Why Some Lean Six Sigma Programs Fail – Part 1

If you have not read the Harvard Business Review on Change I highly recommend it. It is a series of case studies about change management stuff. Before you yawn and switch off let me just say that it really is interesting reading.One of the case studies is called, “Successful Change Programs Begin with Results” by Robert H. Schaffer and Harvey A. Thomson. The hook comes early when they state that a 1991 survey showed that 73% of the 300 electronics companies surveyed had some kind of “quality program” instituted. And of these 63% failed to reduce defects by 10%! Now I am not sure who they talked to or what type of questions they asked so we must take the results with a grain of salt. At the same time, even if this survey is half accurate one must take notice.

The authors blamed these failures on something called “activity centered programs.” ACP’s, as I will call them, focus on training as many people as they can without actually planning what these “trained” people will do with these new skills. They are also big into the “empowerment” movement thinking that by telling their employees they are empowered their operating income will climb by 15%.

There are six reasons ACP’s are doomed to failure, Schaffer and Thomson write. They are:

1. Projects are not focused on specific results
2. Scale is too large and diffused
3. Results is a four letter word (cash)
4. Delusional measurements
5. Externally driven (via hired consultants)
6. Best practices not shared

Number 3 is so important in my opinion. If you are doing a Lean or Six Sigma project and it is not focused on bringing some type of tangible financial benefit I would seriously question why you are doing it. Sure there are the “improve customer satisfaction” type projects which are hard to quantify financial benefits but I still say you need to focus in on the projects that deliver cold cash. For those that have seen the film “Jerry McGuire” you may remember the scene with Tom Cruise yelling “show me the (bleep, bleep) money” (see picture above). That scene aligns itself well with what I am talking about.

Number 5 is interesting as well. I don’t take this as a slam to all the good consulting firms out there. Instead, it is a slam against the companies who hire these firms and expect the consultant to come in and wave their magic wound whilst all their troubles magically fade away. Sadly, in most cases it just doesn’t work like this.

Tomorrow I will discuss the alternative to activity centered programs – results driven programs. Until then, I wish you all the best on your journey towards continuous improvement.