Yesterday in conversation with a client who leads Six Sigma projects to enhance operational excellence in his organization, a moment of clarity emerged around a distinction that is not always apparent on what is needed for successful implementation. (The Six Sigma methodology is a proven and rigorous approach for systematically identifying problems, examining root causes, generating possible solutions, and eventually selecting the best according to objective criteria.) Essentially, the insight boils down to this:
- Six Sigma processes are appropriate for studying and analyzing processes and systems. Underlying this methodology is the assumption that: 1) operational and production processes can be viewed from a problem-solving lens; 2 the problem though complicated, can ultimately be known; 3) through appropriate analysis and study, the problem can be solved, i.e., a ‘right’ answer can be found; and 4) a good implementation plan can then eventually be designed and implemented. Most Six Sigma teams devote the bulk of their attention and energy on getting this right.
- Organizational change and transformation processes are based on different assumptions: 1) organizations and people are systems; 2) systems are complex and therefore are inherent unknowable; 3) complex issues and systems cannot be solved; at best they can be aligned with a common direction and purpose; 4) successful implementation in a system requires the alignment of individual and collective, as well as personal and organizational/community systems and structures. Even if the Six Sigma gets a 100% correct answer to the problem, implementation may not succeed unless conscious attention is also placed in parallel during the project on engaging the people within the organization for alignment with the eventual change.
- Conversational methods are uniquely suited to help people grapple with the complexity of the need and implications of change, to understand and embrace diverse points of view, and to gradually gain a larger system’s perspective. Such methods are also effective in drawing out insights, generating creative ideas, and obtaining contributions from the people affected by the change that the Six Sigma team can incorporate or address in such a way that it may make a big difference in the eventual acceptance of the proposed changes. Adding conversational methods to the Six Sigma toolkit, and learning how to attend to the dimension of change from start to end can go a long way to enhance the eventual success of a Six Sigma project.