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Seven Habits … – Habit 3: Drive Continuous Improvement

Working with management teams of our clients often takes them away from their business for a few days. They frequently get in touch with their teams at home. Sometimes I involuntarily eavesdrop their part of the conversation. “How is it going? Is everything ok?” is a very common question they ask their teams. When they get some kind of “yes” they feel much better.

Continuous Improvement Needs to be a HabitMy old professor at the university, we called him Ho, had the habit of having tea with the whole team of his assistants in the morning whenever he was around. I cannot say that these sessions were my favourite pastime. Yet, I have to say that these sessions had been a great learning experience. Ho would never ask a question like “Is everything ok?” Instead, his preferred question was “What are your issues? What is new?”

Not knowing the context of his enquiry, I once replied somehow like “No issues. Everything is ok.” For him this was a very cheap answer and Ho countered immediately “So, you don’t have issues. It either means you don’t work or you don’t change anything; you did not try anything new since we met last time. The day you stop improving what you do and how you do it is the day you start falling behind.”

The day you stop improving what you do and how you do it is the day you start falling behind.

Besides the request for continuous improvement and change his question implied that he did expect problems. Ho encouraged us and indirectly sanctioned issues and mistakes. He made the continuous search for better ways part of our business life. Ho never blamed someone if something went wrong. Instead, he expected us to name the issue, own it and suggest a solution. The worst crime one could commit in business life was the crime of not trying to get better every day.

Conclusion

Continuous improvement does not start with massive Lean Six Sigma or Innovation initiatives. To the contrary, continuous improvement needs to be part of the DNA of an organisation if you want to ensure that your aforementioned initiative is successful and lasting. Here are some simple tips that will help incorporating the habit of continuous improvement into the normal business life:

  • Ask for the change, not for the status quo. A question like “What have you improved since last month?” repeated during your business update will help sending the right signal. Over time you will get good answers.
  • Tolerate issues. Ask for solution ideas instead of searching for culprits. This will remove fear of failure that cannot be avoided in a dynamic environment. Discussing these with the whole team can be a great learning experience for everyone … after initial hesitation.
  • Enrich your set of KPI’s by upgrading the often under-represented Balanced Scorecard section Learning & Growth with some powerful short-term indicators. The KPI “one suggestion per year” does not help moulding an innovation culture. Encourage by incentives rather than procedures. You will get what you measure.

 

Why Should I Become a Black Belt?

Becoming a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt – and to a certain degree a Green Belt – is a major career move and should be considered carefully. There are not only the Pros; there are plenty of Cons. For you, it will definitely mean putting in more time. On top of someone’s normal job, the Black Belt is required to spend a considerable amount of time on the new commitment. Your additional time will not be rewarded financially at the outset. Your organisation will not be willing to put much money in something that is new and has not paid back yet.

Black Belt CandidatesWhy not Becoming a Black Belt?

You have no Power – You need People Skills

You will work with teams whom you – most likely – have no power over. If you cannot convince them with your knowledge, skills and especially your attitude, you will be running your Lean Six Sigma projects on your own. The same applies for the stakeholders, i.e. the process owners you want to help to improve their processes. If you think they need you, think again. When you appear in their office, you, basically, convey the message that there is something wrong with their processes. They will not be overly enthusiastic to see you … until you show that you are worth spending precious time with and lending scarce resources to. Interacting with, influencing and communicating with all levels in your organisation will be one of your key responsibilities. If your best friend is your computer whom you prefer to interact with, this job is not for you.

It is not only about Statistics, but there is Statistics

Although there is no need to be or become a statistician in order to do the Black Belt job, it is still about dealing with data, about data analytics. Collecting, plotting and analysing them – sometimes with advanced statistical tools – in order to draw conclusions for improvements is one of your foremost tasks. If you already get scared when your boss asks you to produce a histogram, you should consider giving this Black Belt adventure a miss.

You will be required to learn continuously

As a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, you will not be able to show results short-term. Be prepared that you – and your stakeholders – need to have some patience until you, with your team, get to the real root cause of problems, develop effective solutions and enough data to back them up. If it would be easy to do this, it would essentially mean that the process owner does not know what he is doing. Fortunately, we do not have many of those. Unfortunately for you, you need to learn about the process, catch up with the process owner’s and stakeholder’s knowledge before you can be of any help. You will need time to study what you want to improve.

If you are frustrated now, do not give up yet. There are some benefits, too.

Why Becoming a Black Belt

You will have endless opportunities for learning

Being a Black Belt is one of the most interesting tasks you can think of. You learn more about a virtually unlimited variety of processes and issues in your organisation than anyone else. This demanding job rotation, i.e. rotation from one project to the next, has numerous rewards. One of them is the growing familiarity with your organisation, with your colleagues at all levels, with customers and their needs and with your suppliers and partners.

Contrary to an induction programme, you will learn “at the heart” of the processes. You will learn what makes your organisation tick – or struggle.

You will be doing things that really matter

By doing so, you will be able to contribute to the organisation’s strategy – if they take it seriously. You will do what matters and you will help moving your organisation to the next level, to prepare them for tomorrow. This makes your new job highly visible. More people in the organisation will know about you and what you do. Especially your management will recognise and challenge you. From time to time, you will get the limelight you can use for your personal development. Before these occasions, you will be honing your proficiency in presenting to the management. You will learn how to understand and speak their language and you will grow to be convincing in your pitch.

Even though learning will become your daily bread, it is just a means to an end. The ultimate goal is improving your organisation’s performance to satisfy customer needs profitably. The skills you learn in theory and especially by practising are not only applicable to your Lean Six Sigma projects. Over time, you will make use of them in all facets of your professional and even your private life. Who says that powerful influencing skills cannot be useful when dealing with your teen kids? It works for me.

We need a robust and systematic tool to select and train future leaders for our company. Personally, I do not know that much about Six Sigma, but what I have read so far was about focusing on customer requirements, managing and improving processes, changing the company’s culture, encouraging people and, last but not least, making money. This is exactly the job of our leaders.
Michael Malaghan. President, Learning Technologies

It will be rewarding for you

Although, there is usually no pay rise or other monetary award at the beginning, you certainly increase your own value over time. Your organisation will definitely recognise and reward you for this – or another organisation will. Your Black Belt certificate adds more value to your CV than many other papers you used to attach. This certificate is not only about theoretically mastering new skills. More importantly, this certificate testifies the application of these skills to generate value to the business and your customers. You will not only be seen as someone who has studied a new theory. You will be seen as someone “who has done it”.

In many organisations who practise Lean Six Sigma, previous Black Belts and especially Master Black Belts have taken over key positions. If you were able to deliver results as a Black Belt, you should not be surprised to find your name well positioned in the succession plan of your organisation.

Conclusion

Becoming a Black Belt is not for everyone. More important than statistical knowledge are personal traits such as openness and conscientiousness combined with some degree of extroversion. If you decide that you fit the bill and you go for it you should do it wholeheartedly and you will certainly benefit a great deal from it.

If someone asked you to join the Black Belt training and take over a project, it is usually a good thing. It usually means someone cares about you, wants to develop you and trusts that you are worth it. Do not forgo this opportunity; it may not come again so soon.
Your decision to become a Black Belt has the potential to change your life … as it did for me.

As Featured On EzineArticles

Why Six Sigma Black Belts Make Better Leaders

Besides business and functional know-how, a successful leader must have competencies in leading change and improving, designing and managing processes. A Six Sigma program helps prepare leaders by providing on-the-job training through project work.
A recent survey by iSixSigma Magazine of more than 1,300 business professionals whose companies are using Six Sigma revealed that leadership development programs which involve Six Sigma training are six times more likely to be called “highly successful” than those without. Many of these leadership development programs involve a Black Belt track for future leaders. Thus, the obvious question is, What skills and know-how do Six Sigma professionals acquire that gives them an edge as leaders?

A Lesson of Leadership

A couple of months ago, I was having lunch with the Chairman of a medium-sized contract manufacturing company in Singapore. When we made the appointment, we agreed to meet at a posh club in the centre of the city-state. After arriving there I found myself in the middle of his management team. He brought MD and CFO along.

Take Care of Your Talent – Develop your Belt

Against the common belief, statistical knowledge is not a criterion for selecting your Belts. However, the capability to acquire new technical skills, to apply these skills successfully is an important prerequisite. More important is the aptitude to involve, motivate, coach and train people, to lead and manage teams towards delivering results and to communicate effectively with different levels in the organisation.
A study by iSixSigma Magazine about the importance of different skills and characteristics for a successful Black Belt (“The Hard Truth About Soft Skills,” January/February 2008) was showing that Communication Skills is by far the most important requirement. Leadership Skills came in second and Technical Skills third. The question for the importance of Soft Skills for different roles in the Six Sigma deployment was answered by 72% for Green Belts and 99% for Black Belts with important or very important (5-point scale). Soft Skills include Communication, Collaboration, Team Leadership, Change Management, Time Management as most important to the success of the Belt.   Continue reading →

Leadership Development Case Study

Our client, a leading world authority in microelectronics development and research, appointed a senior research fellow to head its entire research and development division. Could the company’s top scientist and academic researcher, who had never managed a staff of more than twenty, make the transition to effectively manage hundreds of people in his division?
Continue reading →

Team Effectiveness Development Case Study

Our client, a US-based IT manufacturing MNC, needed to align the efforts of its seven separate IT divisions and help division leaders think of themselves as part of one culture – one body – one department. Until this point, each leader and unit had been functioning as a separate department. The firm called on COE to help with team effectiveness development.
Continue reading →

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People Development – The Smart Way

A couple of years ago, I was meeting the President of an Asian multi-national mid-sized service company for a Six Sigma Training on Saipan, a nice sunny pacific island south-east of Japan. Together with a colleague we were sitting at the beach, wearing swimming suits and preparing the next days session whilst getting sun-tanned. When the President arrived – he was in shorts and ugly slippers! – we had a casual briefing for the Leadership Team session and the Staff Awareness Sessions we were about to run during that week.

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