Culture Before Process: Train the System

The primary areas of focus for my consulting business is in the area of Continuous Improvement (Lean Six Sigma). Most of the clients that I am working with, have worked with in the past, and am considering working with reach out to me based on this area. The conversation usually starts out like this: “Beau, we want to talk with you about improving our performance through Lean Six Sigma so we can be better.”

Great, let’s talk about it. I will then go and visit with the potential client, and talk with them about how things are going, touring the facility and interviewing some people that work in the facility.  More often than not, I learn a lot about how things are currently going, and too often, the core of the problem isn’t that they don’t know Lean Six Sigma, the problem is the culture is broken to the point where the organization just doesn’t know how to execute. These are often very polite cultures where everyone “gets along”, but they are also often very ineffective cultures. 

Suffering a Downward Spiral? Step Back

When there is a lack of process and a lack of responsibility in the culture, it becomes a bit of a spiral where people are frustrated that things aren’t getting better, things aren’t followed-up on with any regularity and the people who are working in the process get so sucked into the day-to-day grind, that no one is working on how to improve the processes. So the problems are there, and are identified but they just aren’t being improved. So the employees start wondering to themselves, “why bother bringing anything up? Management doesn’t care any way.” 

While most of the time, this is completely untrue (management actually does care), it isn’t hard to see how people would start feeling that way if they bring up issues that simply aren’t resolved. 

For this reason, I usually encourage the client to take a step back before launching Lean Six Sigma or any other OPEX sort of system.  Get the team right, make sure you have the right people in place, make sure they understand what they are responsible for and for heaven’s sake, make sure that you and everyone else in the organization knows what winning looks like.  If you can’t clearly define success, it becomes incredibly hard for the rest of the organization to figure out how they fit in to it. 

If I (or any other LSS consultant worth his/her salt) comes in to an organization to work on the processes, but the people who are working in the process are burned out and frustrated, the processes you put in place simply won’t stick. You will spend a lot of money building new processes only to see them slip back to the old way of doing things. The punchline is to get very focused on the culture and get your people right before you start working on your processes. 

Change is hard. I don’t care what your product or service is, for the most part change is very hard on an organization. There is a mountain of psychological research that shows most humans view change as loss. This is independent of what the change is, people are hard-wired to feel like change is loss. So, if you really want to make change worthwhile and make it work, get the people side of your business right and then start working on the processes. 

Beau Groover