Is there a future for CI (Lean Six Sigma) methodologies?


Many a times I’m asked this question “Is there a future for Lean Six Sigma (Continuous Improvement)”. I wonder why this question is often posed?!? It really puzzles me!

Changes happen in every organization – restructuring/re-org, mergers (of teams), splitting of teams into logical buckets, downsizing, outsourcing etc etc. One of the functions which gets impacted due to these changes (inevitably) is Continuous Improvement (or Process Excellence or Business Excellence or Process Improvement or Agile or any other name its known by nowadays!). Immediately, there is some sort of panic or anxiety (in CI teams) in how these changes would impact them – whether the team will exist or get merged with a process, would the number of black belts be reduced, what would be the management direction, who will be the the CI head, what would be my new role, will I have a role etc.

There are two aspects – does Lean Six Sigma have a future in organizations? My answer is absolutely “YES”. As long as organizations have processes – CI will exist, it has to! …else the organization is doomed. Processes inherently have flaws, no process is defect free no matter how automated it is, therefore, CI is an absolute must. There is ALWAYS room for improvement. CI is a continuous journey, not a destination.

Now the real question is, in what way or form will Lean Six Sigma exist in organizations globally (in future)? This depends on the Leadership (Organization’s) Strategy and Vision, how the leaders want to use CI (and combine it with Analytics/Big Data/Transformation etc) and to what extent they want to use CI and to what extent the leaders are aligned on the use and deployment of CI. Also, depends on how deep their understanding of CI is and what their experience has been with CI historically. CI deployment and its continued deployment has to be aligned with the organization’s strategy/vision and the organization’s strategy/vision can be shaped properly with the help of CI. Rather than use CI as a cost cutting tool alone, CI can be used not only to shape the future strategy of an organization but to realize it as well. CI is like the clay in the hands of a potter – it can be shaped (by the potter(s) into a beautiful usable object or ……!

So, why are we at this juncture where we are asking is there a “Future” for Lean Six Sigma?

There could be several reasons; one of the important factors in my opinion is Lack of a common standard for both teaching and certifying potential lean six sigma professionals. If we take PMP, Prince2 or any other professional certification, it is strictly governed and there is a standard Body of Knowledge. When it comes to Lean Six Sigma certifications, any Raj (Tom), Shyam (Dick) and Hari (Harry!) can get certified by throwing money and or with little effort. Lean Six Sigma certification shops are there in every street corner as well as online – there is no governance around these and most institutes don’t even have the need to complete a project to get certified. The curriculum is watered down and taught only from the perspective of making the students pass the so called “certification exam”. Students don’t want to dig deep and understand what Lean Six Sigma is all about because Minitab can do the analysis and interpret also for you. If I want to become a Doctor, I need to study the entire “Medical” curriculum and demonstrate practical proficiency to become a “Doctor”; I cant say that since there are advanced eye testing machines, I don’t want to learn or know how “Human Eye” functions!!!

Another factor is, In the name of “customized” deployment of lean six sigma – it is “dumbed” down to make it easy. Every organization thinks it is different and needs a customized (easy) version of lean six sigma or any other continuous improvement methodology; whereas all organizations have processes and continuous improvement can (and should be) be applied with rigor deeply across all the processes of the organization to get great benefits (and thereby immense customer satisfaction).

Organizations go ahead and implement “Lean” only because Six Sigma is complicated. Really absurd, isn’t it? The reason behind this is a combination of the previous factors and lack of true understanding of the two complimentary methodologies. Lean Six Sigma is an ocean – the more we learn, we find that we know so less!

Lean Six Sigma function needs to be anchored at the topmost level of the organization – reporting to the CEO. Too often we find that the leader of CI (hence the function) is embedded 2 – 4 layers below the CEO. This handicaps and prevents the culture from spreading across (and getting deeper into) the organization and harnessing the full potential and benefits of Lean Six Sigma. Too often, CI’s focus revolves mainly around “Operations” and doesn’t cover many functions such as HR, IT, Admin/Facilities, Engineering, Sales etc. As Jack Welch said, “it has to be in the bones of every individual (of an organization)”, not just in a couple of processes/functions. There are tons of waste and inefficiencies in all the other functions/processes which need to be attacked with the same rigor as that of the operations!

CI needs to be driven top down by the CEO across the entire organization as a common strategy. If its embedded many layers down away from the CEO in only a couple of processes, the CEO will lose the visibility, health and long term benefits of CI (and vice versa); it will be forced to mutate, usually for the worse!!!!!! It will also lead to turf wars and ego clashes and slow down the deployment and at times kill it also. The CEO (along with his heads of businesses/processes) should use CI to make strategic decisions and run the business everyday and by walking the talk, can influence the entire org to follow.

Equally important factor is that the person leading the CI function (reporting to the CEO) needs to be extremely competent and should have implemented CI hands-on for many years across various industries. He/She should have razor sharp focus and put his foot down wherever there is a risk of dilution of the methodology. As Jack Welch said ”I don’t give a damn if we get a little bureaucracy as long as we get the results”. The CI Head should also be a fast learner of the business processes to connect CI with the business seamlessly for effective sustainment and evolution of CI.