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issue: October 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
The Human Side of Six Sigma

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by Cristopher del Angel, project manager, Proudfoot Consulting Co.

Six Sigma solutions, while satisfying because of the results generated, tend to fall short of reaching their full potential if they are only technically oriented. Common costly solutions include changing physical structures, modifying chemistry, retaining energy, reducing variations through the implementation of new capital expenditure projects, increasing feeding capacities, and utilizing cutting-edge software or hardware. When organizations implement change, they often isolate these initiatives from the human elements surrounding them. When this is done, management misses the big picture of how their companies and their workers function, as well as the factors that motivate them.

Having been through the process many times, I can safely say that companies that sincerely recognize the value of their workforce produce far greater results when they involve their people in changes and improvements being driven by the Six Sigma experts. In fact, it’s a simple, practical, and economical way to approach change in any business.

A New Approach

The importance of worker involvement was demonstrated recently at a mid-sized mining and smelting operation that had thoroughly embraced the Six Sigma culture of green belts, yellow belts, black belts, and master black belts. As many as 110 Six Sigma projects were under way at any one time. Measures were in place to ensure each expert was assigned an appropriate number of projects, and that progress on each project was reported at least monthly. Of course, a financial benefit was attached to each project. All areas of the company were participating, and results were what they expected them to be.

At one point, the company management determined that it needed a solution to a problem it felt was outside the scope of the Six Sigma teams. Management felt that the total cost and number of temporary workers were too high. It wanted to reach a target benchmark by reducing the number of contractors and the cost ratio per unit produced. Perceiving that the problem was not a technical one, management chose not to assign a Six Sigma team to work on this initiative. Rather, it chose to enlist my company as a third-party expert to handle the task.

Our initial analysis revealed some huge opportunities at the core areas of the business: lost production, unnecessary downtime, energy savings, and use of materials in excess versus standards. All of these issues were being scrutinized under the Six Sigma scheme. The management team decided to proceed with our plan to modify behaviors rather than continue to focus solely on the technical core processes of the business. Therefore, we implemented a plan to modify behaviors even as Six Sigma people continued to work on these same opportunities from a technical point of view.

Having to cope with a new way of looking at things, the Six Sigma team decided that behaviors and processes were too different, and that the teams would work separately. The Six Sigma team went its own way because behaviors were not part of their core competence. They focused on identifying technical improvements to the processes, capital investments, new technology, bigger and greater equipment to improve productivity, and changes or modifications to current software and hardware to gain more information from the systems.

While talking to people during the development of the project, mapping processes and generating a strong proactive approach, we discovered a list of opportunities that required prioritization by management. The Six Sigma group, working on their own, had a similar list of projects they had “under the radar.”

Finding Holes in Six Sigma

When the executive team examined the findings of both approaches, it realized that 85% of the opportunities identified were very similar, if not identical. How was it possible that the behavioral approach could identify the same gaps as the technical approach that Six Sigma was following? The answer was simple: The processes of the business were defined, and both the technical and the behavioral aspects had to work together to fully capture benefits. One working without the other could improve many processes, but would never allow the company to reach its full potential.

Still, skepticism was more powerful than common sense. The behavioral approach was challenged to show how it could make operational improvements without a technical improvement. Then management chose a critical part of the process to challenge the approach. It presented an area that the executive team could observe in the most controlled environment, putting the challenge “under the microscope.”

We implemented our improvement program. The outcome part of the process was shown to represent the largest opportunity for improvement in terms of operational and financial benefits. The Six Sigma team agreed as some related projects were being worked on simultaneously, understanding that they were purely technical and did not require any intervention of the human side of the business.

One of the initiatives that Six Sigma had put into effect in this mining and smelting operation was a series of alarm systems that would ring whenever the temperature at a certain part of the process rose or fell by 5%. Alarms had been installed, and the control room operators had to make a decision regarding how to proceed in solving and reporting the problem. That was the theory. Reality showed that so many alarms were going off at the same time, that operators habitually turned them off just to eliminate the noise, but did not take any action until the alarm was sounding without interruption. While the Six Sigma initiative had made an improvement by analyzing the historical data, identifying where the problem was, and installing a solution, this solution also required a behavioral change. But this change had not been previously considered.

The behavioral opportunity was to change the mind-set of the operators by involving them in the redefinition of which alarms should stay and why, as well as which ones should become silent flags for them to take into consideration on a scheduled basis. This way, they could be more critical and focused in their decision-making process. We held working sessions with each of the operators, then shared discussions took place between them as we facilitated them. Whenever there were disagreements, we looked for a quality opinion from the most respected individual in the largest operator group. Information was posted for them to review, criticize, and correct. In the end, the solution had everyone’s fingerprints and commitment.

By building from a Six Sigma project that was already in place and working with the people to make them part of the solution, the full potential of the opportunity was attained.

The Human Factor

This was a classic example of working with behaviors to transform an operation. When individuals have worked in the same process for years, they have seen a number of initiatives fail, and others perform well. If nobody takes into consideration their thoughts and opinions, they keep them to themselves and don’t worry about it. But when people become part of the solution with a lot of visibility and recognition, they are going to bring all of their ideas to the table. In the end, for this miner/smelter, the solution was a matter of eliminating delay times rather than accelerating the process. The greatest lesson this company learned was that involving people on an ongoing basis and making them part of the changes and improvements can ensure greater results than Six Sigma can deliver on its own.


About the Author

Cristopher del Angel is a project manager at Proudfoot Consulting Co. (Atlanta, GA, U.S.), part of Management Consulting Group PLC. If you wish to contact Del Angel, please e-mail lisa.bonnema@cancom.com.


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