How Lean Six Sigma Can Help Fight the Coronavirus Pandemic

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - FIght the Coronavirus Pandemic

At the time of this writing, COVID-19 is a global pandemic. This is an incredibly serious issue; hundreds of thousands of people have become ill, and many have died. Containment in the US and elsewhere is bringing businesses, governments, cities, and normal life to a halt.

But there are many businesses that have to figure out how to keep operating. This isn’t simply a time to think about continuous improvement, but rather for us to ask ourselves, “How can we show up and serve as problem solvers during this crisis?”

Practitioners are working to shift their paradigms as well as their approach to leadership. You might be thinking, “Is this really important?” The “wicked problem” of the day is COVID-19. We have a responsibility to show up as agents of change in our organizations. We need to be mindful and sensitive to all that’s going on. However, we still need to make sure that each business is sustainable.

Supply chains, hospitals, healthcare professionals, senior living spaces, grocery chains, and other essential service organizations are under immense pressure. The people working in organizations are equally concerned about themselves and their families.

In times like these, leadership matters. Process or Gemba Walks, Daily Huddles, and Daily Kaizen (Rapid Improvement Events) are critical now. It is important to focus on how work must change given this crisis. We can be the facilitators of rational and effective solutions. We can be the ones who support leaders by coaching them to inspire and motivate others.

During this time, even if people work remotely, we can identify ways to keep them engaged. This helps keep their minds focused forward to provide a reprieve from the chaos, misinformation, fear, and confusion all around us.

Every day we’re getting new information from the government about required changes. This impacts families and causes concerns about childcare, elderly care, and their financial situations. Let’s provide meaningful opportunities for them to help resolve issues and be certain that they’re contributing to greater social calls.

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How You Can Avoid Cut-&-Paste Solutions With Your Project Charter

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - Project Charter

Circa 2005, one of our employers, who had adopted Lean in the early 90s, decided to make Six Sigma mandatory for salaried employees. As a Lean zealot, I went kicking and screaming down the path of my Green Belt Certification. The only thing that made the experience fun was that a dear friend and colleague was on the project with me.

But, I digress. We went on a witch hunt to find a project to yield savings. During the process, we had the guidance of an amazing Master Black Belt. Our leadership team, on the other hand, was still finding their way—much like me. We put together our project charter in spite of looming questions and resistance.

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - Project Charter

Starting With a Project Charter

The project charter serves as a roadmap where Stakeholders agree on the direction of the problem-solving effort. The charter includes essential information for determining resources, goals, objectives, risks, budget, and decision-making authorities.

Projects are finite with projected start and end dates, an agreed-upon scope of work, and a cross-functional team assigned to establish a high-level implementation plan. The project charter, however, is not the detailed project plan. Simple enough, right?

This seemingly simple contract was easy to draft yet difficult to gain buy-in on. For me, it was unlike the A3 process where the process of Catchball—where leadership collaborates with frontline employees on direction—felt more like a waltz. While we were essentially conducting a similar process to seek buy-in and evaluate the thought process, the approach felt extremely rigid and cold. It felt disjointed and disconnected. Why was this?

Reflections on a Green Belt Project

I didn’t pause to better understand how I felt during this experience. At the time, I simply wanted to finish the task at hand which was to complete the first level of certification. The problem was that by this point in my career I had experienced a few major Lean transformations in different locations with different leaders. I wasn’t interested in simply “doing a project.”

It would be years before I fully understood the significance of this experience and the missed opportunity. Looking back, I realize my reaction was because the project didn’t feel like meaningful work to me. Certainly, the problem required a solution. But my experience was that transformation work was chock full of meaning and deep engagement.

Given my competitiveness and will to succeed, we pushed through the Green Belt project and exceeded our projected savings. The scope of the project expanded so it ended up being more of a Black Belt level project. We were satisfied to have completed the Green Belt Certification, and our management team was excited that our project helped them meet their savings target.

I share this story to invite you to expand your understanding of human behavior in any effort, and to seek the deeper meaning of the projects in which you engage for yourself and the user.

Exploring the Deeper Meaning

How does one do that? “Expand your understanding of human behavior”? There are many things we can do to advance our understanding of human behavior. However, first we need to understand how to observe and make sense of what’s at hand. Below are four approaches to keep in mind for understanding the human factor:

1. Tapping Into Tribal Knowledge

This may include tapping into local groups, leveraging extended networks, and engaging in Catchball to understand if our perception of truth matches that of the frontline’s. This is key since I’ve seen project charters that suffer from “inattentional blindness”—when our eyes are open but we necessarily “see” what’s in front of us.

We can avoid this if we don’t depend solely on deductive reasoning—looking at a spreadsheet, seeing facts, developing a hypothesis, and acting on it.

2. Using Openness When Reasoning

The same goes for the type of reasoning where we actively observe the process and use our observations to create generalized conclusions. We remain open to gathering conclusions and forming hypotheses to be tested before coming up with a solution.

This is vital as many project charters force solutions with biased reasoning and have not fully explored the potential problem and made sense of the situation at hand.

3. Asking the Right Questions

Questions we ask might reveal that it isn’t the right project to work on. In my experience, mobilizing a search party to seek out different perspectives from different areas can help. They enable us to test out multiple hypotheses and the wisdom of the crowd. This creates diverse scenarios to challenge our current assumptions, trust seasoned intuitions, and broaden our perspective.

4. Leading With Exploration—Not Solutions

It’s critical that we lead with exploration, not with solutions. We should seek to understand the human behavior and the data as well as the context in which it’s applied. In order to see the big picture and the existing possibilities, it’s crucial to talk to customers and even competitors. Don’t ignore what doesn’t fit. Have a bias towards understanding.

Using the Cynefin Framework to Think Broadly

Since one of the challenges is to open up the problem-solving thought process, the Cynefin Framework offers a helpful model. It is a cognitive decision-making approach that helps managers identify their own perceptions when trying to understand human behavior. Developed by David Snowden, his work unveiled a better understanding of the domains in which we operate to solve problems.

For example, in a linear world, where clear solutions are presented and the cause and effect is known, the notion of scaling best practices becomes legitimate. However, in a nonlinear, complicated domain—such as aspects of the production system or complex problems—it no longer works.

Snowden warns that those who adopt best practices with a copy-and-paste mentality to complicated domains are actually most vulnerable to creating chaos. One should work hard to understand complicated domains and only in selective conditions assume the process is clear and linear in order to avoid chaos.

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - Complexity Theory

Copyright of David Snowden. Referenced from Nigel Thurlow Flow System Workshop.

What can we take away from the Cynefin Framework? The pitfalls to good problem solving include gathering insufficient information, yielding to group think, reacting to the wrong signal or even reacting too soon. Project charters require working toward holistic understanding and assessment of the situation. This helps ensure charters contain unbiased opinions and promote good, complex problem solving. The key is to avoid solution-based best practices.

Engaging People

In the Green Belt project story, I mentioned that getting buy-in was a challenge, which is the case most of the time. ‘Buy-in’ has a selling connotation. The person(s) seeking the buy-in needs to “sell” their case to gain support or approval.

I realized that in my experience with transformations, and when using the Catchball process, the feeling was one of engagement and being a part of something bigger than the process of improvement. The transformations provided room for cultural changes as well as personal and professional development.

During the project charter phase, the team works to gather an effective direction for the implementation. This is the time to drive a high level of engagement regarding the project scope and implementation plan.

IDEO as an Engagement Example

Several years ago, IDEO, then a small company, was featured on the news show 60 Minutes. The story featured this company’s rapidly short-cycled product design from ideation to implementation. More intriguing than the rapid prototyping was how the teams worked together to drive heightened innovation and engagement.

This wasn’t simply about teamwork or team dynamics. It was about leveraging the best of what each person brought to the project—their unique genius. You might be thinking, “What does this have to do with Lean?” Or better yet, “I don’t design products.” Hang in there with me.

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - Project Flow
The first notable reference to Design Thinking refers to William J. J. Gordon (1961) and Alex Faickney Osborn (1963).

This framework is called Design Thinking. It has been around for some time and many of you may be familiar with it. If you’re unfamiliar, Design Thinking is about solving complex problems in a user-centric way ensuring great experiences and outcomes for the user. It is both an ideology and methodology.

Design Thinking takes the approach used by product designers applied to other complex problems. There are five phases: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. The Design Thinking process is iterative—not linear—much like PDCA and DMAIC.

In terms of my Green Belt experience, it would have been amazing if during that process I had a safe way to express my desire to engage in a more meaningful way rather than treating the process as a task or project to be completed. Would I have been able to address my challenges when seeking buy-in?

We have a chance—a responsibility—as change agents to give more consideration to users to create a level of engagement that drives more effective problem solving.

The Empathize Phase of Design Thinking

Let’s dive into the first phase of Design Thinking, Empathize. This involves the following:

  • Putting the user experience first
  • Learning about their pain points
  • Learning about their desired outcomes of a product or experience
  • Getting to know them; understanding them on a physiological and emotional level

This allows you to create effective solutions to meet these needs. It also requires that we toss out our assumptions and focus on real user insights. This requires us as change agents to constantly rethink what we’ve done before.

Back to the project charter and what Design Thinking brings to the table. As showcased by IDEO, the trick is to invite other minds to the problem-solving table up front. The charter is where you determine the team and identify subject matter experts. Use this document as a means to invite the “unique genius” of wide-spread Stakeholders to the table. And then learn about their experience.

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - Team Roles


The Project Charter Today—A Case Study

I work with a small company, $20M in revenue, with 100% transactional operations. The scope of my responsibilities includes an operational growth strategy and implementation support. There are fewer than 50 employees. All “normal” Kaizen work has been deprioritized to focus on business continuity planning such as preparing for remote work for essential and critical path employees; evaluating every possible scenario to keep people employed through this crisis—all while meeting compliance criteria.

In an environment where CEOs, managers, and employees are stressed beyond measure, sense-making and empathizing are critical to helping people push past their fears and concerns to focus on work, improvements, and new procedures. Honestly speaking, in order to better serve them, I’ve had to institute “mental break blocks” to manage my concerns as a business owner as well as the health risks that come with being in their office.

The project charter provided the structure needed to limit irrational and reactive decision making and to arrive at solutions to the organizational challenges of this crisis. However, without considering people, human behavior, and the domains where people operate first, the organization would not have been able to align with a plan to extend business.

To learn more about making use of project charters and to expand your coaching for better problem solving, go to Virtual Leadership for coaching events and The M+ Group for upcoming summits.

HR + Lean: A Powerful Pair for People Development

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - HR+ Lean

I recently spoke at Lean Frontier’s Lean Leadership Week Summit, which focused on lean people development and lean accounting. This summit traditionally attracts a lot of HR professionals working in organizations undergoing a lean journey. During a concurrent session, I shared some of the ways that I’ve exercised with clients to engage HR early in the lean people development strategy.

Lean used to be widely known as a manufacturing solution for continuous improvement, and is more recognized today as a method that fits any operational improvement situation. Another truism—that most agree with—is that organizations underestimate the amount of work, time and commitment required to drive a continuous improvement culture and to develop lean and leadership skills at all levels for sustainability.

Staying Connected

Few companies connect their overall business strategy to their lean continuous improvement strategy. The disconnect between these strategies often creates divergent paths for the leaders and the resources working on both. These two strategies, in my opinion, should be connected.

The business strategy should be the key for aligning the continuous improvement strategy. Many practitioners refer to this as “Hoshin Kanri,” otherwise known as policy deployment or strategy deployment. Organizations work to align with their true north and create 3- to 5-year breakthrough objectives. The strategy provides the roadmap to determine where resources should focus their efforts.

The business strategy should be the key for aligning the continuous improvement strategy.

When considering purpose, process, and people, we have many examples for defining the organization’s purpose, and why lean is critical to their future success. Our grasp of the processes and process improvement approach is also well documented. However, when it comes to people—what most organizations deem their greatest asset—there is a lot of room for improvement and very few case studies to model after.

Do We Have to Be Like Toyota?

Many practitioners are familiar with the books about the Toyota culture and it’s successful “DNA.” I plead guilty for spending years trying to make every client organization be like Toyota. That is a tall, daunting and impossible task.

What we must learn instead are the elements of Toyota’s formula for designing the culture, the leadership and the development practices that fit your organization. I want to focus your attention on people management and development opportunities, and how to connect those at a strategic level to align with your business strategy.

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - People, Purpose, Process

Before jumping into examples, let’s begin with a fundamental quandary that practitioners should commit to understanding and overcoming. Lean practitioners place people management systems and coaching in high regard. They place great attention on training, learning by doing, and teaming. In spite of all this, many lean practitioners fail to partner with Human Resources to develop a strategic improvement plan for human capital to support lean business transformations.

Why is that? When I reflect on my 20-year journey—a few reasons come to mind.

Lack of Awareness

My perception of HR’s role was recruiting, policy, benefit and compensation management—not talent development. Not until recently has HR paid more attention to employee experience, training and development, coaching, and talent management.

Lack of Understanding

We remain unclear of the potential for HR to help. It’s natural to reach out to HR to recruit to fill vacancies or bridge skill-set gaps. Rarely in my experience was HR engaged in discussing and strategizing the development of a lean culture. That was always the lean team’s lane. That’s why I worked to recreate Toyota’s culture. It didn’t occur to me to ask HR for learning and development advice or resources. I mean, the lean team did all of the lean training, right?

Reduction of HR Staff

Many organizations moved to centralize and downsize HR staff by outsourcing functions such as learning and development, change management, and behavioral assessments. Without these resources front and center, it was easy to negate them from the process.

Lack of Understanding of Lean in HR

In my early days when I would push for engagement from support functions, my focus would always be on their unique process improvement opportunities rather than the collective, holistic strategy.

I focused on identifying processes where we could apply the toolset, because that was the approach I was taught. HR needed to 5S their office the same way they did on the manufacturing floor. There’s a place for that—but realizing that approach was tactical not strategic, I set out to solve that problem.

I’ll share a few areas where organizations might leverage HR within the lean people development strategy using some real world situations.

1. Training and Development—Core Soft and Hard Skills

HR professionals have an arsenal of tools and accessible resources to develop core soft and hard skills that fit well within a lean culture. As we consider respect for people, effective communication, empathic listening, emotional intelligence, the art of inquiry—these are great skills to support coaching, teaming, problem solving, daily management, gemba observation, and kaizens.

It is important for organizations to design the blueprint for their desired culture. This blueprint will provide the pathway for HR to determine the appropriate core skills relevant to achieving the desired state.

It is important for organizations to design the blueprint for their desired culture.

Attempts to Transfer Learnings Go Awry

One client came to this realization after enduring a lot of discourse among a value stream team. After much success the management team decided to pull a few of the rising stars from the value stream team to help with launching and developing a second value stream.

As willing and passionate as the rising stars were to share their learnings and train others on lean tools, they were not expecting to be met with staunch resistance from their peers. They became challenged and frustrated. Approaches that worked in their value stream weren’t as effective with this group.

After observing the situation, it became apparent that while the rising stars had a good understanding of lean tools, they were not properly equipped to act as change agents in someone else’s territory.

What are the Necessary Skill Sets?

A strategic approach working with HR or Learning and Development would have included some conversations and research about the types of skills needed to support these change agents. Ultimately, the training matrix for Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) was expanded to include topics such as facilitation skills, managing conflict, effective communication, humble inquiry, some basics of coaching, and more.

2. Attracting and Retaining Talent in Accordance with the Lean Business Strategy

As a lean organization matures, there are four camps that people will gravitate toward: early adopters, detractors, neutrals, and newbies.

The Lean Coach Inc - Blog - People

The Four Camps

Typically, after experiencing some success, the early adopters will promote and explore other options. Detractors, on the other hand may determine the organization/department in transition is no longer a good fit, or have that decision made for them.

The neutral camp can go either way. Then there are the newbies. There is an influx when organizations decide they want to “up-level” the hiring requirements new talent. Typically new hires must have some level of lean experience or have a belt certification.

These shifts place a lot of demands on HR—often without warning—requiring changes to recruiting practices, performance management, training and development, promotions and succession planning.

A Superstar Migration

A client with multiple divisions on the same campus, experienced a significant migration of superstar talent—early adopters were recruited by fellow division partners. The superstars had up-leveled skills, yet there weren’t enough promotional opportunities within their division.

I was natural for them to explore these opportunities—especially with direct solicitations—but this churn created significant challenges and slowed progression of that division’s lean business strategy. When they finally reached out to HR as a partner, rather than a resource to recruit talent, they collaborated on a more cohesive and holistic strategy to address all areas impacting talent management.

Why Not Hire Lean-Only Resources?

In one case, the operations director, with his newfound appreciation for people with a lean background, only wanted to hire people with lean experience. “What’s wrong with that?” you might wonder. On the surface, nothing. It is actually a smart move. However, this move limits long-term, committed and dedicated company resources that have worked tirelessly waiting for openings to apply for a promotion or lateral moves that increase their knowledge base.

Another problem with these biases for lean experience is they could inadvertently change how managers rate performance without giving credence to the fact that the organization did not do enough to up-level all existing employees with lean training and experience.

Lastly, this division had a very tenured population of skilled tradesmen who were solely interested in riding out their last few years to retirement in peace. They weren’t interested in changing. This meant the operations team needed to work with HR on a recruitment strategy, while the lean team worked to convert years of tribal knowledge to work standards that new recruits could follow without jeopardizing product quality. The lack of planning or a strategic talent deployment plan produced many challenges.

3. Talent Management Aligned with Breakthrough Objectives

Another client set a breakthrough objective to 5X their business in 5 years. There was a time when this was a common goal often dictated to divisions. Nevertheless, this particular client had done amazing work to free up capacity and footprint—they welcomed the challenge. They aligned their X-matrix and A3 to develop their plans. Once they started—they quickly realized the chaos that would accompany growth in the midst of their lean transformation journey.

A Culture Clash

One thing became alarmingly apparent—a lost identity. As they began to consider the new ventures that would grow their business, they realized there were still a lot of areas with limited lean engagement or no more than an introduction to the foundational elements and tools. They were essentially operating between the old culture and the new lean culture. It was as though some people only spoke English while others spoke only Dutch.

Navigating Organizational Identity

As they considered new markets and products, they needed to revisit the skill sets that would take them into the future. In this case, driving the right culture and leadership practices were important to who they were becoming. They decided to take a step back to define their culture and to develop a plan to bring others along. There were a lot of factors that could impact the growth strategy where HR professional could extend their professional expertise to navigate these treacherous waters.

4. Adapting Performance Management to Develop the Desired Culture

I touched on this briefly when referencing the divide of newly recruited talent threatening the biases of performance measurement of tenured employees. Here I want to expand the impact culture can have on performance management. Maturing lean organizations understand that cultural changes often associated with lean require a shift in mindset, behaviors and leadership practices. All of which demands that people change.

Maturing lean organizations understand that cultural changes often associated with lean require a shift in mindset, behaviors and leadership practices. All of which demands that people change.

Change management requires a significant level of time and commitment to practice new behaviors. Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. says, “people do what you inspect, not what you expect.” This means performance metrics and management are another area where HR can engage in supporting and driving a lean people development strategy.

HR can facilitate defining the mindset, behaviors and leadership practices that drive the type of culture in which the organization desires to operate. Once these elements are defined and communicated, HR can assist with personality and behavioral assessments to help people to understand how they fit or don’t. When there are gaps in fit, HR can then support the employee with training, coaching and repositioning so the employee is positioned to thrive.

Finding One’s Strengths

In one case study, there was a supervisor doing his very best to align with the new way of leading as a coach. He was truly committed but the more he tried, the more his team was turned off. They didn’t feel they could speak up and be transparent. This led to a lack of engagement at the standup meetings, and several start/stops with lean initiatives.

His manager approached me for some coaching. As I asked the manager his opinion of the supervisor’s strengths, he realized he didn’t have a bad supervisor—he had a supervisor in the wrong role. I recommended that he and his team reach out to HR to complete the StrengthFinder’s assessment.

Clarity Gold

The results were like gold for each person as well as the manager. They began to have an open dialogue about the new requirements, the impact on performance, role clarity, fit, career paths, and so much more. As positions became open or necessary as a result of their growth strategy and clarity around their desired culture, the manager began to shift people into positions where they could be of better service overall.

Instead of the manager being frustrated with this supervisor, which would have led to a poor performance evaluation, he could support him in a win-win solution for the team and the individual. Another benefit of this approach was that it created a safe environment for the development of more rising stars, which was a strategic lever for succession planning led by HR.

[This approach] created a safe environment for the development of more rising stars.

In my work, these practices have provided meaningful and rewarding impacts to engage HR professionals in the lean continuous improvement journey and business strategy. Certainly there are HR department processes where lean tool applications are relevant. Nevertheless, radical breakthroughs and improvement sustainability occurs when an organization’s culture has the right mindset, the right behaviors, the right leadership, and the right talent to support the business objectives and to drive the cultural DNA of lean deep within the organization. That, my friend, is how you drive sustainable and lasting change in an organization.

Invite HR resources to the party!