A guy by the name of Satya Chakravorty wrote an article the other day in the Wall Street Journal, Where Process Improvement Projects Go Wrong, that explores a phenomenon we all know – the fact that lean and Six Sigma projects more often than not fail to sustain. Satya is a professor from Kennesaw State University, and his description of the events in a lot of 'lean transformations' is pretty good - a hot shot lean expert or a Six Sigma belted wizard is brought in, a kaizen sort of project is defined and 'value stream' mapped, folks get all fired up and work on it, improvements are made, wizard leaves, most improvements fall by the wayside, Continuous Improvement Director sugar coats results, management is happy, a year later when nothing was really improved management is confused. I recommend that you actually read the whole article- the good professor really does a great job of describing the standard life and death of improvement projects.
The ending is where the professor blows it: The solution he proposes is (1) keep the consultant/wizard around longer – full time if possible; (2) tie the paychecks of the people on the project to to sustaining the results; (3) keep the team small because the bigger the team the more likely people are to have different opinions about the best solution to the problem; and (4) get the senior executives involved in the details of the project so they can push for sustaining the good ones.
The 'experts' who take a lot of their client's money to lead these kinds of efforts are what my friend and a lean wizard in his own right, Adam Zak, refers to as the Kaizen Kowboys' – consultants who don't advocate any fundamental changes in how things are done – just continually value stream map with kaizen teams over and over and over and over and over again – and, of course, pay them whopping fees over and over and over and over and over again to lead the effort.
Maybe these guys advocate lean via the Kaizen Kowboy method because they don't know any better; or maybe they do but know it is an easier sell to tell management that they can stay in their comfort zones and leave it to the Kowboys to round up all the buckaroos and buckarettes and herd them down the lean trail. You would think, however, that the good professor, or the management team that keeps funding the Kaizen rodeos with little to show for them, would lock in on the the professor's statement, "Without the expert to rein them in, some team members began pushing agendas that benefited themselves and their departments." You see, a smart guy would eventually scratch his head and think … I wonder why the improvements from the kaizen and Six Sigma events are in conflict with what benefits people's individual and departmental best interests? … I wonder why people's individual performance reviews are not already tied to the good things that come from the kaizen events? … Hmmmmm, maybe, just maybe, we have defined people's individual and departmental objectives wrong if people ditch the kaizen improvement for the sake of such objectives …
When those light bulbs start to click on, it ought to occur to both the professor and to the management team that it does not make a whole lot of sense to create a value stream map and identify gaping problems and opportunities for significant improvement with such a cross-functional view – – – then revert back to the functional organization and functional goals and objectives and functional metrics that (1) created the problems in the first place; and (2) made them impossible to see without the Kaizen Kowboy riding in to save the day.
Instead of rounding up a bigger posse of Kowboys, holding the little buckaroos accountable for dysfunctional organizational processes, rounding up smaller herds of employees to keep the number of ideas and opinions low, and rubbing senior managements noses in the kaizens, management would be much better served by addressing the root causes of the problems. In particular, they should get the company out of their functional silos and organize permanently around the value streams. They should get individual and group metrics and financial statements in line with how the processes flow instead of around archaic functional objectives.
Most important, they should form a lynch mob and string up the Kaizen Kowboys who have been taking their hard earned money to lead repetitive efforts that do not lead to sustaining improvements. The solutions to the widespread phenomenon the professor describes – do more of the same only do it better with more discipline – is the universal solution for those who do not really understand the problem. It sounds like he is advocating more of the same – only get all of the Kowboys to ride faster and shoot straighter.
It won't work – can't work – never has worked – never will work. Management has to leave the comfort of the ranch house and get out into the middle of the herd and do the tough work of making deep, lasting and fundamental change.