Never forget: No matter what technical tools you use for continuous improvement, they always require change, which must be implemented with and through the people of your organization. Given how we all welcome change, it should come as no surprise that resistance limits the impact of many well-conceived initiatives. Thus, if you want to sustain process change, organizational change management skills must be learned along with lean, Six Sigma or any other improvement methodology.

Successful implementation requires, first and foremost, effective and highly motivating leadership from the top down. In addition, these elements are essential:

  • A leadership team focused and disciplined to lead the change.
  • A realistic implementation plan.
  • A way to sustain a new process at the work group level.

The leadership team needs an effective executive steering team (EST) to keep it focused and disciplined. The EST may include some of the same people as the management staff, but it operates differently. The EST focuses its time and energy exclusively on the change management initiative until it achieves success. ESTs have clear charters, require meeting attendance and measure results in outcomes-not activities.

The realistic implementation plan-based on outcome, not activity-is a key deliverable of an effective EST. The focus is on "taking the hill," not identifying the hill, planning the assault and training the troops. It must be properly resourced, integrated across business functions, and linked down through the organization so that required outcomes at the work group level are clearly understood. Further, it must be rigorously monitored, with countermeasures defined and implemented when slippage occurs.

Process changes at the work group level are sustained through comprehensive discipline. New work habits don't just happen; they must be practiced diligently until internalized. No amount of discussion, persuasion or education is as effective in building new habits as forcing the new behavior to be followed. To paraphrase a key Toyota belief, "It is easier to act your way into new ways of thinking, than it is to think your way into new ways of acting."

To build daily execution discipline into an organization, you need a structured process with these four elements:

  • A visual display of metrics, new procedures and other information for the work group.
  • A daily 5- to 10-minute group meeting to focus on the plan for the shift, review prior performance, and most important, reinforce new work processes.
  • Work group metrics, such as hour-by-hour charts that track both outcome and process performance.
  • Leadership coaching of work groups regarding the new work processes, metrics, the daily management system and performance expectations.

Daily reinforcement of the new work process is hard, but critical to success. Done correctly, it accomplishes two critical implementation objectives:

  • It demonstrates to the work group that leadership is serious about the new processes.
  • It identifies the daily issues, large and small, that impact the work group's ability to follow the new processes. More importantly, it provides leadership with opportunities to demonstrate its commitment to the new work processes by correcting the legitimate problems identified. This simple step builds credibility and is perhaps the single biggest factor in making a new work process successful.

Implementation skills are critical to make lean and Six Sigma tools work. Implementation is a process that can be learned and dramatically improved in most organizations. Finally, implementation success is personality neutral; there will always be people who are better at "making things happen," but we can all implement more effectively by learning and practicing some basic tools.