You Don’t Find Broken Bones With Surgery–Nor Do You Find Workflow Defects With Six Sigma


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[This is the second in a series of posts I’ll be making using edited excerpts from my new book: “Process to the People: delivering process wellness outside of manufacturing.” My goal is to complete writing by mid-2008.]

Several years ago, I was contacted by division of a Fortune 100 global manufacturer and asked to roll out Visual Workflow to solve some nasty variable (non-manufacturing) process problems. The company, which crawled with black belts and green belts, had been applying six sigma for several years to find and fix these process defects, but to no avail. Regardless, we still had to pass muster with this division’s representative on the global six sigma council before we could bring a relatively new and unknown (to them) process technique into their six sigma environment.

So I met with this stern looking woman who took me aback by asking me directly, without any preceding pleasantries, “Why should we let you in here with this Visual Workflow stuff we’ve never heard of, when we’re the poster company for six sigma?” I had to scramble for words, but I recovered and said: “Because Visual Workflow is like an MRI, while six sigma is like surgery, and you don’t go looking for broken bones with surgery.”

After the words spilled out of my mouth, I almost swallowed my tongue in fear of having crossed the line. Until she burst out laughing and said, “Okay, I get it.” From there we had an excellent conversation about our experience finding most variable process defects embedded in how work and information flow from person to person, function to function, and between the company and customers, suppliers and the like. Most variable process defects are in the handoffs of work and information, or as we call it “the seams.” That’s a 180° apart from six sigma looking for manufacturing defects in the way individuals perform their own work.

Driving almost all these differences is the nature of variable work—which is almost all information-based, making information management as significant a process element as work design. Plus, while manufacturing works on a “do it, pass it along” system, accomplishing most variable work requires cross-functional cooperation and collaboration. You can’t design variable work one function at a time. And you can’t measure it one function at a time.

Still, we haven’t yet touched on the most fundamental difference between manufacturing process and variable process. The need for alignment.

Manufacturing process operates quite independently of the rest of the company. When business strategy changes, manufacturing doesn’t have to change in response—unless it has to make new products or better products or cheaper products. But these adjustments don’t affect core manufacturing process. And if manufacturing process does change, the changes rarely affect strategy. Manufacturing-specific technology may have to change to compensate—but enterprise technology driving the company? Not a problem. So alignment with other functions is almost a moot point.

In contrast, variable process is highly interdependent. When business strategy changes, as so often happens today in the scramble by companies to stay competitive by becoming more customer-centric, process must change accordingly. Otherwise, companies wind up acting out Freud’s definition of insanity:
Doing the same things over and over again but expecting different outcomes.

Variable process should work like a corporate transmission to convert business strategy into work—the right work to produce the desired strategic outcomes. That ties variable process effectiveness to alignment with business strategies. And when strategy changes trigger process changes, the process changes in turn trigger the need to change technology support. This ties technology effectiveness to alignment with process —both for systems architecture, which controls information flow, information accessibility and data integration, and for application software.

How can companies achieve alignment using manufacturing approaches that treat technology as an afterthought? Beats me. And beats them, too, because they don’t get to alignment. Aligning the “moving parts” that make up the variable components of companies is a fundamental variable process design requirement. And trying to accomplish variable environment alignment with manufacturing process tools is like looking for broken bones with a hammer.

Would you do that to a company?


  1. Dick

    Your suggestion that manufacturing processes rarely change and that they are rarely affected by strategy is not really true anymore. It may have been true in the bad-old days of can’t stop the production-line manufacturing, but it is definately not the case in much of today’s human-driven cellular manufacturing.

    For example, Toyota has made over 20 MILLION documented improvements to its business processes over the past 40 years. That’s almost 20 per employee per year. And 95% of them were implemented within a few days of being identified. Kaizen, as this continuous process improvement is called is one of the central pillars of Toyota’s business strategy.

    I would like to see the major service businesses, indeed, any major service business, that has made even 1 million changes to its business processes over a similar time period.

    Variability, change and alignment are every bit as important to everyday business and business strategy in leading manufacturers, as they are in the service industry.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager (at Toyota)

  2. Dick Lee – Graham, sorry for the misunderstanding. We’re not talking about the same topics. When I mention “variable” process, I’m talking about work that can’t be prescripted, usually because it incorporates human judgment and/or human decisions. It doesn’t matter how many changes Toyota makes, manufacturing work is prescripted. Otherwise, it would be horribly inefficient.

    The “changes” I’m referring to are variances designed into a process that can’t be prescripted, whereas the “changes” you correctly report Toyota has made are design changes made to a repetitive, prescripted process. The two don’t equate.

    Regarding alignment, changes to manufacturing process do not interact with business strategies at a design level, as variable process changes do. Also, changing manufacturing process does not trigger technology changes outside of manufacturing, whereas changing some elements of variable process can have a domino effect on systems enterprise-wide – including on manufacturing systems, in some instances. Manufacturing needs to align with itself, not outside itself. In contrast, variable work settings have to align with other variable settings, with strategy, and with enterprise technology.

    I realize that bifurcating the process world into two equally important segments – manufacturing and variable – presents some significant communication problems. I’ll think about your comments as I edit to try to be clearer.

    I do agree with everything you say about Toyota, at least in a historical sense. But considering the precipitous decline in quality of Toyota cars, Toyota does have some very considerable unsolved process problems.


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