When Companies Start Using Lean Six Sigma

When CompaniesStart Using Lean Six Sigma


Imagine that you are the CEO of a corporation with thousands of employees. Your executive team has decided that you need to invest in Lean Six Sigma if you want to become competitive. You want to launch a number of improvement projects so you can make a difference in the company’s profits as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, only a few people in your company have any experience with Lean Six Sigma projects.

That means you have two big challenges: (1) picking projects you’re sure will contribute to your corporate goals, and
(2) training a large number of people so they can become effective team members. If you don’t do these things, you’ll never be sure that all the time your staff is about to put into the projects will be worthwhile.

How would you attack these challenges? In most companies, the solution combines:

  • Creating new staff positions to shoulder most of the Lean Six Sigma responsibility
  • Expanding the responsibilities of existing positions to include oversight of Lean Six Sigma efforts
  • Developing appropriate training for anyone who will be involved in the Lean Six Sigma efforts
  • Setting up new procedures to make sure the Lean Six Sigma efforts are linked to important business issues

Let’s start by looking at what happens to staffing, then see what kind of training and procedures help support those staff.

Special staffing of Lean Six Sigma

Lean Six Sigma cannot be done well if everyone involved has other full-time jobs and responsibilities. So companies usually have some people who work on improvement efforts 100% of their time. But they also have to find ways to keep Lean Six Sigma tied into the “real” part of the company. And that’s why they also add Lean Six Sigma responsibilities onto some existing positions.

The companies that invented Six Sigma back in the late 1980s developed special names for each of the new roles based on the practice in Karate of having different colored belts that indicate different levels of mastery.

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The combination of these specialized “Belt” positions, as they are called, plus other staff involved in Lean Six Sigma is often called the Lean Six Sigma “infrastructure.” Here again, each organization will have its own infrastructure, but let’s look at seven typical roles and how they relate to Lean Six Sigma:

New positions created to staff Lean Six Sigma efforts

  1. Champions: A Champion is an executive-level manager who has the responsibility for managing and guiding Lean Six Sigma efforts—and for making sure those efforts support and drive corporate priorities. Every organization should have a Champion reporting directly to the CEO or President. Large organizations may also have divisional or business unit Champions who report directly to the person in charge of that unit.
  2. Black Belts: These are company employees who receive a minimum of 4 to 5 weeks of training on leadership and problem solving. They usually work full-time on Lean Six Sigma, though in some organizations they may only be part-time. They are responsible for leading or coaching project teams, and for delivering results on the selected projects.
  3. Master Black Belts: These are Black Belts who have gone on to receive advanced training in more sophisticated problem- solving techniques. They also will have led a number of project teams and have a proven track record of delivering results. Their responsibilities include training and coaching Black Belts, monitoring team progress, and aiding teams as needed.

Staff who maintain their regular jobs but whose responsibilities expand to include Lean Six Sigma

  1. CEO & executives: The Chief Executive Officer and other executives determine whether a company will adopt Lean Six Sigma. And they are ultimately responsible for setting corporate goals that will shape Lean Six Sigma priorities. They are also responsible for regularly monitoring and guiding how Lean Six Sigma resources are used.
  2. Business unit managers: Every company is made up of different business units—departments, locations, plants, etc. In some, the leaders of these business units are Presidents, in others, they are Vice Presidents. But no matter what the title, these Business Unit managers need to work closely with the Champion. Together, they use the unit’s goals to define criteria for selecting projects. The final decisions about project targets belong to the Business Unit manager, because he or she will be accountable to the CEO for meeting annual goals.
  3. Line managers/process owners: Line managers are the people who “own” the processes that will be improved by Lean Six Sigma. That is, they are responsible for authorizing changes in process procedures. (For that reason, some companies call these people Process Owners.) They are responsible for approving time for staff to attend training, serve on project teams, and so on. Support from line management is therefore critical to Lean Six Sigma success. When projects are launched in their work area, the line managers usually also serve as project sponsors. In that role, they are responsible for monitoring the team’s progress, providing support as needed, and sustaining the business results delivered by the project team.
  4. Green Belts/Yellow Belts/White Belts/Team members: These can be anyone in the organization who receives some level of awareness education or skill training in Lean Six Sigma. They usually maintain their regular jobs, but work part-time on projects in their work areas.

Typical training programs

Just like the Lean Six Sigma efforts themselves, training programs differ greatly from organization to organization. Typical levels of training include:

  1. An awareness course (White Belt training): A brief course, often just a day or two long. The goal is to help people get familiar with Lean Six Sigma language and concepts. Project participation is usually not a requirement.
  2. An introductory methods/tools course (Yellow or Green Belt training): The next level up is a course where people get to practice using the improvement methods and techniques. The training can last anywhere from one to two weeks. The Yellow Belt is intermediate between White and Green. The difference is that a Yellow Belt course is usually a bit shorter than Green Belt training, and people are required only to participate on projects. Most companies require people to lead projects to become a Green Belt.
  3. A skill-building tools/methods course (Black Belt training): Black Belts are the core of the Lean Six Sigma support structure. In some companies they lead projects; in others, they serve as coaches and resources to several projects at a time. (See sidebar, below, for a description of a typical Black Belt course.)
  4. Advanced training in one or more specialties (Master Black Belt or enrichment courses): There are a handful of sophisticated Lean and Six Sigma tools that are extremely valuable in some limited circumstances. It doesn’t pay to train every Black Belt on them because they won’t be needed as often as the more general Lean Six Sigma tools. Such skills are often covered either as part of Master Black Belt certification or in specialized enrichment classes available to Black Belts.

Black Belt Training

A well-rounded Black Belt training program is usually built around 4 to 6 weeks of classroom training, which includes one week of Leadership training. Typically, Black Belts attend a week of training, return to project work for a few weeks, come back for the second week of training, and so on.

  • The course should cover Lean, Six Sigma, and complexity reduction methods, as well as project management skills and leadership.
  • Each participant should get anywhere from 1 to 5 days of coaching from someone experienced in making improvements and leading projects (such as a Master Black Belt).
  • Participants should have access to training materials, case studies, and other resources through both printed and electronic means.

Linking Lean Six Sigma to business priorities

If you look at all the organizations that have adopted Six Sigma or any of its predecessors—such as Total Quality Management— you’ll find a fair number that have invested a lot of time and money with very poor results. If you look closely at these companies, you’ll see problems such as…

  1. Projects didn’t address important business problems
  2. The people working on Lean Six Sigma became “quality commandos,” looking down on anyone who wasn’t involved in improvement full-time
  3. There was little or no monitoring of projects, so a lot of teams spent a lot of time doing things that weren’t increasing profits or lowering costs

These problems are so common that Lean Six Sigma incorporates ways to avoid them. Above all, Lean Six Sigma encourages the mentality that improvement is something that should be done to support business goals, not something done instead of the “real work.” In addition, there are two particular methods that are useful here:

  • Developing a system for project selection
  • Instituting a “tollgate” system for regular project evaluation

Project Selection

If someone were to ask you what needs to be fixed or improved in your work area, odds are you could come up with a dozen different answers. Now multiply that by the number of people working for your department. And multiply that result by the number of different departments in your company—and you’ll have an inkling of the kind of challenges that management faces in selecting projects. The problem isn’t coming up with ideas. It’s picking the best ideas from among the many possibilities. “Best” means projects that will have the biggest payoff (what your CEO would call “increasing shareholder value”), and that can be completed quickly with the resources available.

To solve this problem, Lean Six Sigma prescribes a process like that shown in Figure 7.1. The procedure starts with broad goals for the company as a whole (what executives may call “burning platforms”). Typical burning platforms include issues like “reach new customers,” “reduce overhead costs,” “speed up how quickly we get to market,” and so on.

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Figure 7.1: From Strategy to Execution

Those goals are translated down to business units, and then to specific processes (or “value streams”) that will be targeted. Then the Champion and Black Belts will work with managers to identify specific projects to address the problems identified in the value stream.

The key to this sequence is maintaining the links at each step: making sure that business unit goals relate to corporate goals, and that project goals relate to the business unit goals. That way, projects will always be linked to corporate priorities. And that means managers are more likely to support them. It also means that Lean Six Sigma is more likely to be viewed as something to help managers and employees, rather than something that is stealing valuable resources away from the “real work.”

A tollgate system for project review

In the past, teams were given their marching orders with little or no monitoring until the project was completed. Lean Six Sigma changes that. As you’ll learn in the next chapter, most projects go through a standard sequence of activities known as Define- Measure-Analyze-Implement-Control or DMAIC (see the next chapter for details on DMAIC). In a Lean Six Sigma organization, managers review the project between each DMAIC phase, performing what is called a tollgate review. The purpose of these reviews is to…

  • Update management on the team’s progress
  • Make sure the project is still critical to the organization
  • Adjust or re-align the project as necessary
  • Let management know what they can do to remove barriers for the team

Using this system helps make sure that the company’s resources are used wisely, and that teams get the support they need to complete their projects on time and within budget.

Rollout of Lean Six Sigma

Launching Lean Six Sigma in a company involves a lot of different activities. Someone has to develop the needed training. Management needs to select the people to go through the training and the projects those people should work on. The timing and sequence of these activities varies from company to company. A typical process is shown in Figure 7.2 (next page). What’s important in this picture is that…

  • A lot happens within the first 100 days or so (because slow results aren’t any better than no results in many cases!)
  • Lean Six Sigma usually begins at the top levels of a company, with executive training and planning. (This is labeled as “initiation” in the chart.) It’s important that executives get their training before others so that they can confidently lead Lean Six Sigma.
  • There will usually be a formal announcement to the company either before or after executive training.
  • Both project selection and training typically occurs in “waves.” One group of people is chosen for training, then they begin work on the initial projects. Then another group is trained and starts project work, and so on.

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    Figure 7.2: Typical timeline for Lean Six Sigma rollout

The timing of the waves varies a lot. Caterpillar, for instance, decided that it needed to have all its staff up to speed on Lean and Six Sigma methods very quickly. They trained 750 Black Belts in six months. Bank One, on the other hand, went through a year-long demonstration period of what it called “Focus 2.0” (their version of Lean Six Sigma). During this period, internal experts coached a limited number of teams on major projects. (There was no formal training except for on-the-spot coaching given by the experts.) The success of these projects created a lot of internal awareness of just what Lean and Six Sigma could do for the business, to the point where business units are now asking for training.


To have any chance of success, implementation of Lean Six Sigma must be accompanied by new positions, new training, and new ways for different layers of the organization to communicate. This new “infrastructure” helps companies translate their investment in Lean Six Sigma into measurable results to the organization and its customers.

What Is Lean Six Sigma
What is Lean Six Sigma
ISBN: 007142668X
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2005
Pages: 64

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