If there is one factor that can make or break a successful continuous improvement program, it is top level leadership support. In an article titled “Lean Manufacturing’s Next Life” that was published in ChiefExecutive.Net, the CEO of a sixty-year-old family owned company, WIKA Alexander Wiegand SE that has significantly reduced manufacturing lead times using Lean states, “I still participate one or two times a year in a Kaizen workshop. Everybody in the company knows that I am always very interested in the results and seeing what has changed.”
In order to sustain the continuous improvement program, top leadership buy in is extremely important. There are numerous examples of companies that have started a program with mid-level management support that ultimately fizzled out within a couple of years. At the same time all the major success stories that we hear are for companies that have had strong top level leadership support and commitment. Leadership support also helps create a strong sense of urgency and setting up appropriate expectations.
The first step, and probably the most important, is to set the right tone for your continuous improvement (CI) journey. The reason and need for change needs to be clear, concise, and well understood at all levels of the organization, from the lowest level (you might want to choose another word instead of “lowest”) of employees to the executive leadership. The leadership needs to set the expectations for the entire company. Many organizations start CI programs as a flavor of the month, but without clear strategy behind it the program dies down without reaching its full potential.
Many business leaders support and deploy Six Sigma or Lean programs with the sole intention of driving hard cost reductions. But the reality is that all continuous improvement initiatives do not have cost savings or revenue gain that are hard dollar numbers, and this is probably not the right expectation for business leaders to have from any continuous improvement initiative.
However, initial leadership resistance to change management can be removed by generating the proof of concept early on and getting buy in from the leaders. The following piece has been adapted from the article published on iSixSigma’s website in June 2011 under the heading “Driving Six Sigma Success without Top-Level Support” that was written by one of this book’s authors.
This kind of situation usually arises when a departmental leader initiates a Six Sigma or Lean program without real support from leadership. Once a few projects get completed, usually leaders buy-in and commit additional resources to the program and it starts growing. In these scenarios, there are four critical factors that can ensure success of the program in the long run:
Factor 1: The project leader needs to show proof of concept and ensure a successful project with quick turnaround.
Factor 2: The project leader needs to build a team made up of individuals who need the victory. The project should directly address the team’s pain points with a process.
Factor 3: You need to demystify Lean or Six Sigma and avoid jargon. In the initial stages it is easier to get buy-in by avoiding technical Six Sigma language
Factor 4: The project leader needs to be his or her own champion and key cheerleader of the project. Once the project is successful, the project leader needs to take the initiative to advertise and sell the benefits within the company and even outside.
To summarize, even without top level support a Six Sigma or Lean program can be successfully established and eventually sustained in an organization. However, in order to achieve that it is important to select the right project, have the right team, stay away from technical jargon and acronyms initially, and communicate project success once the first project is successfully completed. Chevron is a great example where a grassroots program started by a few zealous employees in one division ultimately became a corporate wide initiative saving the company millions of dollars since 2008.