The last week in Las Vegas at the Lean Six Sigma conference was confusing. I was there as the keynote speaker and I gave a few hundred quality experts my full blown Rebirth of American Industry spiel and it was very well received. On the positive side, there were a few guys from GM there who were absolutely passionate. While they were gracious and supportive of me and my message – the book seems to resonate in GM pretty well – they taught me to be a bit more humble in my GM bashing on the blog. Their issues are complicated and took a long time to create. The solutions will also be complicated, and will also take a long time to resolve. There is no Quick and Easy Kaizen fix for GM.
I was moved by the passion of the crowd, in general. There was a big military presence there and their commitment to quality has a lot to do with the awe inspiring performance of our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The gang from the MEP’s and the community colleges was as rabid as ever in their eagerness to improve quality and to help their clients become lean.
But through it all was a frustration and a bit of emptiness with Six Sigma. What was apparent was that Six Sigma is by and large treated as a project, and turning companies into Toyota level performers is not a project, it is a complete transformation. One after another, the presenters, including both practitioners and consulting ‘experts’, described their Six Sigma projects and kaizen events. However, in private they almost all acknowledged that the savings from their accumulated projects could not be found on the bottom lines of their companies.
One company described their formal process for assuring that they launched a Six Sigma quality or customer service project for every Six Sigma cost reduction project they launched. It seems curious that quality and customer service are not seen as economic issues in that company – and most others. If the objective is to be profitable and they cannot see a clear, measurable relationship between quality or customer service and profitability, one has to wonder why they launch those projects at all?
What is plainly apparent is that the concepts of process and value stream exist only in project form. The formal, permanent structure of these companies and their financial metrics are still traditionally functional and ROI driven. The process only exists when it is mapped on the wall of the Six Sigma war room. Once the project is over and the theoretical savings are booked, business life returns to normal – that is, it returns to its ineffective structure and the misguided financial and metric systems of the past. Six Sigma is a tool for eliminating some waste in lower level people’s work – and quite often the tool for eliminating the lower level people’s jobs and the lower level people themselves. It is not used as part of a comprehensive methodology for restructuring the entire management infrastructure of the company, so nothing really changes and the benefits typically remain theoretical.
So the final report on Lean/Six Sigma in Las Vegas? First, there is absolutely nothing lean about Las Vegas – it is the most wonderfully corpulent place on earth and a great location for such a conference. As far as the quality experts in the lean and Six Sigma effort are concerned, they are to a person dedicated and caring, eager to learn and committed people. Until their senior management learns to unthink their old ideas about the economics of running their businesses in the tough, global battles of the 21st century, however, the savings from Six Sigma and lean will remain theoretical and the people pushing them will be increasingly frustrated.