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Ken Levine


Some Thoughts on Lean Six Sigma and the Coronavirus

Lean Six Sigma professionals have the objective orientation, methods, and tools to help

Published: Tuesday, June 16, 2020 - 12:03

Lean Six Sigma (LSS) professionals have an enormous opportunity to add value to organizations and to our communities during this coronavirus pandemic. We have the objective orientation, methods, and tools to help. Process improvement is currently more important than ever in this “new normal” environment. Furthermore, it is clear that this is not a short-term event; it is a time for structural change. We also do not have the time to ponder the possibilities for too long.

The purpose of this article is to suggest a few thoughts and actions that would be helpful to consider.

The opportunity is huge because there is a clear need for change. Everyone is aware that we need to rethink our processes for the sake of the health crisis, as well as for economic reasons. And it is also obvious that we need analytics to find the proper balance between reward and health and safety. This is also not new to us, as this trade-off has always been with us, especially in manufacturing.

Lastly, we also have the opportunity to reinvent our future for the better, with health and safety, green, climate change, and other considerations. These are not less important to the future of our planet than the coronavirus. We have the ability to consider them all. We have no choice. In many ways, the current crisis can enable critical changes that were not politically feasible only a few months ago.

We must not allow ourselves to be immobilized by uncertainty. We just need to take a contingency-planning approach. Think decision trees. We may not know the environment six months from now, but we can consider the major possibilities, such as:
1. The virus will be gone, either on its own, or due to a new vaccine, sooner than predicted.
2. The virus will be gradually declining.
3. The virus will level out and stay with us for a very long time.
4. The virus will spike or continue to grow beyond our ability to get ahead of it.

Do two or three scenarios to start, based on what you know, and what you believe might happen to the economy and marketplace. Then, for each of these categories, plans can be developed. The uncertainty will no longer be an issue. Regardless of what happens, you will be prepared. Because business has slowed, you can use the slack time to create these plans and prepare to implement them.

Surviving losses and downsizing

There is much to do. But before we go too far, one key question must be answered. Do we have the ability to absorb and survive short-term losses, and position ourselves to take advantage of the situation by investing in our future? If so, this would be a totally different mindset. Present your contingency plans to your owners and shareholders. This will ensure that you have their financial support to grow. Think about coronavirus-related activities that can be initiated now that would foster long-term growth such as new products or service-delivery methods which would set you apart from the competition.

Rethink your use of lean and Six Sigma concepts and tools. Is a single supplier strategy still the best (to reduce variation), or do we need more flexibility in the supply chain at this time? Should we “insource” some of our functions to reduce risk? How do we balance rewards with potential risk or harm? What else can we use from our lean Six Sigma toolkit? How about root cause analysis, project management, SWAT analysis, structured brainstorming, failure mode and effects analysis, theory of constraints, or 5S? Challenge your lean Six Sigma enthusiasts to reimagine what they do and how they do it.

Regardless, it is critical that you retain your most valuable employees. Work/family balance has always been difficult, and we lean on our best people the most, especially during challenging times. The best people can always find new jobs. It is therefore essential that we begin to look holistically at our key employees and help them ensure their own well-being, and that of their families.

Note that downsizing will continue to occur in organizations, due to decreased demand, pruning of less-profitable product lines, new technology, continued automation, continuous improvement, and now social distancing (less space for employees). Downsizing is not a new phenomenon but can demoralize an entire workforce for years. In order to deal humanely with those losing their jobs, and also to protect the morale of the workers who keep their jobs, we need to help displaced employees in every way that we can. Remember, this could happen to you, and in any event, many of these people were responsible for creating and sustaining the organization where you have the privilege to work. Treat them with respect and consideration.

Many years ago, as a young manager, I brought all of my employees together and told them that I was tired of the line forming outside of my office door at the end of every day. I was especially frustrated to hear that commitments made would not be delivered, because “things happen” out of their control. I explained to them that I believed personal health and family were most important but could not be used as an excuse for shirking commitments. I asked them to think about this and get back to me in two days with their suggestions.

I was pleasantly surprised with their responses. Some suggested that we not make commitments if we were not absolutely sure they could be kept. Others suggested a “buddy system,” where every important task could have a backup in case of out-of-control contingencies. I was asked to initiate a serious cross-training process to enable that solution. I asked my experienced personnel to coach new hires. They began to work on their own in teams. I think this idea may work well and would be useful in our current workplace; we can anticipate that some of our workers will unfortunately become sick and will be unable to perform their job duties.

Encourage participation

Involve your employees in decision-making whenever possible. If you have the luxury to adopt a growth strategy, make sure they understand that this may open new opportunities for them. Of course, make sure that they always feel appreciated! (And note that this does not mean that you cannot also provide separate feedback on how they can do parts of their job better.)

Invest in new technologies and methods, such as ones that would enable social distancing. Ask your work-at-home professionals to lead discussions about how to do it best. Provide the best meeting management tools and training that you can make available. Figure out how to make working at home more fun and less stressful. Let your employees lead this effort.

Get regular suggestions from your workforce. I am not recommending a suggestion box. After a flurry of activity, most of these programs become useless. Usually it is because the initial enthusiasm is gone, the head of the program gets promoted, or the responses to the suggestions are not timely or genuine. And, of course, such an initiative will certainly die if a large number of suggestions are not implemented.

I attended a national HR professional meeting years ago. The theme was suggestion programs. I attended many of these presentations. On the second day, I began to talk to another participant because we found ourselves going to many of the same sessions. I asked her if she was getting much out of the sessions. She said that she was not. She told me that her company’s suggestion process was very simple and much more effective. The president of the company at her weekly meetings asked direct reports what good new ideas were coming up from their part of the organization. It did not take long before this question filtered down to the workers for their ideas because no one wanted to report that they had no new ideas that week. So, let’s not over-complicate things. Let’s just recommit to getting lots of new ideas from the people who do the work and speak directly and regularly to our customers: our employees.

In summary, change is accelerating. We are on the front lines to help our organizations rationalize their future. We can help in so many ways. We know data, systems, analytics, process improvement, project management, and so much more. Now, if we can really place our focus on people and their needs as well, we can help everyone with this crisis, now and even more going forward.


About The Author

Ken Levine’s picture

Ken Levine

Ken Levine is a Lean Six Sigma management consultant. He retired as director and lead instructor in the Lean Six Sigma certification program at Georgia State University in Atlanta in 2019. He holds a doctorate in business administration. Levine retired from The Coca-Cola Company in 2000 where he held the position of director of continuous improvement in the Coca-Cola USA division for three years. Levine is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and Certified Purchasing Manager. He has previously published “Root Cause Analysis Takes Too Long,” “How to Determine the Worst Case for a Process,” “Recycling Your Meeting Waste”, “What Really is a Stretch Objective”, and “Ensuring LSS Success with a Robust Define Phase” in Quality Digest.

For more articles by Levine, click here.




Kaizen or Kaikaku?

Six Sigma has traditionally aligned itself with Kaizen.  While I am not sure about LSS, the rapid onset of the virus its transmission, probable mutation, and effects on the economy would infer that Kaikaku might be a better strategy for adjusting to the changing medical and economic conditions. 

Kaikaku, which has been incorrectly labeled as 'Breakthrough Kaizen' by some, is a method of change that is more dynamic and rapid, as opposed to the methodical cyclic DMAIC process endorsed by Kaizen.  While some traditional LSS types might fear rapid, radical change, we should take heart in knowing that Kaikaku-type change has been used for more that 50 years in Project Management; a method known as 'Waterfall'. Only in the past decade has Project Management begun to endorse Kaizen-type methods, known collectively as 'Agile'.  

Rapid response to change during these covid-19 times can make the difference between ' business as usual'  and innovation, between abysmal performance and success, between failure and company survival. Kaikaku should certainly be considered when change is planned for implementation during these rapidly developing scenarios. 'Analysis Paralysis', a frequent drawback of Kaizen, must be avoided in any case.