Consider the following scenario. You’ve spent the past few weeks building a coalition of executives and subject matter experts who are willing to actively support your organization’s first forays into the world of Lean Six Sigma (LSS). Senior leadership has given you formal approval to begin work on your proposal to launch an organization-wide LSS initiative.
Now that you’ve got the green light, how will you proceed to execution?
If you haven’t already, it is best practice at this point to focus your efforts on carrying out a pilot project with a workgroup of no more than 5-6 employees. A successful pilot will form the bedrock foundation of your overall LSS initiative. You will refer to your pilot results frequently as you lead different business units through their LSS journey.
The following five characteristics outline which products, processes, or service offerings typically would make for a solid pilot endeavor.
The product/service offering/process…
- …already has a substantial, easily accessible body of data (sales, production trends, net promoter scores, cost/benefit ratios, process time, lead time, activity ratios, etc.).
- … is produced and delivered principally by one to two teams (try to keep interdependencies to a minimum).
- …is produced and delivered by a team of potential LSS evangelists; look for individuals who are comfortable with ambiguity and possess a strong interest in cost-savings, data analysis, and professional development.
- …is small enough in scope that you can gather data on potential improvements within 2-3 weeks.
- …has a strong customer feedback loop already in place—you’ll be able to quickly and regularly tap into the “voice of the customer”.
Once you’ve selected a suitable pilot and assembled your workgroup, it’s time to dive into the weeds!
Step 1: Define or clarify the product/service offering/process by creating a process map.
Depending on the maturity of your workgroup, there may already be existing process documentation that will make this first step fairly straightforward. In other scenarios, you will need to facilitate your workgroup’s efforts to define the “blow by blow” procedure. You may choose to use some combination of collaborative software like Google Docs, sticky notes, or other mediums to 1) collect each discrete process step and 2) arrange them chronologically, noting dependencies. Whatever your method, make sure that a final, official version of the process is easily accessible to the group after completing this step. Group related process steps into phases.
Step 2: Interview team members to estimate time spent on process/wait time.
Now that you’ve defined the “current state”, you need to interview each functional area on how they’re involved with each process step, both qualitatively and quantitatively (process and wait time estimates). While this may seem tedious, it will be crucial to unearthing potential efficiencies. Spend some time shadowing team members while they’re actually performing their job, especially during complex process steps. If possible, try to validate your estimates by cross-referencing with timesheets, allocations, or similar documents. Even though this step will usually be comprised of educated guesses, it is crucial to strive for accuracy as this data will inform Steps 3 through 8.
Step 3: Create a value stream map.
Remember that a value stream map does not show granular process steps. Structure your value stream map off of the higher-level phases which you identified in Step 1.
Step 4: Review the process and value stream map with the team to identify waste.
At the beginning of your brainstorming session, be sure to socialize the process time, wait time, lead time, and activity ratio with the team. Use your process time estimate to explore the team’s cost model. For instance, if they bill at an hourly rate, the process time multiplied by that hourly rate can give the team a sense of whether they are in the right ballpark from a cost standpoint. Either as a group or individually, have team members identify process steps which are slowing them down. Facilitate the discussion, don’t hijack it. Relay obstacles that require leadership involvement back to your executive stakeholders. Translate the 7 Deadly Wastes into the vernacular of the team. Create an action plan at the end of this session and assign owners.
Step 5: Finalize a RACI chart (and process map revisions as appropriate).
After going through Steps 1 through 4, chances are you’ve come up with some procedures that the team has never done before. Thoroughly discussing and agreeing upon roles and responsibilities is absolutely essential to your team’s success. Make sure to list every process step in the horizontal rows on the left of your RACI, and ask each team member individually how they think they fit into that process step. While time consuming, this exercise will save you time in the long-run.
Step 6: Determine KPI’s and how the new process will be evaluated.
What will be the key performance indicators (KPI’s) for the new process? Who will collect them and how often? Frame this conversation in the context of presenting the pilot findings to senior leadership. A month from now, how will we communicate to our CEO that we were successful in a convincing, transparent way?
Step 7: Collect KPI’s over at least 20 process cycles; use random sampling if needed.
For small teams, you may be able to collect KPI’s for every process cycle. Otherwise, use random sampling to put together the data you’ll need in Step 8.
Step 8: Conduct statistical analysis to determine if the process is “in control”.
Using statistical software, create a control chart of the data collected in Step 7. Be sure to identify any data which indicate special cause. As desired, look for patterns, correlations, etc. that will inform any needed changes.
Repeat Steps 1 through 8.
You may decide after performing these steps that you need to “rinse and repeat” before taking your findings back to senior leadership. This is totally acceptable; take advantage of pilots to hone your methodology and incorporate lessons learned from retrospectives. Ask your workgroup for candid feedback on your facilitation skills. Armed with that information, go through the process again until you feel you have the concrete results needed to keep your organization’s LSS juices flowing.
A Note on the Voice of the Customer (VOC)
LSS is predicated on an organization’s keen, timely understanding of customer requirements. While this article doesn’t delve too deeply into VOC, keep in mind that the more you can incorporate VOC into any and all steps of the pilot process (not to mention your future LSS efforts), the more successful you will be! Imagine how much more powerful Step 4 would be if you had some customers sitting in the room with your workgroup to talk through pain points. This infusion of VOC should be a no-brainer; if that infrastructure isn’t in place for your organization, you’d better fix it fast!
Once you’ve gone through the pilot cycle and identified some demonstrable improvements, brush up on your presentation skills and put together a summary. Whether it’s slides, a white paper, or some other medium, make sure your messaging is compelling and to the point. Draw clear connections between your methodology and the pilot results. Close the loop with your executive stakeholders, and then begin charting your course with your organization’s other business units through a comprehensive project plan.
Good luck with your LSS pilot project and let us know how it goes in the comment section!
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Justin Scoville's unique adventures in project management have spanned international volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Israel, complex government grant programs, and more recently education technology implementations in the private sector. Proudly bearing the battle scars of initiatives both small and large, Justin enjoys exploring the frontiers of project management, particularly its intersection with process improvement methodologies, strategic planning, and product management.
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