What’s Next From The Company? Seven Sphincter Deployment

There we were talking about corporate improvement strategies. We were having a simple discussion in the locker-room when a raw nerve was struck. So we dropped the subject.

About a week later I finally remembered that the cause of the raw nerve was very common. This individual was reacting to a reasonable fumbling of a well meaning consultant who was very competent with the tools of process improvement, but lacked a persistent understanding of the culture of integration.

What is a typical situation is that tools take on a life of there own. Management gets convinced that a specific tool is an end all methodology. Then they force it on unsuspecting victims who see the tool as over complicating a very simple problem.

The problem is neither the tool nor the intent of the management team. What the problem is that the project that was selected was such low hanging fruit that an amoeba could have figured it out. The resulting response was an immediate rejection of the complete methodology as being cumbersome and overcomplicated.

There is an old expression that there is a right tool for every job. When management adopts one tool for every situation there is inherent rejection that will follow. So before the acceptance can get any critical mass, there is evidence that supports the objecting community.

Companies that use methodologies such as lean, Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, Five 9’s, Seven Sphincter, add nausea… frequently fail not because these programs don’t work extremely effectively. But because the tools were seen as the end all solution to all that ails the company.

What ails 99.99999% of companies is their culture of listening. The one thing that Toyota gets right is its ability to keep an open mind to what people say. They, like any company are not perfect and they get it wrong many times. The one thing however, that they consistently get right is their ability to listen. From the guy who sweeps the floor to the customer who uses their product.

It’s amazing how companies get so caught up in their rightness that they put themselves right out of business. The biggest challenge I have had building my own little business has been learning to listen. We all have great ideas. No, I am not exaggerating and making statistically skewed assumptions. Everyone has great ideas. The problem, is no one takes the time to listen to the average person.

Jack Welch summarized it quite succinctly with his 20-70-10 differentiation rule. There is only so much time in the day. So in order to get more things done, we must prioritize who we communicate with. He realized that he could get the most bang for his buck by dealing with the top 20% of the organization. He realized that the vital 70% did the heavy lifting and made sure the 20% interacted with that group. He also realized the bottom 10% were just a poor fit that should have the option to better their lives outside of GE.

So when Mr. Welch sought to introduce a major program into the organization, he started with the 20%. Throughout the United States, those companies who have mirrored this model have seen effective program integration. They looked for project opportunities that had high economic impact that had a long history of problems that could not be solved using visual management tools.

Likewise, DuPont found an impossible high hanging fruit project that had failed so many times before to prove that Six Sigma too was just “Another” program. When Six Sigma finally solved this 100 year old problem, Six Sigma became “The Program” for the organization.

Tools are hard skill assets an organization can use to really have big impact. But there are complete soft sides that must be developed before any hard tool can be effective. Those companies that have been successful with Lean or Six Sigma used these programs as a launching pad to become a learning organization. Lean started with Toyota and Six Sigma started at Motorola. We can see that there is something that Toyota gets that Motorola doesn’t.

In The Toyota Way, Jeffrey Liker points out that top US Lean companies have been shown by Toyota Lean experts that they knew little of what lean was really all about. In order to achieve major breakthroughs, the organization must figure out how it can help the vital 70 by deeply listening and observing what they are doing on a daily basis. What causes the bottom 10 is not a bad fit.

Rather, the bottom 10 are the birds in the mine who are trying to help the company grow. They are the ones who are so exasperated that they have become ineffective. These people were hired into a company that claimed one thing and as time has gone on, the culture has shown them something completely different. The easiest way to resolve these cultural issues is to let go of this group. The more challenging way is to learn to develop a dialogue with these people.

These people are representatives of the future. They are the bellwether of new markets. Understanding their minds helps to really rally the vital 70 more than listening to the (as my good friends rib me) seven sphincters* of the top 20.

What holds a company back is bureaucracy. Even mature successful Six Sigma companies reach a glass ceiling. Almost all Six Sigma organizations reach this glass ceiling in their 5 to 8ths year of their program. The reason is so simple it’s embarrassing. It’s the mindset of eliminating variability. After a company has been eliminating for 5 to 8 years, the only thing left to eliminate is the program.

Toyota in lean looks at value contribution. They look at how each step can add to what the customer receives. They uncover ways to add quality, add features, do more in a shorter period of time, connect to more senses, and to add more to society.

Improvement is a spoon. On one side it is straight up. On the other side it is inverted. Toyota has had a long history of keeping the straight up side in focus.

Maybe the time is right to twist the spoon and restart the dialogue with a clear focus on listening. On inclusion of adding value instead of a mindset of elimination. The next program should not be the sound of seven sphincters sounding, but everybody listening.

*(Side Not: I learned many years ago not to discuss business over beers. Especially one so misunderstood as process improvement or Six Sigma. People who understand continuous improvement like me are passionate about it. Those that view it as a threat react strongly against it.

Nevertheless, I misjudged my audience. I thought by talking about my business it would lead to making business contacts. Instead of achieving great fortunes, here is what happened.

When I had mentioned that I was working on a program that went beyond Six Sigma, I was derided by my “buddies” with intentions of getting me to lighten up. I have always been very passionate about helping people succeed.

There was much banter back and forth of program after program that companies go through with much thunderous laughter at my expense. Finally one person said “Oh you should call it Seven Sphincters!”

That was not quite the name I was searching for. But, after many Friday nights of this abuse, it began to have some accuracy for the Next Thing in Business Improvement. It’s as good a name as any else and kind of symbolizes the perspective most people feel about these programs.) 

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