Buy-in: Key to Success in Lean Six Sigma and OpEx

July 3, 2017

In the first of this two-part series I introduced the concept of a lack of buy-in as a key roadblock contributing to the fact that most organizations don’t get the benefits they should from OpEx/Lean Six Sigma initiatives.

Let’s take a look here at another, entirely different scenario relating to this phenomenon: the parole and commutation board for a state prison system.

I knew we were in big trouble when in our first workshop we filled-up two flipcharts with “who’s the customer?” for their process. First, we have the state taxpayers who pay for the corrections in taxes that go into the general fund. There are actually two camps: camp #1 that is concerned with public safety (keep the bad people off the streets and punish them for their crimes. This is why most prison systems have the word corrections in their name).

The second taxpayer camp, #2, is scandalized at the cost of keeping someone in prison (between $25,000 and $45,000 per year per prisoner, depending on the state and the way they account for things). They want us to get them rehabilitated (the other component of corrections), and back into society as contributors to taxes paid in, as fast as possible. Pushing to parole-out prisoners early is either good or bad, depending on the taxpayer you might ask.

Next, we have the victims of crimes and their families, prosecutors, judges, the lawmakers, the governor (who commutes sentences in most states), law enforcement, the communities where released prisoners go, prisoner advocates and finally, the prisoners themselves and their families. Huh? Yes, prisoners are in fact customers as well, because we have a constitutional obligation to care for them and not abuse them. In fact, many lawsuits are started and won every year for mistreatment or neglect in prison systems.

The director of the parole commutation board told me: “We can do everything perfectly, and someone is not happy.” The last constituency that we must honor is the actual prison system itself. Most corrections systems are a paramilitary organization with a strong command-and-control structure run by an executive committee and a governor-appointed director. In addition, much of the workforce is unionized, adding yet another layer of potential change resistance. Getting buy-in for any kind of major change, especially one crossing political or functional lines is, at best, challenging in this scenario.

The last example of a buy-in challenge, on a smaller scale, is the employees of a 40-employee regional insurance agency handling personal and commercial lines of insurance. Our initial big objective is to improve retention rates when customers annually renew by at least 70%. This means we need to find fewer new customers to replace those who do not renew, which also means more new sales closed actually contribute to overall growth in annual revenue. The owners and key managers’ buy-in is not the problem in this case. The buy-in gap? The customer service representatives who do the work. Turns out they already feel overworked and don’t have the time to focus more energy on renewals — “we are 110% busy already!” They see the changes needed as adding more work, even though we engaged them in the development of ideas to improve the process.

So, what’s the poor OpEx practitioner to do? Here are some things to consider in each situation. In the case of the financial services company, you need to ask more questions up front when it becomes evident buy-in from key executives can be a roadblock. Determine quickly if a lack of buy-in will materially inhibit the degree of progress than can be made. If not — full steam ahead. If so — put on the brakes. This scenario means we must back up and determine if buy-in can be won before starting work on improving processes that originate in the client-facing operations. If that can’t be accomplished, the change initiative should be delayed, or we need to scale back expectations to be only those elements of the operations that can be changed that don’t have dependencies on the client-facing part of the organization. Forging ahead without buy-in is certain to put us in the majority who don’t get the benefits we should.

The case with the parole board is different. Given the fact that getting wide-spread buy-in to major change is a years-long effort (common in government sector situations), we must guide the team in selecting actions that can be done “under the radar screen” of the political and turf protection reality. This team is having excellent success in pursuing actions that relate to leveraging technology and streamlining the activities within their own operations.

For example, they are now using a periodic working session where multiple functions come together to “fast-track” a large number of a specific type of parole cases in a focused workshop setting. They have shaved many hours of wasted work effort that was previously covered with mandatory overtime, and at the same time are speeding up the turn-around of cases. This has resulted in a higher assurance that deserving parolees will be out the door on their early release date. This is one of many actions completed and in-flight; which together will improve overall productivity by 25% or more. This more grass-roots approach is valid as long as executive sponsorship is fully informed and has their expectations properly set for the results.

In the case of our reluctant customer service representatives, the best course is a steady hand. The team is continuing to work through streamlining the work, documenting the best standard work, and learning how to monitor the renewals workload dynamically every day. Implementing visual tracking daily, and fostering daily discussions around balancing the work as a team is all helping to resolve the problem. The responsible manager is learning how to set firm-but-fair performance targets and in a non-personal way while providing feedback and coaching for the reps to work through the changes. By “insisting” on the new way and doing it with the employees versus to the employees, progress is being made. Case in point: one of the customer service reps who was seen as a weak underperformer turned into a true advocate of the necessary changes. This has opened some eyes and is creating some peer pressure in a positive way to get that all-important buy-in required for OpEx success.

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