Why You Don't Need Leadership Commitment for Lean Six Sigma

If you've been reading anything about Six Sigma, you've heard it repeated endlessly that you want to get leadership commitment to Six Sigma.

Back in the 1990s, I worked in the phone company when our CEO "committed" to TQM. Hundreds of millions of dollars and almost five years later, the company abandoned TQM. Having the CEO on your side may help, but it's not the holy grail of gaining organization-wide commitment to Six Sigma.

As you are probably already aware, you want leadership commitment, but not the formal leadership you see on an organization chart.

You want the "informal" leaders to adopt Six Sigma.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell argues that any idea (e.g., Six Sigma) "tips" into the mainstream when sponsored by one of three types of informal leaders: connectors, mavens, and salespeople.

Connectors connect people with other people they know. Think about your own company. Who is the center of influence that knows everybody and introduces everyone to everyone else?

Mavens connect people with technology. Who is the center of influence in your company who gets everyone on board with all the new changes in technology (e.g., Six Sigma, SPC, etc.).

Connectors and Mavens are what Seth Godin, author of Ideavirus, calls the "Powerful sneezers." A sneezer is someone who spreads the ideavirus. A powerful sneezer does it because their status derives from their ability to connect people with people or with technology. They do it for recognition, not reward! If you want to harness connectors and mavens to Six Sigma, you have to give them an elite status, the inside track on the new methodologies.

Salespeople are what Seth would call a "promiscuous sneezer." They do it for money. Who are the promiscuous sneezers in your company? How can you reward them for sneezing Six Sigma to the rest of the organization? (Hint: Give them blackbelt training so that they enhance their resume and can get more money from another company.)

Let's not forget that every organization has laggards that are every bit as connected as the connectors, mavens, and salespeople. I call these people the corporate immune system because they fight infectious ideas with a zealotry that's unparalleled. How can you keep the laggards in the dark about the changes underway until it's too late? (Hint: Start small and crawl-walk-run your way to success by focusing on only the 4% of your business that causes over 50% of the waste, rework, and lost profit.)

Similarly, if you want to alienate the powerful sneezers and turn them into part of the immune system, don't let them in on the initial projects. Keep them out of the loop. They'll hate you for it.

Everett Rogers, in the book the Diffusion of Innovations, sites overwhelming research showing that the fastest ways to start a change are either autocratic (formal leadership) or word of mouth (informal leadership). In my experience, CEOs come and go (average tenure of a CEO is less than three years), but informal leaders are around forever.

So, everything you've heard about getting leadership committed to Six Sigma is essentially right, but they just had the wrong leadership. Get the informal leaders involved early and make them successful. They will sneeze the idea to everyone else in the organization. Once the initial 4% adopt Six Sigma, it will stick. After 16-20% adopt, it will become unstoppable.

Feel free to "sneeze" this ezine to anyone you think might enjoy it.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537, support@qimacros.com."

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