Summer has almost come to a close – and thank goodness! Up here in the Northeast, we’ve been subjected to tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. I’ve been waiting for the locusts to descend! And outside of dodging hail and charging my laptop with my car’s cigarette lighter when we lost power for three days (yes, that’s my lunch on the armrest), I’ve been hard at work. The business of analytics does not take a break in summer!
A little earlier in the season, I wrote a couple of posts on process improvement. In fact, I spent most of the summer working on my Lean Six Sigma (LSS) Black Belt certification (done!) and teaching a class on IT Strategy (done!). My interest in LSS is in how the methodology can be used as part of a toolkit for improving analytic lifecycle management – effectively and efficiently managing the elements necessary for operationalizing predictive models from conception to deployment.
Part of the certification process includes the execution of a Black Belt project. Since I didn’t have any customers that wanted to be guinea pigs, I selected an internal project. Typically, people think of LSS as applying to manufacturing scenarios (e.g. broken widgets), but LSS is definitely applicable to transactional businesses – and it can apply to any type of transaction. While I can’t disclose the actual process, let’s just say it was in the arena of Sales and Marketing and it had something to do with cycle time of something (for those of you who don’t believe that utilizing LSS is possible in sales and marketing processes, I recommend Michael Webb’s book Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way). However, with any process improvement initiative, there are always going to be cultural and organizational challenges.
Over the past few months as I worked on the project, I developed a small internal network of LSS aficionados who served as informal mentors and cheerleaders. During the project execution, I encountered a number of people that I interviewed who were concerned about the perception of negativity. But it’s Six Sigma! Process Improvement! Reducing defects! One of my LSS pals gently reminded me that a defect in manufacturing is easy to spot – it’s either good or bad; in a transactional environment, it’s a lot greyer – in my cycle time example, just because something takes longer, does that make it defective? Well, that’s something that you need to iron out in advance with your project team. And it could be that your cycle time is okay, but your resources are going crazy meeting the deadline.
If you look at all of the templates and tools in the LSS process, they’re all about finding the root cause of the defect, which means that you’re looking for everything that goes WRONG, not necessarily what’s going right. People obviously get very sensitive about that. My LSS friend told me about a technique they used for a project in his MBA program called “Appreciative Inquiry.” It’s all about getting people in a room and talk about what’s going really well, what works best. They used the approach on an organization and he said the difference in energy and engagement (versus using the “negative” approach) was amazing. The session was productive, people got excited about participating, and they were able to focus on the things that worked (and through process of identification, what didn’t work).
Lesson learned: As with any methodology, it’s critical that you adapt the methodology to work within your organization’s culture. By changing your approach, you can achieve the same outcome (identifying “defects”), but in a kindler, gentler way. Turn that frown upside down!