Actually, the following rant applies to using Six Sigma or Lean in any variable (non-production) environment, but “variable environment” is hardly a household term, whereas “front office” readily connotes the “marketing, sales and service” subset of variable settings. Anyway, I’ve recently had several more brushes with organizations and consultants perpetrating this sham, so I thought I’d spout off a bit and stir up some trouble.
Truth be told, I believe that Lean is a powerful tool when used as originally intended, in manufacturing. I’m less impressed with six sigma, but so are lots of other folks after trying it, as it seems to be headed for remission. But you can still rationalize applying it in manufacturing.
So what’s my gripe? Let me express it this way. All process approaches contain a small, basic set of generic process tools. Beyond that, each approach adds lots more very specific tools that distinguishes it from other approaches. And as it happens, both six sigma and Lean-specific tools are thoroughly inappropriate for use very far outside of manufacturing.
Take six sigma – the most inappropriate approach for the front office. Applying six sigma, as designed, requires several operating conditions to be successful: high repetition work activities; a need for minimizing variation; and the primary source of defects found at the individual work station level. Unfortunately none of these conditions routinely exist in the front office. The bulk of front office work is low repetition with a significant decision-based component (making variability a plus rather than a sin) and with the vast majority defects found in how work moves from work station to work station, department to department or among internal and external participants. Hardly a good match.
As for Lean, it’s designed to drill down on and fix specific activities so they’ll contribute more value while costing less – and it also tries to eliminate as much inventory and in-process materials as possible. Great, except that most front office functions are so interrelated with other functions and stakeholders that fixing one defect without thoroughly understand the upstream and downstream effects is hazardous. And as for reducing inventory and flexibility to create more inventory in a hurry, that’s hardly customer-friendly, which is what the front office is all about (or should be). In fact, stock-outs readily produce customer “walk outs.”
So how do six sigma and Lean practitioners get away with operating in the front office? Very circumspectly. They just empty out their toolbox of approach-specific tools and fall back on generic process tools. But you’d better believe they keep right on using all the approach specific terms and basking in the buzz created by adopting such a recognized approach to finally bring discipline and order to the front office. Plus, they proudly tout they’re offering the real deal because they’re “measuring.” What a crock. Those of us who developed the third-party lead management industry back in the late 70s and early 80s we’re measuring as much as these “faux folks” claim to.
These folks are like dentists doing heart surgery.
What makes matters worse, all the artifice aside, is that both six sigma and Lean violate one of the most important principles of front office process improvement in today’s day and age: keep it democratic.
Among the principle differences distinguishing front office environments from manufacturing settings is level of employee empowerment. In manufacturing, employees largely do what they’re told. But front office employees can kill just about any change initiative they’re not fond of – and not part of. Six sigma and Lean both create elite, specially-trained teams that, basically, determine how others will work. Fine in manufacturing. Okay, perhaps less than fine. But when these process police squads march into the front office, they’re greeted by lots of “four finger salutes.” Bottom line, you can’t effectively change front office process without highly democratic involvement of lots of non-process trained employees.
So, considering all the downsides of six sigma and Lean in the front office, why do we keep trying it – or faking it? Three reasons.
First, a former colleague and leading faux six sigma practitioner explained it very clearly when I asked him that, and in so doing put the “former” in “former colleague.” When I asked the question, he answered that he knew he wasn’t really practicing six sigma, but he needed “the buzz” (his term) to differentiate his practice. ‘Nuff said.
Second, renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow said it as well as it can be said. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, then all the world tends to look like a nail.”
And third, more than a few process practitioners believe that business process – all business process – rests on one set of immutable principles. Hey, you can believe that about love, war, sex, the exchange economy – but business process? Give me a break.