False Challenges to Implementation

A few weeks ago Industry Week ran a story “Can Lean Six Sigma Reduce Government Waste?”  The main title was interesting, but it was the sub-title that got my true attention, “Quality professionals say ‘yes,’ but outline challenges to implementation.”  I was shocked to find the following list of obstacles to implementation.

  • An environment faced with conflicting strategies, goals, and priorities.
  • Creating a sense of urgency to deploy a comprehensive improvement methodology across all government agencies.
  • The personnel management model currently used by many government agencies.
  • A lack of familiarity with Lean Six Sigma and how it can benefit the organization.
  • Ongoing political partisanship.

The number one obstacle the survey respondents mentioned was “the very structure of the U.S. federal government, which they say can be a barrier to comprehensive evaluation.”


Those are the obstacles that are stopping Lean implementations by more than 2,500 Lean professionals that responded to online surveys of the American Society of Quality?  If I were entirely honest (and this is my blog, so why not be?), this list seem like self-serving excuses, not true obstacles to implementation.

One by one, I can show you how these obstacles exist, yet they aren’t really what prevents implementations from succeeding.

Instead, the obstacle to implementation is: the implementers reliance on driving people as the means to achieve implementation.  If only they would choose to drive change instead.  That choice would dissolve the obstacles and open up success across government, and it wouldn’t require any congressional or presidential action to begin.

Required government investment in the solution: $0.  Changing your mind is free.

Government (and citizen) benefit from the solution: unlimited.

That’s the return on investment we need if we hope to get the reforms we need in our government.

If you want to reform government, start by driving change.  It’s possible to start today. Why not try?

As I promised: a one-by-one look at the survey respondents’ challenges.

An environment faced with conflicting strategies, goals, and priorities.

Every business or non-profit organization that undergoes any large change starts with this environment.  So what? Plenty of organizations succeed with Lean or other tool implementations with this starting obstacle present.

You start a successful implementation by carving out an area as large as you can where you can align strategies,goals and priorities.  Maybe that is only in a five man shop or maybe it is in a 10,000 person organization, but you start regardless.

Demanding alignment be provided before you begin implementation is an unreasonable requirement.  Columbus didn’t demand Atlantic storms cease before he set sail.  We’re risking less with our implementations, so why can’t we just begin?  We can, if we choose to.

Creating a sense of urgency to deploy a comprehensive improvement methodology across all government agencies.

This obstacle is the first of the all-or-nothing demands on this list.  You’re not going to get a sense of urgency across all government agencies before you begin.  Get over it and get started where you can create the urgency.

Each implementer can create urgency within their sphere of influence.  The fastest way to generate that sense of urgency is to stop driving people and start driving change.  Obstacle dissolved.  Quit wishing.  Start driving change.

The personnel management model currently used by many government agencies.

The presence of this obstacle shows that a large number of ASQ professionals firmly believe in the driving people philosophy .  You don’t need a single change to the personnel system if you drive change instead of people.

The goal of a change in the management model is to get greater control over the instruments of coercion.  When you abandon driving people you abandon your need for coercion to move people forward.

Anyone can start driving change tomorrow within the current management model, and in fact, many people are doing just that in government organizations across the country.  Is it everywhere? No, but it is possible and all it takes is a change in the behavior of the implementer.

No legal or congressional action is required.  How easy is that?

A lack of familiarity with Lean Six Sigma and how it can benefit the organization.

This is another way of saying, “If only the others were as smart as me, they would see how right I am.”  Sadly, this mindset creates the worst driving people behaviors because it shows you that the implementer assumes a moral or at least an intellectual superiority that justifies (in their mind) their right to boss around the others in the organization until those people show the implementer that they are suitably “familiar.”

There are many problems with this approach, not the least of which is the tendency of the implementers to continuously move the goal post for what “familiar” means (if they ever truly define it) because moving the standard allows the implementer to maintain their superiority and therefore their right to control the others.  I was guilty of this behavior in the past, so I know of what I speak.  It’s a terrible place for an implementer to live because there are very few limits to your cruelty to others when you feel righteous in your implementation.

You can break yourself of this belief quick enough if you watch the Overcoming Resistance to Change video right away.

Ongoing political partisanship.

I find it hard not to mock this answer.  There is some form of political partisanship in every organization; union versus management if not Republican versus Democrat.  Plenty of people succeed with implementations despite this reality. You might as well wish for the sky to be green and grass to be blue before you begin.

If an implementer lets this stop them, then the implementer is the real obstacle to implementation.  Then, the best prescription for success with Lean Six Sigma implementation would be to fire all the current implementers and start over with people willing to see the world as it is and still implement anyway.  I don’t advocate for that.

I believe that implementers currently driving people are those best equipped to quickly learn how to drive change.  If they want better results, they’d start driving change today.

Finally, the main obstacle listed was “the very structure of the U.S. federal government, which they say can be a barrier to comprehensive evaluation.”

This obstacle goes back to the all-or-nothing theme.  Plenty of reformers have modified government in the past and are doing so today despite the structure of government.

Perhaps Industry Week and all of us within government or who rely on government would be better served by ASQ asking its members for less of a list of reasons why the world as it is stops them and more of a list of how some of them are succeeding with their implementations.  My bet is they would find that those who are succeeding are working within their spheres of influence, are leading others by being urgent and letting others join them, have started a movement and are driving change.

If you want to reform government, let’s start by driving change.  It’s possible to start today. Why not try?

[Thanks to Kurt Doehnert for sending me the Industry Week article link.]

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3 thoughts on “False Challenges to Implementation

  • October 14, 2011 at 8:32 am

    I am conflicted by the push for TOC, Lean, and Six Sigma and its use in the government. I am a big advocate of the government not wasting our tax dollars and there have been some great cases of isolated implementations in govt. On the other hand, in business I believe we should use these methods to grow the company. Do we really want to grow government? [I will leave that as a rhetorical question to avoid a political debate. :-)] The alternative to growth is often to get rid of people and we know that rewarding improvement with pink slips often has negative results. Thus, any effort would be short lived.

    I have other concerns / conflicts, but that might get ugly. 🙂

    I am sure there is a solution, but I am probably not close enough to the problem to really understand it.

  • October 14, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Grant – Thanks for the comment. As a 10 year civil servant, I’ll offer this perspective:

    Many times the goal isn’t to use LSS/TOC to grow government so much as grow outputs. Too often the cycle time the citizens want for services is shorter than the cycle time government agencies are providing. Using LSS/TOC many organizations can, with existing employees, meet their level of service demands.

    Beyond that, using the gains to ease the burden on current employees, then not fill open positions, then allow employees who want a career change to seek reassignment (not termination) could all contribute to aligning workforce to the areas where the work really is and make each of them happier performing the work.

    You’re right that the goal of using LSS/TOC in business is different than in government, but the difference in goal doesn’t diminish the quality of the tools in helping either of us in reaching our goal.

    Thanks again for the comment.

  • October 17, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    I like your point about moving the goal post. Members of most societies do feel as if they have an intellectual edge. However, without knowing the survey, I almost feel like giving them a pass. The survey itself could have been politically driven and the participants were likely given limited responses through multiple choice… I’m guessing. It just has a political “smell” to it.

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