February 28, 2011. ASQ Lean Six Sigma Conference, Phoenix, Arizona.

Conference keynote speaker D. Lynn Kelley, Vice President of Operational Excellence at Textron, Inc. told the audience of Lean Six Sigma professionals that the key to keeping a process excellence effort exciting is to be sure that it is linked to the leadership’s goals for the organization. I heartily agree. In fact, all Lean Six Sigma activities, especially projects, should begin with the goals of the organization’s leaders. Too often organizations start Six Sigma by creating a dedicated Six Sigma organizational entity which, over time, becomes separated from the rest of the organization and begins to exist for its own sake. This is actually a failure of leadership. Six Sigma is worth pursuing only if it helps the leadership achieve its goals. It brings to bear a special and highly useful skill set for improving business processes by driving out variation and eliminating errors. When leaders know what they want to accomplish but the path to achieving it is unclear, Six Sigma can help in a way that no other approach can. A corollary is that the change agents working in the Six Sigma organization must know what the leaders want to accomplish and plan their activities to help them achieve it.

Kelley made it clear that the goals may not always involve hard dollar savings. Indeed, savings and revenue improvement are the end result of a transfer function that involves identifying the root causes of these desirable outcomes and using this knowledge to create new and better ways of doing things. The requirement that everything show a clear dollar impact can be abused. The CEO is interested in balancing the demands of the organization’s major stakeholders: customers, investors, and employees. An obsession with one stakeholder group to the detriment of the others will damage the organization and must be avoided. Again, Six Sigma can play an important role in helping the CEO achieve the goal of balance.

If your Six Sigma ship is on the rocks, it’s probably time to go back to your leadership and reaffirm the idea that you are there to help them. Get the voice of this crucial “customer” and reintegrate it into your Six Sigma activities. Failure to do so may result in the Six Sigma ship becoming irrelevant in your organization and sinking completely.

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