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Institutionalization: Making Lean Six Sigma Improvements Last

Every Lean Six Sigma Improvements project eventually draws to a close, hopefully with good results to show for all of the effort expended. True Lean Six Sigma improvements occur when changes are fully embraced by the organizational culture and the “new ways” become institutionalized. This is not as easy as it may sound, but you can maximize your likelihood of success when you focus on the key components required to create long term cultural and behavioral change.

The Definition of Institutionalization

What is institutionalization? Put simply, it is what happens when a process improvement becomes so Lean six sigma improvementmuch a standard part of the process and the organization that it no longer seems new or uncertain. It is ingrained across the organization and becomes the organizational “habit”, if you will.

Some lean six sigma improvements processes take a long time to become institutionalized, while others reach that point quite rapidly. It all depends on:

  • The scope of the changes
  • The organization’s culture
  • The thoroughness of the control plan
  • Human behavior

The last item on the list – human behavior – is the “wild card” element in institutionalization because human beings will sometimes go to astounding lengths to avoid, undermine, ignore or fight change. The best way to institutionalize Lean Six Sigma improvements is to focus on human behavior first, putting into place the elements necessary to shape and influence human behavior throughout the organization.

The Importance of a Good Control Plan

A good, solid control plan is important because it establishes measurements and tracking points to make sure that process improvements continue to work and become institutionalized. Without a good control plan, process improvements will disappear over time – sometimes over an amazingly short period of time.

The best control plans do not require external influences or adjustments to keep a process on track; rather, they have well-designed actions and feedback loops that continuously monitor a process and apply necessary adjustments automatically due to internal mechanisms. This means that process improvements are self-sustaining and will more rapidly become institutionalized as part of the organization.

Start with Behavior

As noted earlier, human behavior is the most important variable in any control plan or effort to institutionalize process improvements. As much as you may like to just order employees to comply with changes, that is probably the worst way to implement change. It practically guarantees resistance, making change that much more difficult.

Instead, experienced Lean Six Sigma practitioners seek to shape and influence human behavior through a combination of methods, such as:

  • Communication – Open, honest communication about changes is vital. Messages should include information and explanation about why changes are necessary, how they will affect the organization, and how they will affect employees.
  • Procedures – All procedures directly and indirectly related to the process must be revised appropriately to reflect required behavioral changes. Many companies do a good job of changing direct procedures, but miss the mark on indirect or related procedures that affect the efficiency or effectiveness of a process.
  • Training – Affected employees must receive appropriate training and education to ensure that they know how to perform the new procedures adequately. It is unfair to employees and unwise for the organization to just implement changes without providing suitable training.
  • Incentives – Employee incentives should be revised to encourage the right kinds of behavior. For example, if improved quality is one of the process improvements then consider establishing incentives to promote quality over speed as a way to demonstrate how important quality is to the organization.
  • Compensation – At the root of many process improvements is a shift in the compensation structure for employees. This is sometimes as easy as starting or adjusting Lean six sigma improvements incentive programs, while other times it is more complicated and requires greater overall changes to compensation grades and levels.
  • Consequences – It is inevitable that some employees will “test” the process improvements and the organization overall by resisting, undermining, or otherwise finding ways to avoid fully embracing change. It is critical to have appropriate consequences in place and enforced to shape the behavior of those people who need a little more “influencing” to adapt.

Recognize Results

Success breeds more success, so when positive results appear you must recognize and celebrate them. Even small results are important, because they help employees better understand what is expected of them and gain confidence in their ability to fulfill those expectations. In the beginning, you must note all good results, no matter how small, and communicate clearly that they are early signs of success.

It is much like teaching a small child to ride a bike. Each small step toward success boosts the child’s confidence and encourages him or her to keep trying until success is achieved. Even then, though, there is a period of extended learning while the child gets stronger and more capable, expanding into riding in different areas and at different speeds, all the while gaining confidence from each small success.

Influence Cultural Change

Over time, the organization will undergo cultural change. This is indeed a long term process, and one that will only occur by building on successful results from many Six Sigma process improvements.

In other words, one 6 Sigma project will not produce lasting cultural change on its own. It takes regular application of Six Sigma methodology to a series of projects, which influences behavioral changes, which influences positive results, which over time leads to cultural change.

This is yet another area where top leadership within an organization can truly make or break the success of 6 Sigma improvements. When leadership is committed to long-term cultural change and institutionalization of the Six Sigma approach, the whole organization begins to shift direction. It may appear in such diverse areas as:

  • Product quality
  • Profitability
  • Employee morale
  • Hiring decisions
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Increased participation in company-sponsored activities
  • Greater employee retention
  • Fewer complaints
  • Increased enthusiasm and sense of teamwork
  • Positive public image

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