Sow and grow. Or why Six Sigma needs time to take root.

I am sitting in the plant managers office, waiting on the lean engineer to join us and start the meeting on a new project for our infantile Six Sigma initiative of which I am a newly vested black belt in (at the time). I have crunched the numbers and analyzed the data and know for a fact that my project will easily hit the 50K minimum set forth by the plant manager as a requirement for a black belt project.

The lean engineer finally arrives and after fiddling with a wireless display that won’t work with my surface pro I promptly load my power point onto a thumb drive and pass of to the lean engineer to clumsily navigate my power point presentation outlining my project proposal.

I am feeling good halfway through the project as I am clearly showing that the project will easily save the company upwards of 65-85k annually through the reduction of variance in one of our components. What’s more is it will easily be transferable to other manufacturing processes on our shop floor if the other processes are suffering from the same causal relationship.

The plant manager has appointed himself the resident “Champion” and after watching my presentation looks at me and asks “How will you get buy in from people on the floor?”. My instant response is “On the back of corporate and administrative support for the initiative.” Although it didn’t come out like that. It rather came out like “By having you push the initiative with me.” That was met with a “I don’t need you to tell me how to do my job!” response of which was not my intentions. I was merely going back to my training that stated how a corporation must back Six Sigma completely in order for it to take hold.

After several awkward and confusing apologies, I reassure my superiors I can run a project and garner team support completely independent of them or anyone else. My “Champion” then gives it a thumbs up and away I go ready to conquer the world and solve the issues plaguing our machining processes.

I set up my first round of meetings with my team members I have selected and plow away at establishing what the root cause of the variance is. I promptly explain I nor they are here to change anything on the floor or with the machines or processes in place (they at the time are suffering PTSD from knee-jerk decisions from supervisors). We are simply to come up with a list to tackle the issue I have presented.

These initial meetings are somewhat awkward and ultimately we finally come up with a list that I can use to create a data collection template. I create the template, meet with my black belt team and move forward with the next phase, data collection.

This is where the seeds are starting to fall to the ground. My black belt team albeit really green consisting of only one member that understands Six Sigma (myself) has managed to create a list of possible hypotheticals as to what is causing the issues with our components. I personally formatted them into a nice format that is easy to use and we are off to the floor to implement data collection. I take this role personally because I want to ensure every employee operating the machine understands what it is we are after.

This is where seeds start to get kicked out of the dirt and on to the road. You see employees on the floor start questioning “What are we changing?”, “Why do we have to do this?”, “Who are you firing?”, “Who are you?” and the list goes on and on. I even had one employee tell me “Well I may forget to fill it out!” of all things. I start stressing at this point, do my best and manage to get all but one employee to buy in, she instead goes straight to mid management to file a complaint over having to fill out a data collection template.

Needless to say I manage to get through the sowing of my project and walk over to our project board in the front office and paste my project proposal among four other proposals and wait to see the growth of them take place. Our company had four individuals complete a black belt certification ( I elected to go on and test out at MBB). We now all had succeeded at least on the surface at sowing what would eventually become a bountiful harvest for the company, a wealth of savings that would occur in the coming months as our projects took root and germinated.

Fast forward now six months and I am currently the only one with a project left on the board showing any forward progress, not to detract from my fellow co-workers in any way. No, they did their part, they came up with concepts presented them to their superiors and proceeded to sow their projects with hopes of a successful harvest also. My project nearing it’s control phase will still meet it’s projected goals and it will still see a 50k+ savings if the controls and training are kept in place but it in reality could have done so much better with the right application of fertilizer (corporate support).

I would like to reference a parable by Jesus regarding sowing seeds and compare it with the projects that I have seen sown at my current position. The parable of the sower goes like this:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 

Now looking at my project board with three dead projects and mine barely hanging on it was easy to see what seeds had been sown where. Again I do not feel my coworkers are at fault in any way as we will see it clearly is an administrative task to nurture newly sown seeds of Six Sigma.

As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 

This to me would be the first project on the board. It was given the green light by administration. It boasted huge savings, and ultimately would be of a great benefit to the company. The only problem with it? It was not a Six Sigma project to begin with. It was simply a project that had a solution in sight and would not entail any data collection, analysis or team effort to solve. It was in a nutshell “completed” before it even started. It would in essence solve a major problem we were facing in one branch of our manufacturing processes. It was a problem the organization was aware of and kudos to the individual if it solves and addresses that issue, it however is not a Six Sigma seed and easily is eaten by the birds.

Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 

This would be the next project on the board. I personally know the guy that proposed it and what he was hoping to accomplish as well. This project again would solve a huge problem and save the company a substantial amount of money in machining processes. The problem quickly became that pricing for certain components were becoming an issue and what’s more the black belt on it was put on other projects and not allowed to finish it. This project had a lot of steam early on but due to his inability to stay on just the one project and see it through it soon succumbed to the scorching heat of the sun and has since withered.

Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 

This one I think occurs way more than we want to admit it in the manufacturing sector regarding projects. I am good friends with this black belt and his project was done correctly from the start. He formed a team, had access to all the data needed and was conducting full on DMAIC on his project only to get choked out by the thorns of corporate America.

Everything about his project was rocking along until it became evident he could not get solid controls for measurement. That coupled with upper management routinely allowing various departmental supervisors to change settings and work on various other factors that directly influenced the process he was trying to improve. He eventually would be forced to abandon the project due to many variables that were beyond his control. His project was awesome in construction and goals but could not continue to grow due to the weeds it was surrounded by.

Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 

Lastly there is my humble project that still has a glimmer of hope of surviving. Data collection was done, hypothesis analyzed and conclusions drawn. I am entering the control phase and it is a project that if fully vested will transfer to other areas and lead to at least a thirty fold increase as the parable states. However, without corporate support the work will have all been in vain and it also will wither and die.

We are trained that all black belt projects need to be 50K minimum in order to be considered. I think that is great if your sowers (black belts) are merely sowing seeds. See the problem for many corporations (including mine) is that they cannot afford a full time staff of black belts working on projects. My three co-workers and I were instructed to successfully implement our projects along with maintaining our current roles and responsibilities. What’s more there were no additional merits or benefits (which goes completely against Six Sigma methodology). We were to work an 8-9 hour day and plant a Six Sigma garden on the side. I do not have a problem sowing that which will benefit the company, however it ultimately will not lead to a good harvest. A thinly seeded field has to many weeds to choke out a good crop.

A thinly seeded field has to many weeds to choke out a good crop.

So where does this leave us now? How do we get Six Sigma to grow and take root? Let’s start by realizing that maybe smaller harvests in the 10-15k range may be better suited until there is a real corporate and companywide buy in to what Six Sigma is and the benefits it brings in terms of employee, employer and customer. Secondly realize that if you don’t have full time sowers (various belts) you are not going to reap the benefits of Six Sigma. Good farmers know investing in good seed and equipment lead to better harvests. The same can be said regarding how you plan on implementing Six Sigma in your organization. You can have a part time sower and reap a part time harvest, or you can have a full time sower that sows, tends and ensures the growth of those seeds of improvement. Lastly don’t expect a sower to grow good seeds on bad ground. If you and your corporate environment are not pushing Six Sigma and boasting about it the soil your black belts work will be nothing more than hard chunks of clay. Give them something good to work with and set them and yourselves up for a bountiful and successful harvest.

I hope you have enjoyed this article and again I mean no ill will to any of my co-workers nor my current organization. This article is merely a reflection of what I have observed in the past year as a Master Black Belt watching the project lifecycle. I hope you have been able to garner some “seeds” of wisdom from it and can better analyze what is taking place in your Six Sigma initiative. Peace and many blessings.

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