Establishing A Continuous Improvement Organization and Infrastructure

In a previous post we discussed when it makes more sense to build an internal capability versus hiring an external consultant. As we now know, a sustainable continuous improvement program requires the right corporate infrastructure in place that can support and build the continuous improvement program. Before we get to the details of how a typical organization that is required to build the internal capability would look like, let’s briefly visit the support structure required for external consultants.

External Consultants

External consultants are typically engaged by a sponsor of the continuous improvement initiative, and that is generally a big plus for the ultimate success of the program as the sponsors are mostly in a senior leadership position. However, it is not sufficient to just have a sponsor of the program–at a minimum different business leaders needs to be engaged in the effort as they are the stakeholders and, in most cases, process owners as well who will ultimately be impacted by and mostly benefit from the initiatives.

However, it is important to note that if there is no corporate wide initiative to implement a continuous improvement program and external consultants are leveraged for just imparting Lean or Six Sigma training to individuals in one or two departments, a steering committee is not needed. In these kind of situations, where a group within an organization is “testing the waters,” just having the departmental head as the sponsor or champion of the initiative is sufficient.

In many cases this might actually be a great way to get started with Lean Six Sigma. The initial group becomes the pilot group, and their project success validates the fact that Lean Six Sigma can be applied and can generate great success across the entire organization.

Internal Program:

Successfully building an internal program requires a department staffed with full time, dedicated resources whose primary focus should be in building the continuous improvement program. Almost all the companies that are recognized globally as leaders in continuous improvement have a quality or continuous improvement department that is responsible for driving the program and delivering to the business as per commitments made.

The actual work of program managing the continuous improvement initiative falls on a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt–companies who are just starting their continuous improvement program can actually benefit from hiring a skilled and experienced MBB from outside the company who has the experience in building these kinds of programs. .

Another advantage with hiring a certified LSSMBB lies in the fact that Lean Six Sigma certification is probably the only industry accepted and globally recognized certification in the continuous improvement world and assures a minimum level of knowledge and understanding of the different continuous improvement methodologies.  When it comes to developing internal training curriculum and infrastructure, the company can also leverage the LSSMBB instead of having to depend on external consultants and thereby save a significant amount of costs as well as be able to design a curriculum that fits in with the company’s culture.

Opportunity for Growth:

As previously mentioned, a successful and visible internal quality or continuous improvement program can actually help in retaining talented staff as well as attract best candidates from the outside world. When such a program exists it becomes an attractive vehicle to reward high achievers grow within the business.

As part of their training, these candidates work on one or more projects in their respective area of work and gain a better understanding of how their department and more importantly processes within that department function.

Working on these projects benefits the candidates in various ways–it develops them as leaders capable of delivering on major initiatives, it gives them visibility to senior leadership, and finally it is a great way for these individuals to learn more about other departments or overall business. Even though this sounds very logical on paper, in reality few companies have been really able to get this right for various reasons but most notably due to lack of top level support for the program.

Having the Right Sized Infrastructure:

Managing and running a successful continuous improvement program can be pretty difficult and companies who have shown commitment to the program have ensured that enough resources are dedicated to it. However, that does not mean that a company needs to hire a bunch of Master Black Belts. In fact, MBBs as a percentage of total employees should not be more than 0.1 percent. The areas where the company needs to invest more would be around program management, training, developing internal Green Belts, a few Black Belts, and in ensuring that successful projects are suitably recognized and rewarded.


The United State Postal Service (USPS) has a Lean Six Sigma program in place to drive process improvements. Usually at USPS, Lean Six Sigma Black Belts are brought in as consultants or contractors for a longer term (around five years) reporting to an assigned manager and are responsible for identifying opportunities, reporting metrics, and training, in addition to driving process improvement projects.