The Experience of Making Improvements: What Its Like to Work on Lean Six Sigma Projects


When Heather Presley was asked to participate in Green Belt training at the City of the Fort Wayne, Indiana, she’d been with the city for about 7 years. She’d started out as a customer service representative in the Utility department, then moved into a division of the Economic Development department—the people responsible in part for attracting new business to the city. She’d also recently finished getting her bachelor’s degree, where she had heard about something called “Six Sigma,” but didn’t really know what it meant.

A new mayor, Graham Richard, had just been elected in Fort Wayne. He was an entrepreneur and former state representative who had extensive training in Six Sigma himself. When first elected, he made it a point to visit every city department and describe his vision of Fort Wayne and its government. Part of that vision included using Six Sigma to provide better services to citizens and improve the efficiency of city operations. “That’s where I started to get excited about this idea of change that was happening,” says Heather.

When Heather’s boss asked her to take the city’s new Green Belt course, she agreed. “In Fort Wayne, this training consists of one full day each week for 10 weeks,” says Heather. “In between, I was expected to work on a project as well as do my regular job.”

Picking a project wasn’t hard for Heather. She already had one in mind. “In Economic Development, we were like customer service agents to business,” explains Heather. “If they needed help finding a building, or getting a business started, we would direct them in the proper venue to get that done.”

The problem was that the city’s permit process for contractors was truly awful. “Businesses would tell us, ‘I’ll never build inside city limits again. Your permit process is so horrible, I don’t want to go through it anymore. It’s demeaning.’ It got so bad, I used to call myself ‘complaint central.’”

Then one day, the president of the building contractors association called Heather. “That’s where the project idea came from,” she says, “in talking with my customers.”

Even before Heather began her project, the mayor had commissioned a Red Tape committee to address the problem. The permit process involved 15 departments, and the committee included representatives from each department. Heather knew it wouldn’t be easy to work with that many departments, but she realized how important it was to the city to improve the permit process.

Launching the project

When the project was formally launched, Heather had a core team of people who met regularly but were not directly involved in the process. “We were the analysts, the data collection experts,” says Heather. She also began working with the various departments. “I had to pull together people in small groups. Some people were ‘experts’ on the process. Others were what we call ‘internal customers,’ the departments that use some of the ‘products’ of the permit process.”

When the project began in the spring of 2001, one of the first steps Heather took was to map out the process. “I worked with the Planning department, because they were the agency that collected and distributed all the paperwork. Then I took that map to other departments to see if they agreed. And I’d find differences.”

What was interesting, says Heather, is that people she thought of as “experts” knew how the process should work. Then she’d talk to the managers in the departments to find how the process could work. And she’d get yet another view by talking to frontline staff and finding out how the process actually did work! “I had to talk to the managers separately from the frontline folks to get the truth on both sides—what it should be and what it really is. That way I could eliminate some of the politics and begin to find ways to bridge the gap.”

The actions

Heather found that some of the tools she learned in her Green Belt training were very helpful in finding solutions to the permit process problems. “We used tools like a cause-and-effect matrix and Failure Modes and Effects Analysis, or FMEA. Both of these tools help you look at what can go wrong with a process so you can find ways to fix it,” she explains. In fact, she adds, the Green Belt training doesn’t go into the more complex Lean Six Sigma tools. “The projects are supposed to be simple enough that you can get through it with just those basic tools,” says Heather.

One of the main lessons Heather learned is that the process hadn’t been documented before, so no one really knew how it should (or could) work. Once some of the kinks were worked out, Heather realized she needed to make it easier for people from all the various departments to track what was going on in the process. “What I ended up doing was using the information I collected through the project to create a simple software program to track the permits. The city Champion got the computer folks to get it on the main computer servers, so anybody could access it.”

The result?

Heather was later promoted to Community Development Projects Administrator in the Division of Community Development, but before she left the permit process behind she could see signs of progress already.

Originally, the turnaround time on processing contractor permits had been 61 days on average, with a few of them taking up to 180 days (nearly six months!). Heather’s team had identified a number of changes by August of 2001, which got fully implemented in September and October. Those changes had a dramatic effect. “By December of 2001, we were turning around 75% of the permits in 30 days or less,” she says. “And we kept making improvements. By April of 2002, the average was just under 12 days.

“I also started getting feedback from the developers and other people in the departments saying they were getting a better feeling about the process. We had one big customer that had submitted more than 300 permits over the past 20 years. Only one of those 300 had been signed off in 1 day. Now, 1-day sign offs are routine. So they are really happy about that!” says Heather.

The Benefit of Champion Support

As you may recall from Chapter 7, most organizations using Six Sigma designate a corporate Champion, a high- ranking executive who is responsible for the overall effort. These Champions often play a big role in helping individuals succeed with their projects.

“The Champion of my project was a guy named Andy Downs. He headed up the Red Tape committee and was the Mayor’s Chief of Staff,” says Heather. “He handled some of the roughest times for me single-handedly. With him breaking down all the barriers, like a Champion should, I was able to get done what I needed to get done and not get bogged down. Without a good Champion, this project never would have worked.”

Is Heather s experience typical?

Every organization will have its own way of making improvements. But several aspects of Heather’s experience are typical of what you may experience:

  • The problem chosen for improvement was critical to the organization.
  • She worked mostly with a small core team, pulling in other experts and going into the other departments as needed.
  • Because the process had never been studied before, she was able to make a lot of progress with basic Lean Six Sigma tools like process mapping.

In other respects, this project is different from what you might expect:

  • Big problems like these are usually worked on by more experienced Belts. Most companies would not assign a new Green Belt to work on such a big, complex problem, especially one that involved 15 departments! Typically, a more experienced Black Belt would be assigned to lead the project. Or a company might wait until more people had Lean Six Sigma training before tackling a project like this.
  • Many companies will push for faster results. Because Heather and her team were new to improvement and only working on the project part-time, it took five months before they could start making the process changes. Companies who want to make faster progress will most likely have one or more Black Belts work on the project full-time, involving other staff as needed.
  • In many organizations, all team members will receive some level of training. This building permit process was one of the first done in the city, and few people had had any training at that point. Many companies will do more widespread Green (or White or Yellow) Belt training, and use the participants to staff project teams.


Teams go through a lot of highs and lows doing project work. There’s the excitement of meeting customers, probably for the first time. There’s the frustration of realizing that the kind of data you need just to assess current performance doesn’t exist. There’s the reward that comes from making changes in a process that actually makes life better for you and your coworkers.

We can’t predict exactly what kind of experience you’ll have if you participate on a project team. But we can guarantee that it will be a valuable learning experience. The skills and tools you learn in making improvements can be easily transferred to helping you improve your everyday work.

What Is Lean Six Sigma
What is Lean Six Sigma
ISBN: 007142668X
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 64 © 2008-2020.
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