Posted by: Knightbird | January 20, 2017

Complicating Your Way to Job Security

A local institution has started to implement Lean as a budget cutting measure, and training its’ volunteers in Six Sigma. I predict this effort to be among the 70% of change management efforts that Michael Porter says fails. Why do they fail? Well, I got a clue from a 1982 interview that Dr. Deming gave. Although the general message in the interview was that our first step was to educate management, he also spoke about handing off, or delegating, Lean to someone else. He also pointed out that anyone who gained just a fuzzy understanding of variation could start the transformation. This made a lot of sense, and what I see is that a command and control leader will always hand off any change management initiative because it insulates them from accountability. They have responsibility, but if the effort fails, there are ready victims to blame.

The only way for someone who has this responsibility delegated to them (without becoming proficient in the area being changed) is to complicate implementation. If you don’t understand what is going on, you can tell your boss that you followed the best advice available, and that advice was to find a Black Belt to tell you what to do, and then train green belts to tell your employees what to do. You put together a complicated structure of DMAIC with long lead times, a limited number of improvement events and minimal reliance on the employees. Then when the initiative fails, and Dr. Deming says that it will fail and have no signs of existence within 3 years, you have cover. Employees didn’t buy in and they sabotaged the effort. We spend too much money on training green belts before they left for higher paying jobs elsewhere. We did projects, but the employees reverted to what they did before. Lean Six Sigma won’t work here and I tried by best.

We tend to be protective of our jobs and income, and that protection will drive employee behavior. Becoming an expert at workarounds, that is, how do get something done when you encounter obstacles, is a job protection skill. Learning to say only positive things and to blame others anonymously, is another protective skill. And to avoid bringing up problems is one of the biggest protective skills.

I heard this story from a newly minted Airframe and Power Plant Mechanic (A&P) a long time ago. When he showed up the old timers recommended he busy his tools from the Craftsman collection at Sears. He did. Then he bought an engraver and started putting his name on all his tools. An old timer stopped him to ask what he was doing. He told him and was admonished. Do you know why we all own Craftsman tools? If you leave a tool on an airplane, and that plane crashes later, who do you think they are going to look for? You can guarantee that it will be the A&P whose name is on the tool.  That’s why we all have the same tools and don’t identify them as ours.

Command and Control bosses look for the name on the tool, and if we can avoid as much as possible identifying any defects with our association, we do that. We don’t raise problems. We meet the numbers, even if it means not to do the right thing. Dr. Deming tells a story about a supervisor who would not stop a line for 20 minutes to repair a tool because it would force him to miss the numbers. The machine broke the same day and shut the line down for days.

If an Executive will not put their name on an initiative, and assume responsibility and accountability, we cannot expect employees to believe in the initiative. Instead, we will complicate the initiative, and Six Sigma is a good way to do that, so it’s not successful and we have something to blame.

Every initiative I have seen in Alaska with a Six Sigma component has failed (after costing a lot of money). Lean is simple, and should be kept simple, for the employees. We examine a process, talk about how to make it better, run experiments to see if what we believe will make it better works, and if it works, we implement the new process with standard work. And we teach employees how to recognize problems and fix them at their level. You don’t have to wait for authority from up on high.

So, Six Sigma has infiltrated this one organization, and another organization is ready to follow suit. I feel bad for each of them, and for me, because Lean will get a bad name. Someone will say we tried Lean, and leave out the Six Sigma. Complicated the introduction, watch it fail, and lay blame somewhere it can’t hurt you personally. And if you are an employee, duck and avoid. Don’t engage and don’t get excited. Someone further up the ladder will come back to hurt you if you engage.


  1. Lean initiatives with a focus on “cost cutting” alone are subject to the law of diminishing returns. Certainly not all cost savings opportunities are created equal as those familiar with Pareto’s Law will attest. In a relatively short period of time it becomes clear that savings realized early on are more difficult to achieve in subsequent project cycles.
    Unfortunately, those not educated in lean will abandon the program when it appears that continued investements will yield lower returns – to the point where additional savings do not offset the investment required.
    Top management must create a clear overarching vision that embraces and fosters a culture of lean thinking. I consider lean a success when lean thinking becomes the “norm” for a business.
    As for six sigma, it is nothing more than an attempt to brand a collective set of tools that have otherwise served industry successfully for many years. I agree that the belt levels inherently introduce an exclusionary aspect to Six Sigma that is not consistent with basic premise of lean where participation by all is understood.

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