How to Deliver the Full Potential of a Lean Six Sigma Initiative

As Operational Excellence professionals, we are all dedicated to eliminating waste from the processes we aim at improving. Yet, are we eliminating 100% of our own wastes? Are we leveraging the full benefits of what we are doing? Are we, ourselves, guilty of the 8thwaste (I mean waste of opportunity) as we are not always delivering the full potential of what we could?

I have come across many testimonies, articles and discussions focusing on how to improve our customers’ processes, but not so many dealing with how to improve our own process to improve.

None of us can disagree with the fact that following a process to improve processes would help to stabilize and control our deliverables, hence improving the quality, reducing the risk, improving the pace and reducing the variations of our process improvement initiatives. I would like to share my experience of making process improvement become a process in itself.

Staying loyal to how to describe processes, let’s build our process improvement SIPOC, starting with the Suppliers and Customers, then the Inputs, the Process, and finally the Outputs.

Suppliers and Customers

Of course, a committed sponsor, a dedicated process owner, the people performing the process daily – all of these are coming into the picture both as suppliers and customers of any process improvement initiative. However, beyond the usual stakeholders every one of us deals with daily, I would like to speak more specifically about who makes the difference between process improvement and process excellence: the Operational Excellence Champions. You may call them coaches, mentors, senior project managers, quality leaders, or whatever else; the Operational Excellence Champions are the guarantors of the quality of the deliverables. Somehow, they are the process owners of the process improvement initiatives. Their role is to establish the platform and the connections between the different stakeholders, ensuring the human energy put into the journey is fully utilized, without any waste.

The Champions can be experienced project managers, or act as coaches if the project manager is still learning. But in any case, their presence should be seen as an investment to reduce the waste of opportunity that would come as a result of failing to identify the full potential of the projects and capitalize on their full benefits.

One of the difficulties in being successful in such a role is that generally speaking, the Champions act with neither vertical nor horizontal reporting lines. They cannot command, they can only be recognized as natural experts, and be trusted for their capability and credibility. That is a difficulty, but at the same time, a great opportunity: once trusted, the Champions have the power to speak to any level of audience without being seen as a boss or a subordinate. And that will make some difficult comments a lot easier to hear for some challenging senior managers, and for some people involved in a process whilst resisting to change when asked by their peers. Pointing out and saying aloud what might be taken wrongly requires a fair bit of tact and care though; the non-hierarchical position of the Champion is a tremendous tool that can be used to establish connections between people who would not naturally or comfortably interact when constrained by the organizational boundaries. As a result, the Champions help to reveal hidden incoherence and to shed light on taboos.

Furthermore, such connections between the different people involved at any level, once established, create a sense of commitment to a team; a sense of belonging to a Community of Operational Excellence experts which will push people at any level of the organization (not only to think out of their box, but also to enlarge the box in which they think – thanks to the diversity of the people profiles and interactions.) As a consequence, everyone will feel more engaged in making successful results happen and will naturally and humanly enrich the process improvement journey, beyond the role given in the project as sponsor, process owner, stakeholder, etc.

The transversal – both vertical and horizontal – positioning of the Champion enables the people interactions, hence setting up a winning team as a good coach would do in any football, volley-ball or basket-ball team.

So, now that we have the people and we understand the difference Champions can make, let’s reflect on what the Champions should bring in the process to make a true difference between process improvement and process excellence.


I will bring the attention, here again, only on what makes such a difference, beyond the usual technical skills that any Lean Six Sigma expert can learn from a good book and that you are already well aware of. I see two main inputs that Operational Excellence Champions can provide better than anyone else: the Positive Energy to drive the change, and the connections that enable the critical synergies between the different key stakeholders and deliverables. Let me explain both inputs one by one.

Have you noticed that when you spend an afternoon in a shopping mall, your bank account is usually less full than before?  Positive Energy is the exact opposite: the more you spend, the more you have; and the more you communicate to others. Positive Energy is what the Champions can spend better than anyone else as passionate change leaders, hence contaminating all the other change agents with their infectious enthusiasm.  The Positive Energy brought in by the Champions makes a true difference particularly in two situations: (1) when a roadblock comes to threaten the success of the project, the Positive Energy to confront the obstacles makes the difference between success and failure; and (2) when the learner feels satisfied with half-deliveries and claims success too early, failing to capitalize the full potential of the work, the Positive Energy to continue makes the difference between good and great.

So, the Positive Energy brought in by the Champions, is a critical input that will contribute to realizing the full potential of process improvement, transforming process improvement into process excellence.

The second critical input best brought in by the Champions is the creation of connections: synergies between different people and synergies between different conclusions coming out of the application of the Lean Six Sigma methodology. We have spoken about the people synergies in the Suppliers and Customers section; now let’s speak about the connections across the deliverables of the project.

How many process improvement projects have you seen delivering no more than a list of discrete applications of the Lean Six Sigma tools? We are all convinced that continuous data is a lot more insightful than discrete data, right? So as Operational Excellence Champions, I believe part of our role is to connect the different conclusions coming out of the discrete deliverables, transforming a set of apparently discrete data into a continuous story line. Such an outcome requires the ability to step back, leverage the learning from previous projects and grasp the details while not losing view of the big picture. That is why appropriately connecting the different pieces of the puzzle needs to be done by a Champion: it requires time to feel and experience what the tools can do, and perseverance to challenge the meaning of the conclusions in a specific context – a difficult task for a newbie…

Now we know who we are and we know what we bring into the process improvement process. So let’s speak about the process itself.


A process to improve processes would be, without a doubt, a great tool to improve our success rate, to replicate and leverage best practices and to reduce the variations of the outcomes of our projects, wouldn’t it?  In short, such a process would make the difference between discrete process improvements picking up low-hanging fruits; and continuous, sustainable and transformational process excellence.

As explained earlier, the process owner of the process improvement process is the Operational Excellence Champion who brings: insight in the technical Lean Six Sigma methodology; Positive Energy resulting in passion and enthusiasm to drive improvement; synergies between people; and connections between the lessons learnt.

Yet, the Champion cannot bring in all the contextual knowledge of the environment; one cannot be an expert in everything. Such knowledge and expertise should be brought in by the subject matter experts, performing daily the process being improved.  If the process improvement skills remain disconnected from the context, only the low-hanging fruits will be picked up. So, here again, what will make the difference between process improvement and process excellence?  In my opinion, the difference comes from the ability of the Champion to ask the right questions at the right time, and the ability of the subject matter experts to bring in the relevant answers. That is how the connections will happen, and that is how the discrete data set will start to become a continuous story line revealing the hidden parts of the icebergs.

Asking questions instead of providing answers is critical to avoid directing the project into a single-sided vision. Whatever good or bad such a vision might be, one side of a coin is never going to help buying any good. It is especially important if the Champion acts as a coach: questioning will contribute to the development of the Belt. But it is also key when speaking to different stakeholders who might have different visions: by giving the people the opportunity to provide their own answers, they will feel heard and will, in return, be keen to genuinely listen to others.


Last component in our high-level process description: let’s now speak about the outputs of the process improvement process.

First and foremost: the business impact. A process improvement project must convincingly justify spending resources on improving; it must deliver tangible benefits to the business while transforming a series of disconnected and uncontrolled processes into a safe and stable environment delivering measurable value to the customers, quickly. That should result in doing more with less.

On the soft side of the coin, a process improvement process should also contribute to build credibility and trust for people to be willing to improve. People should not fear to improve anymore; however, strengthened by their positive experience, they should become eager to hear what to improve next.

In summary, the overall outcome of a good process improvement process would trigger the start of a continuous improvement cycle, resulting in process improvement to become sustainable, replicated, trusted. Isn’t that what we call Operational Excellence?  So I think I have demonstrated how following a process will turn process improvement into process excellence, resulting in utilizing the full potential of the power lying in our hands as Operational Excellence Champions.

Which questions to ask, when and how is the essence of what I have developed in “Lean Six Sigma: Coach me if you can”, my new book dealing with practical coaching techniques applied to process excellence, providing a 22-week guiding map applicable to any process excellence journey.

What is to be gained by whom from such a process excellence journey is also detailed in my book “Lean Six Sigma: Coach me if you can”, as a result of my own observations as a Lean Six Sigma coach and project manager.

Anne Ponton is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with broad experience in both Lean Six Sigma projects execution and Lean Six Sigma training and coaching. Beginning her career as a consultant in credit, market and trading risks management systems implementation in various banks across the world, Anne has then evolved towards the field of process improvement, leading numerous projects in the financial services, on a worldwide scale.

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