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Beware the Hawthorne

“We have great news for you. Our project is delivering results already.” The team is all smiles when they give this update during the project meeting. The carefully prepared graphs unveil a remarkably shorter time for the whole process, from customer request to delivery of results. “We have applied a hypothesis test and the result is significant with a p-value of flat zero!” They sound like they know what they are doing. When asked for the change in the process, they all give different answers. When asked what the root cause to have achieved this effect was, their smiles fade. “We actually only implemented some Quick Hits. They turned out to have a greater effect than we thought. Isn’t this a nice surprise?” They asked. Or, is it just a Hawthorne?

Nuts and Bolts of Solutioning

Each improvement project undergoes two general phases, As-Is and Should-Be. Whereas the first stage is about understanding the problem, identifying and confirming the root causes, the latter one requires to turn the newly gained knowledge into impactful solutions that have a good chance to get implemented. Here are some tips for the solutioning stage.

Ensure Proper Analysis

When thinking about solutions for your problems, understanding the real root causes is a vital prerequisite. If you try to replace proper root cause analysis with some nice and fancy creativity tools that are not really designed to arrive at scientific root causes, that is worse than not analysing at all. Proper root cause analysis entails a thorough diagnosis of the underlying process with adequate supporting data. This usually leads to some short-term success often born out of the Hawthorne effect that is neither sustainable nor substantial. Analyse properly.

Get the Right Team

Not everyone who is good in dealing with data collection and its analysis is well suited for coming up with good solutions. Consider enriching the “As-Is Team” with people who have the capability and the motivation to think out of the box for your solutioning stage. Look out for colleagues who usually push boundaries, question norms and come up with unconventional ideas.

You might also want to consider involving the process stakeholders. They are more likely to buy-in and support solutions that they have helped to design themselves. Leaving them out might generate resistance. Include them.

Example: If you want to reduce the recruitment cycle time and you discover that your Deputy HR Director applies batching by going through all new recruitment files only on Fridays, one solution is very obvious. However, don’t forget to “sell” this to the Deputy. She may not like to be told that she is “one of the obstacles”.

Implement the Obvious

Some solutions present themselves as a result of the analysis. If the analysis shows that different ways to run the process have been used in the past of which one is clearly better, just go for that one after a careful assessment of the reasons why people depart from that way. Keep the solutioning pragmatic.

Balance Significance with Business Relevance

Almost always, project teams will be able to improve the process. And they are able to show a significant improvement proudly using newly attained statistical knowledge. However, statistical significance does not automatically mean that the findings are relevant to the organisation.

Example: If your team is able to prove that they have reduced the turn-around-time for a government application process from average 104 days to an average of 98 days, the question to ask may be “Who cares?” They have not spent hours and hours on working on this improvement project to come up with this minor improvement – that probably even goes away after a while of Hawthorning.

Generate New Solutions

In case the solution does not present itself, some powerful creativity tools come in handy. They support idea generation for innovating the way work gets done and – most importantly – help opening up the mind. These techniques almost never point out a very good solution immediately. The first phase is the phase of harvesting the low hanging fruits. Only after these non-exciting, in-the-box solutions are gathered, the better solution ideas will appear. This often happens when the team is about to give up, disappointed.

Hence, take the necessary time for this process. Coming from a business meeting having your head loaded with all the action items, joining a creativity session for half an hour before you run for the next meeting that will stretch you again is a prerequisite for failure – at least in the creativity session.

Take your time, generate a relaxed atmosphere and go for quantity. It is very unlikely, that one out of three ideas generated is a real break-through. Ten out of a hundred ideas might be really good of which one is the one that changes everything. Take your time for solutioning.

Apply Behavioural Insights

The strongest lever for process change in a non-manufacturing environment is the human being. This becomes obvious when you find root causes during your process analysis that pinpoint towards operators. Use this to your advantage.

Example: After discovering that the same process under exactly the same circumstances takes different time for different people and you can not explain this with a different level of experience, it is time to think about changing behaviour. Synchronising the processes for different operators by standardising milestones from assigning cases to informing the client about the outcome will apply a soft peer pressure, often good enough to get impressive results.

Be Selective

Having generated a hundred ideas with many good ones does require some filtering and prioritising. A rather sophisticated prioritisation matrix or just a four-blocker Effort-Impact-Matrix or any other tool can be used for that. The goal is: Keep focused, your resources are usually limited.

Example: A senior leader who deploys improvement projects in her organisation frequently, always requests her project teams to present only the three best solutions for implementation. The effect is remarkable: you are required to do a much more thorough filtering including a valid cost-benefit-analysis in order to arrive at the three you would go for. This would be less important if you were allowed to present ten.

Apply Common Sense

During the journey of applying the newly acquired knowledge, do always double check with your common sense switched on.

Example: As soon as you find a solution “training of staff” in the prioritisation matrix, you should ask the question whether this is helpful. After a process change, training of staff is most likely necessary but not a solution in itself. Training rather supports “real” solutions. The same applies to changing an SOP, running a survey etc. Distinguish between real solutions and catalysts, support tasks that make the solutions work and help sustaining their gains. Hence, don’t prioritise these items out.

Nuts and Bolts of Project Selection

The art and science of project selection for improvement projects is one that most organisations take rather seriously. Some companies in a variety of industries have developed highly sophisticated methods for project screening and selection to ensure that the projects they choose offer the best promise of success.

Even without having such kind of method at hand, it is necessary and possible to screen projects before embarking on them. Some common sense questions may help:

1. Why is This Project Worth Doing?

Project Selection is not a Result of Gambling

Project Selection is not a Result of Gambling

Every project must have a crystal clear business case. The first reason for this is that the project needs support by not only the sponsor but also other stakeholders in order to be successful. This support can be ‘organised’ by deriving the compelling need for this project from Customer Satisfaction, Financial Benefits or Employee Engagement reinforced by rock solid data. The positive side effect of having this kind of business case is that the team will likely be more motivated to spend their extra time on this kind of effort.

Pareto charts are powerful management tools to explain business case and therefore support project selection. Do not forget to have financial calculations be signed off by the experts.

2. Why is it Important to do This Project Now?

A business case that shows a growing backlog, a decrease in customer satisfaction or employee engagement over time is a compelling reason for doing this project now. If, in contrast, the situation has been getting better over time, i.e. the backlog is melting away as a result of other initiatives, it is much harder to justify this project. Then the question really is: Can we not sit by and wait for the problem to resolve itself?

A simple time series plot may help to understand the history and even to forecast the future.

3. What are the Consequences of not Doing This Project?

Sitting by and waiting will not be a good idea if the problem might grow in future. Knowing the current state well is a prerequisite. And, having a more than rough appraisal of the future demand as well as the expected changes in the industry will enable some good assumptions that help to heighten the need for the said project. These assumptions may be used to create a basic simulation to generate credible data before project selection.

The resulting scenario, well presented to the management, will certainly generate support for your project idea.

4. Which Activities Could Disguise Your Project Results?

No organisation has only one initiative or project running at any given point in time. Usually, there are plenty of overlapping activities changing the business environment on a larger or smaller scale every day. Such activities may have affected historical data why it is not always wise to use a long data window for deriving the business case without ensuring that the tackled process was more or less undisturbed. Such activities may as well confound with your project work in future. If you already know that there will be unrelated changes that will affect your process, make sure you have a chance to see which process change triggers what change in the result. Without that, you may get improvements but you do not know why.

Ensuring a very close-loop, data-driven cause-effect-chain for all activities will help untangling the coils. Based on that, the project selection has more foundation.

5. How Does it Fit With Business Objectives and Targets?

If the business case is important enough, related KPI’s will be on some managers’ scorecards. These managers will be supporting this project naturally since it drives their targets and hence the business objectives. In case the suggested project is targeting on improving something that is not someone’s KPI or is not even measured yet, two situations can occur:

Firstly, the project idea may not be a good idea after all.

Or secondly, it is certainly a good idea and it needs to be made a KPI as soon as possible. Then, it should  appear on the management dashboard frequently.

All project proposals should be linkable to the organisation’s or departmental dashboards, hence must have someone with ‘skin in the game’ who is likely the project sponsor.


Starting projects ill-prepared is much worse than not starting at all. Failures in project selection usually lead to frustration amongst team members and confusion within the organisation. It will make your initiative a nonstarter if this happens at the beginning. Time well spent in selecting projects saves a multitude of that time later.

Choose the right projects to maximise your organisation’s performance to the benefit of customers and employees.


Lean Six Sigma and Innovation

Over the last decade, companies and organisations in nearly every industry all over the world have introduced Lean Six Sigma to increase customer satisfaction and to deliver impressive results. An outstanding example is General Electric, the company who has made Six Sigma as popular as it is today.

Another term that has drawn tremendous attention in the business world is Innovation. On the one hand, Lean Six Sigma works towards very low variation in processes with high efficiency. Innovation, on the other hand, seeks to find undiscovered, uncertain territory. Such efforts are rather inefficient. Innovation requires risk-taking, making mistakes and learning from failures.

Can a corporate culture be developed on both key thinking patterns in order to get the best out of Lean Six Sigma Efficiency and Innovative Solutions? Does it make sense to think Innovation Six Sigma?

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