Monday, May 17, 2010

Whats the difference between flavors of six sigma?

Six Sigma for Manufacturing; Six Sigma for Healthcare; Six Sigma for Public Sector; Six Sigma for Education.

There's a lot of marketing materials out there hyping the specialty classes and programs for Six Sigma or Lean for a particular industry sector or application. So, what is really different between these different approaches? In short-Nothing.

Lets start with what Six Sigma is and what it is not. Six Sigma is a universally applicable logic based improvement process, it is not specific to manufacturing environments only. Six Sigma is flexible in the use of specific tools for a given problem, it is not so flexible that the logical problem solving process can be avoided. Six Sigma is a scientific method of discovery, it is not a substitute for knowledge.

One thing that may not be universally recognized is that the specific tools that are endorsed and needed to make the six sigma method work effectively are not unique to six sigma. The early practioners of Six Sigma did not invent Gage R&R, Capability Analysis, Process Flow Diagrams, Brainstorming, Regression or Designed Experiments. What they did do was recognize how those tools could add value and strengthen the six sigma method. Why is that important to understand? because understanding that the "inventors" of six sigma borrowed good tools from other areas where they were already in use informs us that we also can adapt tools and apply them in the six sigma method without violating the 'spirit" of the method. For instance; the generally accepted statistic used to express capability in a six sigma project is the Z score, however if you have a transactional of office process that you are working on and continuous data is not available to derive a Z score, thats OK. Just count occurences of your defect regardless of what it is (time, errors, missed deliverables, rework) and report a percentage of failure against the requirement. That's the same thing in "spirit" as a  Z score. Some dogmatic practitioners might insist that the only acceptable metric is a Z score. I assure you this is not correct, what is required is that we measure our baseline capability against the requirement of the process (specification) and express that in some appropriate way.

The other area of flexibility in the six sigma method is in the area of specific process steps that apply. I have led and mentored many project teams and in some of those cases we have had to abandon efforts to complete certain steps because the process we were working on did not lend itself to effectively completing that particular step. In other cases there have been steps that were not needed. One of the typical steps that some teams struggle to complete is the Gage R&R requirement. In some cases it is not practical or necessary to conduct a proper Gage R&R but it is always necessary to ensure that the data is reliable. See this post for a further discussion fo Gage R&R. The step that most often gets skipped is the Designed Experiment step in Analyze. many times this step is skipped intentionally and quite properly because earlier analysis of historical data via regression has produced a conclusive list of reliable root causes and no experimentation is needed to confirm or screen these root causes. If you know from historical data what needs to be fixed, why waste time and money on a confirmation experiement. Conversely, recognizing that your suspected root causes are weakly correlated to the problem should drive the design of an experiment to determine conclusively what the causes are. Of course in an office or transactional project, a designed experiment may not be possible.

Six Sigma is a flexible, universally applicable process improvement method that follows the logical thought pattern of; Define the problem, Baseline performance, Discover root causes, Implement improvements, and Standardize the new process. These concepts apply to any process, anywhere in any professional setting. What is required to use the method successfully in any setting is an understanding of the improvement process, the reasons why each step is important, how all of the steps fit together, and a concerted effort to apply each step. Finally, if you are doing a six sigma project and have used a particular tool effectively in the past, there is no limitation to the use of new tools within the six sigma process. if it works for you and is effective at helping the team move forward, use it.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Improve your Lean with some Six Sigma (and vice versa)

With the advent in recent times of a combined lean and six sigma approach to continuous improvement efforts, one might think that the dilemma of which methods to chose has been resolved. However, confusion still exists over how to move forward with a combined approach to Lean and Six Sigma.

First, why a combined approach to Lean and Six Sigma? Isn't lean or six sigma good enough on its own? Not in all cases by my experience. Every problem is like a snowflake, unique, with some similarities to other problems but still, unique. For some types of problems six sigma is good enough all on its own, those types of problems are typically variation related issues. For other types of problems, lean is fine, those are typically waste related issues. Combining them together leaves nothing on the table in terms of improvement opportunities. Lean and Six Sigma each complement weaknesses in the other method. For instance, Lean is weak in the area of data based analysis and decision making, this is a strength of Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a top down driven improvement approach, which risks not involving the right people in solving the problem, lean compliments this by being driven bottoms up, ensuring the process users are involved in the improvement.

Add some lean to your six sigma or six sigma to your lean. In studying both Lean and Six sigma, we find that they operate on multiple levels. Lean and Six Sigma are at once, a tool set, a methodology, and a culture. Much handwringing has occurred over the question of creating another initiative when a six sigma or lean culture already exists. Concerns usually center on creating confusion in the ranks. Avoid this confusion by folding the supporting tools and method into your existing improvement culture. If six sigma is your way of working, incorporate lean tools into the method to capture waste in addition to the variation reduction. If you have a Lean culture, add the six sigma data gathering and analysis tools and steps to your lean to strengthen your decision making.

I  led a couple of projects that are good examples demonstrating the idea of combining approaches to achieve the best results. Without going into much detail on them I can share that in the first project we improved process accuracy by over 40% while reducing cycle time from 45 to 19 days.This project can be reviewed here for those interested in more detail. In the other project we reduced cycle time by 40 hours through using regression statistics to identify what equipment was producing the longest cycle times, then apply lean concepts to improve them.

The point here is that combining lean and six sigma approaches together improves results by reducing variation and reducing waste at the same time. This is the best use of our precious improvement resources, gaining the maximum benefit for the time and effort spent focused on a particular problem.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Hiring Authentic People-Brain Advantage

I'm reading a new business book that everyone should go out and get a copy of. Its called The Brain Advantage, Become a More Effective Business Leader using the Latest Brain Research. A friend of mine is a co-author so I got a copy from him to read through. I've made several connections to my own experiences in leadership.

 In the Brain Advantage, the authors share research that shows that when in the company of others, people modify their reactions to seeing difficult images to match that of the other persons reaction. Moreover if the other persons' reaction did not match the expected reaction, this had a negative impact on them and the others physiologically. Non-voluntary inidcators of stress such as blood pressure increased or decreased in reaction to other peoples reactions or when someone did not react in a way that others expect. The research also showed that if the difficult images were viewed with consideration of the potential positive aspects that might come from the situation. The authors suggest that leaders have to be true to themselves in every situation but that this does not mean airing your dirty laundry or being negative about everything you disagree with, but if leaders can find the potential positives in a situation, they have an opportunity to have a positive impact on those around them, as well as themselves. The conclusion the authors come to is that managers should hire authentic people.  What if managers hired people who were authentic. Sounds like a good idea. Easier said than done, I think. I can visualize the efforts that would have to be undertaken to understand what authentic is. Its hard to get through the facade of what candidates want you to think they are, to see the real person. Of course, hiring authentic people requires leaders to BE authentic themselves and determine what authentic characteristics are in alignment with the organizations culture. Thats much more work than most companies put into their hiring processes today. Maybe that says something about the state of business today.

This insight from The Brain Advantage does line up nicely with a couple of key leadership messages of another of my favorite business books, Good To Great by Jim Collins. In Good To Great, Dr. Collins shares two of the key elements of success for Good To Great companies. Those elements are the Stockdale Paradox and Level 5 Leadership. I've talked about the Stockdale Paradox before so I won't go into detail here but click here for a review. The Stockdale paradox is the presence of two personal principles that are counter to each other; First is the ability to see the present situation for what it is, and Second is an unwaivering faith that the future will be better than today. The other leadership key to success for Good To Great companies is Level 5 Leadership. Level 5 leaders are characterized by two priniciples; personal humility, and a strong drive for success for the company. These sound alot like authenticity to me.  Level 5 leaders tend to shy away from personal credit for the success of the company. Assigning much of the credit to luck, but taking most of the blame for failures. Level 5 leaders tend to attract other level 5 leaders, just as devisive leaders tend to create that culture around them. Leaders who possess the Stockdale Paradox have the ability to see the problems of today, but not be overly negative about them, instead focusing on the future.

What if managers hired people who were authentic? Sounds like a good idea. I think it goes beyond hiring decisions though. Hiring authentic people is a good first step but I believe that leaders have to allow people to BE authentic once they have hired them. This should not be an issue if leadership acts authentically as well. In a business book reference trifecta; Harvey J. Coleman, in the Empowering Yourself, The Organizational Game Revealed

theorizes that individual success in business is made up of three elements: Performance, Image, and Exposure. The author suggests that Image and Exposure are more important than Performance (Results). At least he is honest, but I believe he is wrong in the proportion of the PIE that is assigned to Performance. While peoples varied experiences on this point would create endless debate, suffice it to say that my personal experiences would suggest that the P is worth less than the 10% of the PIE asserted by the author. In an organization where people are not authentic, performance is not nearly as important as the image or the exposure of the individual. In other experiences from my past, the P was far more important.

So what can we take from these three books on the subject of authenticity? When results are what matters to the organization, authenticity is the recipe for success. When people are authentic, less effort must be spent managing an image, and more time spent focusing on helping the company move to the next level of performance.