Sustaining Lean Six Sigma Implementation: An Interview with Ed Feeny

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“Lean and Six Sigma combine to drive the company to a higher level of quality at a lower cost.”

Ron Crabtree

Ron CrabtreeYou know, one of the hard and cruel facts is that eight or nine organizations out of ten embarking on major change initiatives like Lean Six Sigma or Operational Excellence don’t get the results they really should. And going hand-in-hand with that problem is the fact that it is really hard to make Lean Six Sigma sticky for the long run. Well, we’re in for a treat because Mr. Ed Feeny is going to share some hard-earned gems of wisdom that I think can help you close the gap on some of these problems.

So, Ed, why don’t you get started by giving us some of your background and how it is you got involved with this, Lean Six Sigma stuff.


Ed Feeney

Ed FeeneyHello. Ok. Well, I’m a certified Lean Six Sigma Sensei. I have an MBA, and I’ve pursued a little consulting work. Initially, I led a Lean implementation at a $17 million, 6+ associate sized tier-one unionized supplier to the big three auto manufacturers. I was appointed to the lead in this implementation, selected for the corporate team and assigned the task of implementing Lean across all plants foreign and domestic. This was a multi-plant corporation with two plants overseas. The work I did there over three years transformed the plant to a Lean operating system with 75% associate buy-in and associates engaged in proactively meeting corporate goals. My role was that of a facilitator for the teams. I was a trainer for the entire plant workforce including engineers and management personnel. I led Kaizen events, and I coordinated with counterparts in the other plants on corporate Lean program goals. I was designated as Lean Manufacturing Agent for the plant, and it was a change agent role.



Wow. So that’s a lot of hats to wear, and I’ve worked with a lot of folks like you through the years. Both before and after enduring major implementations and everybody’s always curious, what is it you get out of that? So maybe you could share with us some of your experience about what Lean Six Sigma can do for an organization.


Well, in my experience, the program at its heart is an applied philosophy that focuses on the customer in the organization of its operations towards providing its products and services. Lean Six Sigma in a sense is really two parts of an overall program, and there are two different approaches to the two elements: Lean and Six Sigma. Lean works on the issues of waste and focuses on the processes and the elimination of that waste through Lean tools and analysis. Where Six Sigma is focused on quality and what it drives through statistical type tools is the reduction of variation within the product or service being provided in order to meet the customer’s critical quality requirements.

In total, Lean and Six Sigma combine to drive the company to a higher level of quality at a lower cost. Lean also has the side benefit of being a transformational type of program that can lead a company to become, by changing the company culture, a high performing company, characterized by being proactive rather than reactive.

In a typical situation, managers run around trying to put out fires all the time. In a high-performance organization, this changes to preventing fires and the fires that are created are minimized. This allows the company to be faster and more responsive to its customers in meeting their needs in a quicker time frame and giving the company a competitive advantage in the marketplace.


Yeah. Those are all important aspects. I think a large percentage of folks are familiar with some of those aspects of Lean Six Sigma and the difference between the two and why they’re important. I think a lot of us, and myself included, are always kind of keen on knowing what it takes to be successful? What does it take to sustain this and make it sticky and last for the long run? What are folks struggling with in terms of what they’re currently doing or what they’re considering getting going in order to pursue a major Lean Six Sigma initiative, from your perspective? What do you think are the most critical elements to ensure success and make initiatives sustainable?


Well in my experience, there are four major critical elements. One of them is, foremost probably, that management has to be supportive, and it’s said, walk the walk and not just talk the talk. They have to provide a commitment, and that commitment has to be seen by the workforce. One of the things, in my experience, was that management made the commitment that Lean and the Lean Six Sigma process they’re going through would not eliminate any jobs. No one would lose his or her job over this. So, it took the threat away somewhat from the employees. The idea of being Lean, well that means less, and for many, that means they believe they are going to lose their job. So, it was important that that was at the forefront of what they were doing and making sure that employees understood that this was a program that wasn’t focused on job loss or job elimination.

The second one that was important, or I found important, is that there has to be a sense of urgency in terms of what was going on in the Lean Six Sigma implementation. It has to be shown that this isn’t something that we’re just going to get around to once in a while, but it has to be addressed as an urgent issue. And to get that urgency, what the plant I worked at initially did was explain to the workforce in open meetings what were the threats that the company was facing from the marketplace and how they had to address them. This attempt, this implementation, was going to address those issues that were threats. In the plant I worked at, as it was a multi-plant, there were not only external threats, but there were internal threats to the business and the company and the employees there because decisions would be made about where work got placed based on the lowest cost operation. So, they had to compete with other plants as well as competitors in the marketplace. So, the urgency for them was greater than maybe just a one plant operation because they had internal competition as well. Those two things made the urgency a focused issue, to the point that, other than providing the customer with a service or a product that urgency has to be felt throughout the plant all the time if possible. We’re not standing still, and we’re not going to do these tasks that aren’t going to lead us to address this crisis when we get around to it. We’re going to do it all the time. So, that was another important factor.

There were two others that I thought were pretty necessary. First, because you have the urgency idea in place, you need to provide a lot of information constantly. Provide information about what is happening, what teams were being formed, what are the teams working on and how is the company being put through this process addressing this crisis leading to the urgency idea. So, the information was a backup to say, well we’ve explained to you that we have a crisis and now we’re showing you what we’re doing to solve it. So, it’s not just something that we’re talking about and will go away. The information constantly being put out there is necessary.

In our case, where I worked, we made a display wall showing which teams were working on what projects, how many people were on the teams, how many teams there were, the results of teams that had completed their work, and also cumulative savings that were made through all the teams that had applied their solutions. As the number of teams grew, the display grew to the point that it took up three sections of the wall, 15 feet wide by 10 feet high. On there were all the activities going on, and it was constantly being updated.

And then the fourth, the last critical element I think is that you have to recognize the work that people have done. So, what had we done, a couple things we did was whenever there was a Kaizen event, whenever it was completed, the team that went through the Kaizen event and found the solutions would report to corporate at the headquarters in the boardroom with corporate staff. And they’d do a report on what they found, what they wanted to implement, why they wanted to implement it and what they expected they could save by doing so. And then on an annual basis the company would have an awards dinner and would invite everyone that was a team member to attend the awards dinner, they’d have a program, and they’d issue awards for different things accomplished. So, recognition was an important factor in keeping people involved. This involves them. It isn’t just something that’s going on up in corporate headquarters.

And I would say that all of these four elements are complementary and reinforcing activities driving the company toward establishing a competitive advantage. And it also brings up the idea that everyone is in this together. It isn’t just us and them. It takes away that us and them attitude or point of view. So, I think all those four things are critical in making sure it’s sustained and ongoing.


Wow. That’s pretty cool. I really resonate with a couple of things you said early on, like making sure that we have urgency. That the competitive reality is XYZ and the fact that we even have to compete internally. The whole communication thing is seldom given the attention it needs, and this idea of making a very visual and very large display and keeping it up to date, getting some visibility is really important as well.

So, maybe you can kind of sum up for us here some of those initial steps. How do you get started?


Well, one of the things in getting started to launch this whole thing was that we felt it necessary to create an infrastructure within the plant that would support it, as well as management. To do that we created a steering committee. It was made up of five hourly employees, and because it was unionized we had the union committee chairman, and then we had five administrative staff members and the plant manager. Each person on the committee, the plant manager and the union chairman had to agree as they had the legal power I guess over anyone that was appointed in those positions, from the administrative staff or from the hourly employees. And that steering team went on a two-day retreat, and on that retreat they were given a detailed explanation of what the company was facing as far as competition in the marketplace, and then they were given some training on what was going to be presented to the rest of the workforce, and they were then set goals in planning the launch and then goals for what they expected to accomplish in a given period of time. They had it broken down into six-month intervals. So, in six months this was what they expected to see, and in the next six months, this is what they expected to see. And so, the goals were set mostly, not all, but most were based on savings. How much money do we think we can accomplish getting out of the waste, so to speak, out of the system? There were other ones too, one of them was the amount of money that could reduce the cost.


In addition to really going after measuring cost savings, I guess I’m curious, that’s pretty obvious it’s one of the open reasons why we do that. What were some of the other success measures? Other than just financial?


Well, besides the dollars, the other things we looked at in terms of our sense of success in this was how many, what were the numbers of associates participating in teams. We kept a log of that. And how many teams were there? How many people? What was the speed at which the teams were getting their solutions implemented? How many were Kaizen events there? Another one, an important one, was what was morale like? How was morale doing in the workforce? Was it improving? We felt that all of those were indications of a successful project implementation.


All right, great. Fabulous. So, let’s get back into this whole thing around sustaining and the fact that lots of organizations get in big trouble. From your experience, what are some of those pitfalls associated with launching this? What can get in the way and really cause this to fail?


Well, aside from not having the critical elements in place, one of the things that can get tricky, one of the important factors is that it is necessary to gain the trust of the employees. Management, as I said before, had to not only talk the talk they had to walk the walk and they had to gain that trust, much of it was done I think in the approach they took which was to be more open about the operation of the plant in terms of cost, in terms of sales, in terms of overall indicators, in terms of the business decline or how they were doing on delivery, how they were doing on these things. So, they were more open on those issues which then helped develop that trust.

And they had to overcome resistance, and the urgency played a role in this, but this was not something that would go away quickly. The idea that this was just a fad meant the employees didn’t really have to put our hearts into this because they’re going to forget about it and they’re going to get tired, and they’re not going to do it and let’s just wait a little while, and it’ll go away. So, they had to overcome that as well and, again, it traces back to the idea that they have to be pushing on it all the time and expecting results and that is part of it. That’s how they overcome some of that. The idea in terms of getting the buy-in you need to achieve this goal that is critical, I think, is that you get at least 50% of the employees involved in buying into the idea that this is what needs to be done and that I want to be a part of it. If you can’t get that 50%, you’re really at a disadvantage.


So, how do you know you’ve got people buying in? What’s the magic to knowing they’re buying in?


Well, the anxiousness with which they want to get on teams, the activity that they present and how they talk about it a lot too. I mean, if you just keep your ears open and walk around and see what people are doing and see how they’re talking to each other and see how they’re asking questions and they’re adding comments. Some of what we found is that some of the time there’d be cases where we’d have a number of cells, so it was always a question of when is our cell going to get to do this, I want to do this. The ideas and the enthusiasm that we were getting out of it would reflect the buy-in. Subsequently, as we went through the cells and went on to do other projects, we’d get volunteers to do them as well. I would have to say that, what I found was, that people really started to enjoy their jobs. In the sense that it wasn’t just the mundane part of I have to run this machine, it was I have to run this machine but maybe I can figure out a way to do it better, and somebody is going to listen. So, it brought that out, and that was always an indicator that you couldn’t necessarily put a number to but it was a sense of the morale that would come out of it.


All right, that’s pretty cool. Let’s get back to that whole sustaining thing. In your mind, what would you say are some of those pitfalls? Some of those threats to sustaining the initiative and to keep it going over time?


Well, there’s always the sense that, as time went by, what we experienced was we ran into what you would call a wall. I call walls disenchantments. It just seemed like it was getting routine. It was getting stale and old, and so some of the things we did to counter that was to bring in more tools and do more training introducing more advanced approaches that hadn’t been in the initial phase. We didn’t want to overload the associates with more than they could handle. So, to rejuvenate it we brought in more tools and more things.

And also, new products came online. Then there was always an opportunity as the line was being put together to look at the waste that was generated in the way it was organized. What about the quality? Quality is always a moving target so to speak. They would always expect better quality, and so we were always looking at how to apply more things or more Six Sigma tools to improve that quality even more. So, there was always the added work of taking it to another level. Some of the things that we did in terms of that were that we, eventually, developed a Lean team. This was made up of people that got additional training, and they became the experts on the Lean program. It was not just one; it was a whole team. In a lot of companies, it’s recommended that 5-10% of their workforce be full-time on the Lean program in an ongoing strive for improvement. So, we got to the point where we were starting to put a team together.

In addition to that, there was the issue that we reached a point where we recognized that we couldn’t get a whole lot better unless our suppliers did. So, taking the idea of Lean to the suppliers and saying that unless you can improve what you’re doing, we can’t improve any more than what we’re doing. The Lean team would also be involved in taking the message outside of the plant and into our supplier value chain and make improvements there as well. So, it was ever expanding, in a sense, as time went by.

And while we were doing that we felt that it was successful in keeping the implementation sustained because there was always another hurdle to go through. We didn’t let it get stale in the sense that we run out of things to do. We just kept expanding.


What were some of the advanced tools you brought into the plant? I imagine things like design for Six Sigma, maybe quality function deployment or design of experiments or FMEA. What were some of those advanced things you started introducing to kind of reinvigorate things?


Well we focused, initially we didn’t use a value stream map, on particular cells and then as time went by we started bringing in the value stream map and seeing how that if you were in one cell then you were a part of that value stream and so then your needs within that cell had to follow through the value stream to meet the improvements you wanted to meet. Where I said it went to the supplier, this was prior to the supplier; we used the value stream map to go up the value chain in both directions whichever cell may be within that and then use that as a follow up for another Kaizen or a third Kaizen. So, some of the lines, many of the lines, had multiple Kaizen events, they weren’t just one, but they would come back and do another. We’d expand outward from that cell to take in the value stream map and everything that went through that cell.

So that was an advanced tool. And then more statistically sophisticated, we had SDC and then we took it to another level in terms of functioning with that and adding more skill or more tools in the quality end of it as well.

So, some of the things you mentioned were in play, but they weren’t emphasized on the floor because they were mostly the responsibility of the engineers. But then they came out of engineering and into the floor where the employees were trained in those issues as well, so it meant when they decided to launch a new product they were familiar with some of that and some of the things that were going on with the engineering team.

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