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Keys to Success in Operational Excellence/Lean Six Sigma – What You Want to Know

July 4, 2017

Here is a startling statistic: In my estimation eight or nine out of ten organizations embarking on a continuous improvement program such as Operational Excellence (OpEx), Lean Six Sigma (LSS) or other major change efforts FAIL to get the results they should.  Sometimes spectacularly so.

We recently completed a voice-of-the-customer survey for a new book we will be publishing this summer on the keys to success in OpEx/LSS.  This yet-to-be-titled book of article submissions involves more than 20 really smart authors on various topics relating to what it takes to be fully successful in elements of OpEx/LSS in all areas and types of organizations including the manufacturing, distribution, healthcare, education and non-profit sectors, to name a few.

In the results of our survey, we got some great feedback on what people see as the biggest barriers to success with OpEx/LSS and making change happen in their organizations.  Many APICS members participated in this survey (my thanks to you if you are reading this article!).  Here I will share some of the gems of wisdom from our survey respondents and the ‘9-steps to success’ I have developed over the years to help steer organizations to success.

Survey Findings

We decided to start with getting the voice of potential customers for this new book.  We went out to over 1,000 people known by the authors to ask for help for research for our book.  Over 350 people responded.  They represented a diverse group with 42% being business owners and executives, 44% in management and supervision, and the remainder being individual contributors and consultants.

This group came from both large and small companies, with more than 20 industries represented. We asked them to score their knowledge/skills on OpEx/LSS on a scale of one to five, five = expert.  It turns out 55% of the respondents saw themselves as a level three or less – ranging from ‘no knowledge’ to ‘knowing something about it’ to ‘I’ve been involved and have a LOT more to learn’.  A large group of 32% felt they ‘know a great deal’ and the balance consider themselves as ‘expert.’  To be fair, this data is a bit skewed to the high-side for expertise as compared to the general population of professionals.  This is mainly due to the fact that we only reached out to those known to the authors personally and to subscribers to my ezine, Operational Excellence Edge.

We next asked about how far along YOUR organization is in implementing OpEx/LSS on that scale of one to five with five = ‘we have mastered it.’  Now, I have to share with you here that I was quite surprised with what we learned here.  It turns out that just over 75% of respondents rated themselves at a three or lower.  Just 18% as ‘doing nothing yet’, 25% as ‘we have some activities going on’ and 32% as ‘we are implementing – but have much more work to do.’  The remainder was 13% as ‘proficient – but not yet expert’ and the balance of 11% feeling like they have ‘mastered’ it.

Given the fact that the vast majority of organizations have attempted some form of implementation of ‘improvement’ programs in the last 20 years, this data suggests my hypothesis is not very far off, with almost 90% of organizations reporting they ‘have a ways to go’ in mastering OpEx/LSS.

What You are Interested In – What are the Important Topics?

We next asked the respondents to select from a list of prepared choices, which topics are most important and interesting.  The topics with 80% or more of respondents picking them were, in order: Providing better quality – 91.8%, improving customer service – 90.2%, managing change more effectively – 89.6%, reducing the cost of operations – 86.6%, getting employees more engaged – 85.7%, getting better high-performing teams and culture – 81.4%, educating the workforce – 81.4% and developing better metrics – 80.7%.

Of the eight topics, three of them specifically revolve around change and ‘people’ issues; managing change more effectively, getting employees more engaged and getting better high-performing teams and culture.  I find that this supports what I have been saying for years.  A favorite question of mine for audiences runs something like this: “Which do you supposed is harder to do – ‘A’ – learn the tools of OpEx, or ‘B’ – getting people to actually do it?”  Universally at least 99% of my audiences quickly agree it’s the latter.

Those Dreaded Barriers to Success

We next presented a series of issues to pick from, compiled from the expertise of our author team, that we identified as the reasons for failure in continuous improvement programs.  Here they are, and as you read them, consider: “which of these is related to the tools of OpEx and which are something else?”

Drum roll please . . . The top five choices in descending order are:

Every one of this screams-out that a BIG issue in OpEx/LSS success is some form of change management/culture change issue.  This illustrates the importance of communications, being crystal clear why we are making changes with answers to everyone’s WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) questions and having the right measurements to lead us through the process.

There was a great deal more data gleaned from the survey that I can’t cover here.  I’ll come back to that in future Lean Culture Editions.  Let’s move on to some practical actions you can consider based on what we have learned so far.

Been There Done That – What To Do?

I have had the privilege, or misfortune, depending on your point of view, to see both successes and far too many failures to succeed in implementing a successful ‘continuous improvement program.’  Recognizing that every organization is unique and that a single ‘cookie-cutter’ approach won’t work, I have developed a guideline for organizations to consider as they embark on their quest for success.  If you are getting started, this can serve as a bit of a road-map.  If you are underway, or well down the road in deployment, this may be helpful in assessing what parts of my roadmap you did do – and possibly where you might revisit some aspects of your deployment.

Nine Points to OpEx/LSS Deployment Success – A Summary Checklist

Here are my guideline points that correlate to higher success rates:

  1. Form a cross-functional team for the steering committee or guiding coalition made up of the various constituencies, with the top-most stakeholder as the chair – don’t forget your unions and representatives from other key stakeholder groups.
  2. The coalition must learn adequate foundation skills in OpEx/LSS, Change Management, etc. and how these apply to your organization. You can not lead effectively without baseline skills.
  3. Use value stream mapping and get to the actual and factual data behind your current state performance. What’s the measured current state?  Good, bad, or ugly?  Focus on the truth, establish baseline measures and then establish the measures of success and stretch goals.
  4. Create a clearly articulated and engaging vision for the future; share with all those who have an impact on implementation. It is important to be very clear about the measured results we are shooting for with a balance struck between classic focus areas including customer satisfaction, speed, quality, cost/profits, and stakeholder satisfaction including employees, managers, and stockholders.
  5. Craft an introspective risk and risk countermeasure plan for the initiative. What you don’t know CAN hurt you.  Conducting a cultural assessment early on to support understanding risks can be helpful.
  6. Craft a detailed effective communications plan – remember, the #1 reason for failure?   One of my favorite quotes here is “People would rather live with a problem than accept a solution that they don’t understand.”
  7. Develop the timing and order of priorities in the strategic and tactical plan. Depending on your organization this can include:
    • Leadership development – what are the behaviors and skills required?
    • Training of the entire workforce in the rudiments of OpEx so that they can fully participate in needed changes.
    • Initial tactical implementation work – picking the right areas to start in first so that learning and results occur quickly.
    • Aggressively collecting information to provide meaningful feedback – it’s deadly if we don’t measure and celebrate wins early and often.
  8. Validate resources and timing frequently – commit to the idea this is a learn-by-doing effort. This is required for two reasons:  1:  You can’t know everything you would like up front and 2: Change is continuous.  We must be OK with modifying and adjusting our approach on-the-fly, as we go.

Conduct regular meetings of the steering committee/coalition; continue refining the plans for the reasons mentioned earlier.  This is definitely NOT a one-and-done exercise, but a living, breathing life-long journey.



About Ron Crabtree

Ron Crabtree, President of MetaOps, Inc., is an organizational transformation coach/trainer, operational excellence (OpEx) adjunct facilitator at Villanova University, Lean and Six Sigma (LSS) speaker, author and thought leader in business process improvement/re-engineering (BPI/BPR). He is a consultant to private industry and government agencies in supply chain management, design of experiments (DOE), statistical process control (SPC), advanced quality systems (AQS), program evaluation review technique (PERT), enterprise resource planning (ERP), demand flow, theory of constraints, organizational change management, and value stream/process mapping and management. Ron has a BA in Management and Organizational Development, is a Master LSS Black Belt, and is Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM), Integrated Resource Management (CIRM), and Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) by American Production and Inventory Control Society (APICS). If you are an executive and would like to chat with Ron about anything related to business process improvement and operational excellence, please get on his calendar here:

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