The Case for New Leadership Skills for the Lean Six Sigma Practitioner by Patricia V. Tyre

While it may be sad to see them go, the days of top down driven Lean Six Sigma or Operational Excellence efforts are long gone. Fading from memory are those leaders of the methodology – Bossidy, Welch, Hammer and Champy, wielding recommendations of “cascading the commitment” to the cause of Quality. Our existing leadership just doesn’t have it in them anymore. So is there anyone to replace them? Where are the leaders of today that can maintain the drum beat of continuous improvement? What new set of skills do we need to foster to bring about continuous change?

In the last decade, the financial stress of most organizations has broken the loyalty contract with most employees. Rapid internal change tends to allow employees to offer passive resistance to most large change programs. It’s true, passive participation in anything new may be a good strategy as new programs rarely get traction. On top of that, few employees want to emotionally commit to a program which may actually offer an organizational competitive advantage because – well, it’s just too risky. So how do organizations deploy Operational Excellence (Lean Six Sigma) programs now? What does the new environment look like that encourages companies to continuously raise the bar? Implementing Lean Six Sigma initiatives requires a new mindset that looks to the bottom of the pyramid to make gains. The new LSS practitioners require a combination of tools knowledge and obedience to methodology, but more importantly a high degree of social entrepreneurism.

Social entrepreneurs is a term now widely used to recognize those who are focused on making significant positive change in almost every aspect of our society. In most cases, “social entrepreneurs” are used in context for those in the not-for-profit world who focus on causes for the good of the society. But how much unlike the desire for social change is that of corporate change agent.

I would venture, not much. Most CEOs would be overjoyed to know that there is an internal motivation for continuous improvement embedded in every department. The cost of training, incentives, and morale boosting programs could be significantly reduced. So if we are hiring new Operational Excellence practitioners that exemplify the profile of the social entrepreneur – what are we looking for?

1. Longer Term View of the World

Those that bring to the job a long term vision of the future are the most successful. While breakthrough ideas in short order may be the dreams of all CEOs, they are not the reality of the world. Complex relationships among people, processes and data are not easily untangled. Incremental changes in behavior are additive, and require a runway to develop. This is where the skills and perspectives of the social entrepreneur are most effective.

Social entrepreneurs provide stability to a chaotic world. With a singular focus for improvement, they are most comfortable toiling toward a goal that is barely reachable in the present state. For those who see and embrace change, the element of time is secondary to permanency and impact. Not all Green belts should be asked what their world will be in 3 – 5 years, but progression to Black Belt and Master Black Belt certification should incorporate an ability to provide a strategic vision of the future.

2. Tolerance for Course Correction

Because of their motivation, highly successful entrepreneurs are highly self correcting. This may seem a simple point, but it cannot be overstated. Ask any CEO, it is inherently difficult to reverse course once an organization gains momentum. It takes a combination of hard headedness, humility and courage to stop and say; “this isn’t working” or “our assumptions were wrong”, particularly when markets and careers are contingent upon a pre-authorized plan.

Changing direction is almost tantamount to committing political suicide. However, embracing those with a social entrepreneurial inclination find that self correction comes easily – almost naturally. This motivation to self correct stems from the attachment to the goal rather than to the particular approach or plan. For all the time required to jot down every task, good Lean Six Sigma practitioners know when to toss out the model and rethink the plan.

This is true in the macro sense of establishing a Lean Six Sigma (Operational Excellence) program within a company, or on a project – micro level. Like young businesses, process and organizational change units should go through much iteration as their strategies or “business models” evolve in response to problems, corporate inertia, problems, opportunities and market conditions. If not, it is unlikely that a Lean Six Sigma organization will reach a stage where it can achieve major impact. A LSS practitioner with a social entrepreneur’s willingness to self-correct (combined with an openness to the market and a natural growth orientation) is vital to this continuously adaptive process.

Interestingly, the inclination to self correct is a quality that seems to distinguish younger practitioners from their older and better established counterparts. It is a quality that seems to diminish with time as employees and practitioners of Lean Six Sigma become increasingly attached, or even chained to their ideas, methodology, tools and experiences. Moreover, the more one remains attached, subject to the assumptions and rules of the corporation around them, the more they lose touch with the market (the need of the larger unit) to embrace change and the intellectual rigor that is inherent in the methodology.

With every dash board and spreadsheet available, Lean Six Sigma practitioners have a chance to challenge their impact. Yet reflective moments and transparent unhappiness with their own business model are rare occurrences, except for those who are committed to the cause.

3. Willingness to Share Credit

It has been said that there is no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit. For Lean Six Sigma practitioners with a social entrepreneurial spirit, a willingness to share the credit lies along the “critical path” to success, simply because the more credit they are willing to share, the more people typically will want to embrace them. However, this quality, like the willingness to self correct, also grows out of motivation.

If an entrepreneur or a Lean Six Sigma practitioner’s true intentions are simply to make change happen, then sharing credit will come naturally. However, if the true intention is to be recognized as having made the change happen, sharing credit runs against the grain. This level of self importance can be assessed in early interviews of future Lean Six Sigma candidates and for the Black Belt, it becomes apparent during the mentorship of Green Belts.

For the management of the social entrepreneurial spirit, recognition still must be present in standard reviews and meetings. However, it is critical how that recognition bubbles up and manifests itself.

4. Willingness to Break Free of Established Structures

Social entrepreneurs can cause change by re-directing existing organizations. They are naturally endowed with energy and passion and no stone is left unturned. With the continuous onslaught of competition, any corporate CEO would pay dearly for an internal group of change agents with the passion to move things quickly in response to a perceived need.

However, Lean Six Sigma change agents need to be less encumbered. They thrive in fluid organizations with less stress on incentive structures and institutional constraints. While they often take more personal and financial risk, what they gain is freedom to act and the distance to see beyond orthodoxy in their field. This is most critical for companies striving for innovation because these practitioners come with the unique ability to separate the future from the past. They also have blindness for organizational hierarchy, vacation schedules, and time clocks. These structures hold little weight for the social entrepreneur.  Independence from established structures not only helps social entrepreneurs wrest free of prevailing assumptions, it gives them latitude to combine resources in new ways.

5. Willingness to Cross Disciplinary Boundaries

Swim lane diagrams are just that, diagrams. A solid Lean Six Sigma practitioner pushes beyond the lines that define departments, organizations and even legal entities. A Green Belt project often seeks to gather members from multi-disciplinary points – so why then do we not look for those practitioners that naturally cross disciplinary boundaries.

Indeed, one of the primary functions of social entrepreneurs is to serve as a kind of social alchemist; to create new social compounds; to gather together people’s ideas, experiences, skills and resources in configurations that society (or the corporation) is not naturally aligned to produce.

How great would it be for the corporate environment to experience break through products or process configurations, yet again and again the practitioner hired is the safer, less creative employee – those that play well within the structures and rules set out by their management and doesn’t necessarily challenge the boundaries.

6. Willingness to Work Quietly

Many people with a social entrepreneurial bent spend decades steadily advancing their ideas, influencing people in small groups or one on one; it is often exceedingly difficult to understand or measure their impact. Often they become recognized only after years in relative obscurity. A good Lean Six Sigma practitioner should be able to understand and demonstrate the same temperament.

In many long term change programs, those that are willing to put themselves behind the key players are those that are most successful. Any Change Management program should advocate humility and a long term vision. This marathon educational process in tools, techniques, and problem approach will eventually encourage those that they touch to think differently about how significant change can happen. Through this process of intimate discussion, each Lean Six Sigma practitioner will be spreading a value system that recognizes and honors the extraordinary personal efforts to effectively solve major problems and finish major projects.

Unfortunately, this kind of power over people is poorly understood and rarely characterized in public discourse. One can readily summon an image of Jack Welch, but it is difficult to imagine the cumulative forces of those in middle management embracing the methodology and vision and making it their business to spread the word to whomever they could reach. This twisting of the thesis from a “power over” to a “power within” shakes the foundations of how to get things done, and flies in the face of those who wish to ascend to power without the inherent ability to make real change.

Initiating or maturing a Lean Six sigma process excellence effort requires practitioners that must have pure motivation to push an idea so steadily for so long with little fanfare. In his Memoirs,Jean Monnet, the architect of European unification, observed that “one cannot concentrate on an objective and on oneself at the same time.” To Monnet, people of ambition fell into two groups, those who wanted to “do something” and those who wanted to “be someone”.

The main concern of many very remarkable people is to cut a figure and play a role”, he noted. “They are useful [to society], where images are very important and the affirmation of character is essential to the administration of affairs. But in general, it is the other kind of people who get things moving – those who spend their time looking for place and opportunities to influence the course of events. The places are not always the most obvious, nor do opportunities occur when many people expect them. Anyone who wants to find them has to forsake the limelight.”  Not too far from what we hold as true for making strong process and organizational change in our corporations.

7. Strong Ethical Impetus

Joseph A. Schumpeter’s observations of social entrepreneurs is that they are motivated not by profit, but by the “desire to found a private dynasty, the will to conquer in a competitive battle, and the joy of creating.” If so, why don’t those Lean Six Sigma or Process change organizations look for practitioners that have a strong social entrepreneurial theme? With this question, we arrive at the cross roads of social entrepreneurship: the ethics.

The acceleration of resources towards corporate “ethics and integrity” programs in a sense rivals the acceleration of resources in process efficiency and process improvement programs. Social entrepreneurs are driven by an ethical purpose, they could not see success if they didn’t. So then why isn’t there recognition of the overlap? How many Lean Six Sigma practitioners now are judged successful without demonstrating strong ethical standards.

Those who come to a problem be it a process, technical or social problem with a balanced ethical framework were usually influenced by a strong ethical presence in their personal history. Maybe it was an uncle, parent or friend. It is often the result of an experience that permanently clouded their reality related to practical, doable work. For those who embrace Lean Six sigma and process excellence – almost nothing is impossible.

In Summary:

Incorporating these new human attributes into a Lean Six Sigma program is not a task for those who cherish the past. Social entrepreneurs gather people together with a momentum of “the possible”. They challenge the status quo and possibly the existing management. They are not easily bribed by money. Their compensation provides them only the leverage to continue to practice their craft. Articulating these traits to Human Resources in order to gather more of the same may require more demonstration than documentation, but it’s a required effort.

Gathering those “social entrepreneurs” into larger corporations requires a recognition of a long term vision of the future, a willingness to self correct, a willingness to share credit, a willingness to break free to the point of almost disregarding established structures, courage to cross disciplinary boundaries, a temperament that allows them to work quietly for their teams and customers and a strong ethical impetus. Find these people and you will find a healthy program for continuous change.

Business Excellence Group © 2011

Patricia V. Tyre, President of Business Excellence Group, Inc, a management consulting firm focused on deploying Operational Excellence in blue chip companies.  A twenty year veteran of successful business transformation projects across multiple industries and in over 16 countries, her firm offers clients a value proposition based on measurable return on investment and organizational self sufficiency. A well known speaker and author, she seeks to change the paradigm of leadership through collaborative design and innovation.

Contact her at

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