, the Grin-F!@k.

That wonderful corporate specialty which we have pretty much all experienced, either with our staff, our own executives / Boards, our consultants or those organizations whom we advise. In its various guises, it comes as a toothy smile accompanying words such as "I'll do it / I hear you / Consider it done / I agree with you / It's a great idea / You're the only choice / It's going well / Naturally I'll support you / Guaranteed etc etc..." ad nauseum.

Of course, what happens afterwards is either absolutely nothing or a complete 180 opposite from what was promised, usually accompanied by a little cutlery between the shoulder blades.

The grin fuck is really a warning sign for many other things going wrong in an organization, either operationally or project wise. It's sometimes an individual phenomenon, but often it's a symptom of a culture where politics can override what's best for the bottom line.

Here's one of my favourite examples: a few years ago, the CEO of a mid-size components manufacturer was speaking to me about the enthusiastic support he had from his Board for a new strategic initiative to source raw material from a new lower cost supplier - the Board lauded him for this initiative that would save close to $9 million a year and he wanted me to advise on the process. After preparing a plan, I showed up to his office to discuss it...only to find a new CEO. Cutting a long and complex story short, a Board member secretly had a major interest in an existing supplier. This same Board member had publicly been the most vocal in backing the proposal...but secretly had been preparing a series of loaded investigations that saw the CEO drummed out.

In its various ways, it has happened to every organization since time immemorial, but in my travels and discussions with various people, it seems to predominate the world of Lean Six Sigma to a disproportionate degree, in every way imaginable.

"Yes, my company has been practicing Lean Six Sigma for over 10 years."
"This is a great initiative and of course you have the full support of the senior executive team."
"The Lean Six Sigma initiative is delivering excellent results."
"The results have been sustained."
"People are keen to be a part of the process."

Lean Six Sigma has been in and out of vogue for over 20 years and I cannot count the variety of opinions people have had of it. Being a proponent and a practitioner of it for 15 years, it's probably hard for me to be truly objective. However, I am confident in saying this: Lean Six Sigma is a robust and proven method for delivering superior results...when done right.

Sadly, that proviso is employed too often to explain why things screw up. I used it myself far too often back in the early 2000s.

The reality is that most Lean Six Sigma projects do not achieve the desired results...and that number increases the longer the timeline one looks at - there really is a scary pull back in Lean Six Sigma successes over time. For many organizations in a number of industries, making necessary changes is a mirage always out of reach, despite numerous attempts and despite claims of initial success.

Yes. A lot of individuals involved in and around Lean Six Sigma (and other quality initiatives) are Grin F!@k masters: you'll get everything from them bar two things...

The truth. And results.

I have adopted the tortuous acronym of: LeSSINO (LEan Six Sigman In Name Only) to describe these organizations. LINO (Lean In Name Only) is a part of this, but when you have multiple instances of too much variability and poor quality, then the Six Sigma aspect of the initiative is failing.

So why do we have so many organizations suffering from Lessino? I have been involved with close to a hundred initiatives over the years, many of them quite major. The reasons for failure are many and varied. Here's what I've found

1) Window Dressing for Externals
This is the one I hear whispered only after a few drinks at airport bars. Many companies require that suppliers have some form of Lean and/or Six Sigma accreditation in order to confirm a business relationship. And what better way to 'prove' that than to have a department dedicated to Lean Six Sigma expertise, with lots of certified Blackbelts, Practitioners etc etc... However, it's a hollow gesture. Such departments are often little more than semi-permanent establishments that are trotted out during tours, having little real world influence in the business. They are often staffed by people who know the theory of the tools...but in terms of their practical application, would actually be hard pressed to utilize them into results that show up on the P&L.

2) Lack of Management Buy-In
Ah, one of the most common ones: Often, Lean Six Sigma is initiated by mid level management and is presented to the senior executives who then sign off half-heartedly and go on doing whatever...and that's the extent of the fabled "senior management buy-in". There is no real support in terms of resources, only an expectation that the managers will produce results fast, but will have to adhere to other priorities too.

Alternatively, when senior executives do initiate and sell it, the mid level managers who actually need to make it happen simply view it as another executive fad, or they have heard only of the failures of it about other companies, or sometimes they know it can succeed, but they believe it won't succeed at their company. Either way, things simply do not gain traction and the initiative fizzles out.

Buy-in is either non-existent or too passive...or just lip service. That's not the way GE did it.

3) Staff simply don't get it
I've seen this up close. The blank faces during presentations. The "Yes, I get it" statements, delivered without even a hint of conviction. The meetings where the tools are unknown, or if known applied the wrong way, or even if applied the right way, the analysis is weak...or there are crazy expectations that things will immediately get better. And sadly, this is sometimes after training and even accreditation, which gives a whole new light on "Diploma Mills"...

Let's face it, a lot of Six Sigma grunt work scares the daylights out of non-maths savvy individuals. And whilst Lean can be a lot more end user friendly, the VSM bits can be rather tricky. In industries such as logistics and retail, the relatively low remuneration available in most roles does not attract the highly analytical individuals who tend to understand Lean Six Sigma quicker.

4) Human Nature...or Culture
This is one I am writing a major work on: are some company cultures simply unable to sustain a substantial Lean Six Sigma initiative? Why do Toyota and GE succeed where Home Depot fails?

Here's my take.

Companies truly do have unique cultures: these vary widely and can be based upon location, ethnicity, education standard/type, history, industry, industry pay, age etc etc...All of this contributes to a 'flavour' an organization has. I've tasted a smorgasboard of companies over the years and whilst I believe that every company can derive some benefit from LSS, results will vary widely and the approaches - and expectations - have to be carefully tailored.

5) Staff turnover
This is probably the biggest challenge facing Lean Six Sigma success in the retail store environment, an industry I have had a lot of exposure to. And it does affect many other sectors.

Lean Six Sigma is touted by companies who had success many years ago...and in the meantime, staff have changed completely, and there is a slow loss of the drive to continue change and in many cases even a reversion to older, easier ways. This is very common at store / warehouse level, where turnover can exceed 50% in many cases.

6) Confusing "Lean Efficiency" with "Lazy Minimalism"
A very real and dangerous phenomenon I have started to see since the GFC is how corners are being cut with LSS initiatives. People are simply cutting process steps, thinking it efficiency, without truly realizing the risks...until it's too late.

Lean and Six Sigma have a natural tension in some way: Six Sigma stresses quality, Lean wants to cut out steps that make quality more certain initially but which can add cost. Whilst fewer process steps can seem efficient, when quality systems are not in place prior the end results can be brutal. I have seen even Fortune 100 companies fall into this trap.

7) Wrong Project selected
A 'wrong project' can mean many things. It could be a project that was not optimally suitable to an LSS toolset. It could be one that was so far down the tubes that nothing could save it. Perhaps it was too small and insignificant to make a real impact and generate the enthusiasm needed. Perhaps it was too big for an initial effort and ended in failure due to a lack of experience.

There are a number of other reasons too, but the above is enough for now. The question can we prevent the above from happening?

The Answer in Part 2...