Building a Lean Six Sigma and Process Excellence Culture

Not surprisingly, this conference is as much or more about the cultural aspects of LSS as the techniques and tools, and Jason Schulist of DTE Energy (a US utility company) gave a presentation on their continuous improvement journey. They’ve been at LSS for more than 10 years, starting with Kaizen in 1998, moving into Six Sigma in 2004, then a performance excellence program more recently. They found some short-term benefits from Kaizen, but also found the usual shortcomings of no real vision or system in place for continuous improvement. As they added more tools and did some demo projects, they closed some gaps, but still didn’t have a comprehensive program in place: Lean was used as a bottom-up fire-fighting tool rather than a way of working.

Since they didn’t use Six Sigma until much later, they don’t use DMAIC, but have their own 4-gate, 9-step project methodology. In 2002, they developed their own Operating System to standardize continuous improvement, but found that this was a very complex, expensive and overwhelming undertaking. For those not familiar with this sort of operating system (e.g., those of us who think “Linux” or “Windows” when they hear that phrase), it’s a combination of mission statement, high-level goals and high-level methodologies, all wrapped up in a pretty internal marketing package. I’m all for getting everyone on the same page, but I sense a bit of frustration from Schulist on the amount of time spent crafting and wordsmithing this rather than actually implementing process improvement.

Adding Six Sigma in 2004, they introduced more statistical rigor in their process improvement, but had some issues with disengagement since the black belts tended to do the work that was previously done by business leaders, and also with the lack of an end-to-end process flow. The CEO was unhappy with the rate of improvement, which drove the introduction of the performance excellence program in 2006. This was driven from the top, with clear expectations and accountability, but didn’t have deep engagement with front-line employees: the business units tended to be reactive rather than proactive in the face of top-down process expectations. This was implemented using a lot of external consulting resources, which meant that the existing continuous improvement resources weren’t used all that well.

To break this cycle of just spending several millions every two years on external continuous improvement consultants to reinvent the wheel, they had to focus on constancy of purpose and engagement with the people in order to really institutionalize continuous improvement culture. They moved back to a focus on people by implementing a Lean learning organization in 2007/8: a behavioral transformation leading to cultural change rather than just a continuous improvement program.

With difficulty sustaining their own efforts, they looked at recognized reasons why other companies failed:

  • Copying lean tools without making the work self-diagnostic
  • Working around problems even when the problems are recognized
  • Don’t share systemically what has been learned locally
  • Don’t develop the capabilities of others to design work, solve problems and institutionalize new knowledge

To overcome this, they worked on developing the four capabilities of the operationally outstanding:

  • Design work to see problems as they occur: all work is designed so best practices are captured and problems are evident immediately
  • Swarm problems when they occur: problems are immediately addresses, both to contain their effects from propagating and to trigger problem solving
  • Share knowledge where it is created: knowledge generated locally becomes systemic through shared problem solving
  • Leaders develop people from teaching, coaching and mentoring: the most senior management has to own the capability development process (including actually teaching internal courses)

These four capabilities form the framework of the “how we work” section of their above-mentioned operating system, which provides goals for their process improvement program. The operating system also includes a “true north”, that is, their high-level business goals such as being defect-free at the lowest cost.

Their recent results have been impressive: from hard savings that crept up gradually over the course of their continuous improvement efforts, the last two years have seen significant and increasing ROI. Since they’re getting such great results, they’re encouraged to look at ways to make this even better through self-assessment, certification, and expanding their scope to address complex problems as well as environmental and social problems. One interesting example of that is what they’ve done to reduce the cost of cutting grass around their substations within the city of Detroit: they replaced the grass with community gardens, worked by the community, with the food donated to local food banks. Lower costs for them, while giving something back to the community and improving social engagement: a win-win all around.

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