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Assessing organizational readiness for Lean Six Sigma (LSS): Critical Questions

The sad truth is this: 8 or 9 out of 10 organizations that embark on a continuous improvement program, such as Lean Six Sigma, FAIL (sometimes spectacularly) to get the results they should.

The reasons for this shocking failure rate are many, but one thing I can assure you is this: failing to start with a clear-eyed view of the organization’s current culture is deadly. For the purposes of this article, the culture of an organization is a nebulous thing: it exists in the hearts and minds of its stakeholders.  If you have ever felt frustration or had difficulties in introducing new ideas or significant improvement efforts in your organization, you can probably relate well to the answer to one of my favorite initial questions for organizations pursuing operational excellence.

Which of the following is harder? (1) Learning the tools and techniques for improving how a business works, or (2) Getting people to do things differently than we do them today? The universal answer is typically #2. Learning techniques to uncover the reasons for waste and variation that are part of LSS is not all that hard. Getting people to embrace the necessary changes they will need to make is the hard part. Understanding the existing culture is key to learning what must occur to get full buy-in to do things differently.

Critical questions we must ask our people upfront BEFORE we make changes

I have learned the hard way that the initial and long-term success rate for introducing an improvement program that gets results must start with a clear view of your current state of affairs in the day-to-day operations of the organization. There are at least a thousand well-documented methodologies for sizing up the organization’s application of best practices embodied in the tools of LSS and operational excellence to benchmark how we are doing today. These methods examine financial indicators and operating metrics for things like cost-per order, order turnaround times, inventory turns, quality failure rates, “good order” rates and literally a thousand other indicators to measure how the business is operating its core value stream processes. Of course, actual indicators your organization will want to use will vary depending on the nature of your operations and basis for competing. These will vary depending on whether you are in manufacturing, distribution, business services, government operations, financial services, medical services or other types of profit and non-profit enterprises.

Critical blind spot in organization assessments for continuous improvement programs

The one common denominator that is virtually always missing in these assessment methods is this: the failure to find out the PEOPLE in the organization are thinking about certain critical things relating to success or failure in making big changes for the better a reality. The underlying culture that lives in the stakeholders is collectively that they are thinking.

Over the years, I have personally interviewed over 1,000 people in private and online formats in organizations of every type, including non-profits and government operations, in preparation for implementing improvement programs. I have experimented with different questions to efficiently and effectively uncover critical success factors to success and the necessary insights and recommendations that result. This process is also intended to uncover how an organization stacks to these key issues I will examine, and their impact on the ability to make sustainable change “sticky” and fighting the forces that work against change.

Here is another little secret–this process does not resemble the typical employee survey or 360 review process that many larger organizations use from time to time. For starters, I do not recommend more than seven (7) basic questions for a face-to-face assessment interview. Why? Two reasons. One, you can’t expect most stakeholders in any organization to dedicate more than 15 to 20 minutes to an interview without disrupting their work day, and the fact that after that time our attention span naturally diminishes exponentially. This approach is definitely a “less is better” situation with respect to the number of questions we try to squeeze in. The trick to it is to ask the right 7 questions and the way they are asked.

My favorite key indicator questions

Although I tailor the questions I ask for a particular organization to take in specific areas of interest specific to their circumstances, I do have several I will always incorporate. These revolve around the following themes: why you like working here, how you are given feedback on your work, how you feel about the level of teamwork and cooperation and what you think are the important issues facing this organization.

What do you like about working here?

This innocuous question has two major purposes: breaking the ice and identifying top-of-mind feelings about the organization.

Getting people started talking about positive things is good to set the tone for the interview, and I usually hear many comments revolving around liking the people they work with. This is natural and expected, as most of us spend more waking hours at work interacting with others than anything else during our work life.

That said, I will listen very carefully to the other things they are discussing. Positive indicators for future organizational success in a change effort include liking coworkers and the direct boss, finding the work challenging, interesting and enjoyable, making a difference in what they do and other indicators in the organization in which they are engaged in and interested. If your organization is making efforts to engender these views, good job! If you are not deliberately doing things to engender these views, my kudos to you, as you have an excellent corporate culture that places an emphasis on involving your workforce in meaningful work. In this case, your workforce is more likely to support “change for the better” efforts.

Negative, red-flag indicators are good pay, good hours, flexible work schedule, good benefits, “I get left alone,” “no one hassles me” and other comments that essentially mean “it’s a job” or “it’s a paycheck.”  All of these comments scream out that basically these people hate the job and the organization, and are very unlikely to support a “change for the better” initiative. They will take a great deal of care and feeding to help them understand the value and importance of a participative, team-based approach to continuous improvement that is mandated for LSS and operational excellence to be successful.

How do you know you are doing a good job?

Red-flag answers to this question include: “I just know it,” “sometimes my boss comments,” “I get feedback from customers” and “my co-workers give feedback.” Or worse, a blank look and some mumbling about putting in their hours and being on time every day doing a good job.

I almost always will also ask a follow-up question such as: “How are you measured?” The number 1 red-flag answer here is: “I am not measured in a way that relates to my personal performance.” Their department or group might have something that is measured, such as quality or costs, but they don’t have measures for themselves individually.

Here is a universal truth for any organization: what we measure (or not) tells volumes about what is important from top to bottom in any organization. Another universal truth is that every single human being in an organization craves and wants frequent feedback, even if it is bad. So, following the idea of “we are what we measure,” I have learned that, for long-term success, we must ultimately have two or three personal metrics for every stakeholder that align with overall change objectives if we are looking for maximum results from a “change for thebetter” effort.

Positive responses in this area that signal a higher likelihood for success in change for the better revolve around getting frequent and formal feedback tied to overall organizational objectives.  Another great follow-up question I use in the interview at this stage is “How often do you get formal feedback?”  Red-flag answers are “can’t remember” or “at my annual review.”  Positive indicators are “daily metrics” and “one-on-one sessions with the boss every one or two weeks.” I look for responses like “I track and report my results routinely,”
“I know my status every day” (or better, every hour) and “I know my accountabilities and measured progress to my objectives.”

How would you rank the level of teamwork and cooperation on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 = perfection, for each of three groups in your organization?

The three groupings I am interested in are a) teamwork between management and workforce; b) teamwork within the management ranks only and c) teamwork within the workforce only.

I ask only for them to give a number for each group. As a practical matter, it is normal and expected that people in the workforce will tend to give their group higher numbers and management lower numbers. The reverse is true for groups of managers who are interviewed.  I typically will see the managers and executives I interview give their group higher numbers. Seeing a point or two difference in the numbers given between the workforce and management does not concern me too much in and of itself.

In terms of blended numbers, I generally will see that the within-the-workforce level of teamwork and cooperation will have the highest overall number and the management-to-workforce level as the lowest, with the inside management-only number in the middle. This is normal and expected. It is the RANGE of differences among the groupings that is very important.

If the values for the three groups are within one point of each other–say 5-6 or 6-7, I don’t see any particular need for alarm. When it is bigger than that―say an average of a 4 or 5 for management-workforce and a 7 or more for management only–alarms start ringing. The workforce is sending a clear message that this gap must be closed significantly before and during the change initiative if we want to enjoy any chance of success. Another useful way to use this methodology is to conduct these interviews with groups in different facilities and departments and then compare what you learn from them. In a larger organization with multiple operating units or areas, this can be very helpful to understand where our numbers are suffering due to local issues–irrespective of the organization’s overall efforts to foster a high level of teamwork and cooperation.

Here is the key point to this question set: you cannot be successful long-term in a major continuous improvement initiative without a high (7 or higher in all areas) level of perceived teamwork and cooperation in each of the groups. Here is another tip: perceptions are the reality. If your stakeholders think your level of teamwork and cooperation stinks–even if you have expended a lot of energy to develop these skills for years–in their minds, it is not working, and, in fact, it probably does smell.

What do you think are important issues facing this organization that we need to address?

Basically, I will set up this question by saying: “Every organization has challenges, threats, opportunities and issues it needs to deal with going forward. If you were to be king or queen for a day, what would you say this organization should be focusing on over the next year?”

I shut up and listen carefully to the responses, from which I learn a great deal about the things they think are important in the context of their organizations. Red-flag responses focus on their jobs, like adding more staff, doing more training and getting people to be more accountable, or very inwardly focused. More positive responses are more outward focused on things like increasing sales, becoming more competitive, improving quality and improving customer satisfaction.

This question quickly identifies the degree to which the workforce and management are aware of the realities of competing in their industry. If folks are generally clueless about the realities of global competition, this is something that will need to be addressed early and often. If they exhibit a high level of awareness, this is good news and a great burning platform of awareness and urgency for change–a good thing.

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