Over the years I have been asked about what philosophy or approach I have towards process excellence. My thinking is certainly not static but rather evolves over time as I gain new experiences. That said, the following are some of my core beliefs:
• An “agnostic” approach: Organizations face a blizzard of improvement programs and methods – Lean Thinking, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, Value Stream Mapping, kaizen etc. Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of using approaches such as these or any of the many other philosophies is that they can create competing or uncoordinated schools of thought within organizations, dissuade sensible and necessary tailoring, and in general place the interests of the methodology ahead of the organization’s long-term results. Labels such as “lean” or “six sigma” or other jargon that often imposes biases, limitations and preconceived ideas that distorts how an organization thinks about and approaches improvement. Consequently, it is recommended that organizations take care to use language that minimizes the often distracting debates over “what Lean Six Sigma is” or whether to apply “lean” or “six sigma.” It is for this reason that the phrase “process excellence” and “performance improvement” is used throughout this material.
• A broad and flexible toolkit: one of the positive consequences of moving beyond the traditions of various schools of thought, such as “lean” or “six sigma,” is that we can draw upon a wide range methods and tools from many disciplines whether from the worlds of manufacturing, change management, project management, organizational development, statistics, or the sciences.
• A tailored approach (as opposed to adjusting off-the-rack): Although almost every provider of process excellence training or consulting modifies their approach and material in some fashion for clients, and although there are some universal best practices and templates to emulate and build upon, every organization at any given point in time has a set of conditions — its willingness for change, its readiness for change, and the urgency for change as well as the particulars of its culture, current systems and processes, and the extent of process excellence skills and mindset across as well as at each level of the organization. It is these considerations that ought to drive the design and approach rather than starting with a pre-defined model (such as “Green Belt training”) and trying to modify it to make it fit the situation.
• Integrating training and coaching: However well-tailored and designed, training per se, whether in class or online or both is generally insufficient for meaningful development of skills and their practical application on the job and in projects. Rather, process excellence efforts should adequately budget time and money for both training and, perhaps more vital, sufficient one-on-one and small group coaching by competent and consistent internal coaches.
• Developing internal coaches: many efforts flounder due to insufficient internal coaching capability. Often this is due to the inconsistent quality of people assigned to the role. People good at doing things are not necessarily good at coaching and training others to do things well. Coaching and instruction are difficult sets of skills requiring experience, guidance and a passionate desire to coach and train others. Because many organizations do not know what goods looks like in a process excellence coach and trainer, it is worth considering using external experts not so much to train and coach staff, but to help recruit internally and externally the right people and then to assist in their development.
• Designed and executed with the challenge of sustainment foremost in mind: In general, it is only moderately difficult to conduct some form of training and to complete some projects to, one would hope, some degree of beneficial change. More difficult, and more important, is creating the conditions and mechanisms to sustain any gains, especially when faced with turnover in personnel or with significant changes required in culture.
• Distinguishing between tactical (local) and systemic (strategic) change: Often tactical, local and more modest financial and cultural objectives are dismissed as insufficient as compared to major, systemic change. But if indeed such modest efforts are in reality sufficient to meet whatever internal or external needs and objectives exist, then it is far better to consciously have alignment on those expectations and to tailor the approach appropriately. If, however, the genuine needs and realities of the organization require major improvement in order to address those realities, then it is also necessary to face the systemic cultural and behavioral changes required, starting with but not limited to the large implications this kind of change typically means for how the leaders of an organization think and behave.
• Distinguishing between leadership awareness and leadership behavioral and capability change: Although it is useful and necessary to provide briefings – particularly to various levels of leadership — to raise awareness of both the nature of process excellence as well as some of the core tools and concepts, if major, systemic, strategic change is necessary given the circumstances, then sooner rather than later the design and execution of the process excellence effort must determine how to alter the skills and behaviors of the leaders on the job as a crucial part of the systemic change. If such a change is not yet intellectually and emotionally embraced by decision makers, then attempts to make major change are likely to fail or fall far short of objectives, wasting valuable political (as well as financial and human) capital.
• Distinguishing between a desperate turnaround and an effort to pursue process excellence: Some situations are truly desperate, for example a business on the brink of or in bankruptcy. These situations require talent, actions and methods quite different than the improvement, however major, of mediocre or even poor processes.