How Long Should Lean Six Sigma Projects Take?

Improvement Insights Blog

How Long Should Lean Six Sigma Projects Take?

Should a project take 4-16 months or 4-16 hours? Should you measure projects with a calendar or a stopwatch? I think the answer is obvious, but here’s my take on it.

“Hi, I’m Jay Arthur. Every year, we exhibit at lots of conferences with QI Macros so I get to go to presentations by all kinds of folks. Now, last year I saw a presentation by some consultants who said they’d done some research into how long Six Sigma projects take. They found Six Sigma projects take anywhere from four months to 16 months.

“I [thought], “What? How’s that possible?” That makes no sense to me, because I’ve done multimillion-dollar projects in between 4 and 16 hours. This idea of spending a gajillion hours or weeks or months to do this is strange to me. But if you think about how Six Sigma got started, why do we have 2-week and 4-week trainings? Well, it’s because consultants get paid by the day, and so you want to fill up your week with training. You do not want to go out on Sunday, train on Monday and then have to fly home, because you don’t make enough money… (But that’s kind of how I go about it.)

“So, this is the different approach to how to get there, right? So I used to take two or three days to train people and then I started automating things that people found difficult, like choosing the right control chart; well, the Control Chart Wizard will do that for you, so I don’t have to teach you how to do that. I don’t have to teach you formulas because it’s all in the software. I don’t have to teach you lots of things that you don’t need to know to solve problems that you don’t have. So how do we start to take software and let it automatically do the things that used to take hours and sometimes days to learn in training? When you do that you can get results in a very short time frame. That’s what I call Agile Lean Six Sigma.

“Now the thing about these presentations that worries me is if you [have] a Black Belt or Green Belt you only want them doing data analysis, figuring out what the problem is, facilitating the root cause analysis session, coming up with countermeasures and an action plan… and then you want to turn it over to a project manager. If your belts are doing project management, I believe you have a problem because you want them focused on finding and fixing things to fix. Project managers can implement things. I’ve seen [instances] where we can change a procedure, but we can do that in a matter of hours, and then you start saving money. One hospital I did that with started saving 5 million dollars a year after a little bit of root cause analysis and implementing some process changes. So this is the kind of thing I want you to think about. Now, you might have to change an IT system, and that might take 3, 6, 9 months to get that change worked into the process, but once it’s in, you can eliminate all those errors that you found in the in the process, but you don’t need to be working on that for 9 months because it’s just not that long a thing. You write requirements, then somebody codes it, then somebody tests it, and then it delivers. But the actual work time in that nine months might only be a few weeks, so you don’t need to be project managing in that.

“I want you to think if somebody starts to tell you that you need four months and 16 months to do a project, your leadership team is not going to let you do that. It takes too long. They think that’s stupid. Why can’t you get to a result in a more timely fashion? I think that’s going to be a huge challenge for anybody who’s trying to do that. If your consultants are telling you that, they just need more billable hours. Question these things that seem a little bit out of the way, out of bounds, out of… whatever. Because it doesn’t have to take that long; if you have the data to focus the improvement, then you have people make that improvement, and meanwhile you move on and find another one to focus on and improve, focus on and improve, focus on and improve. If you want massive results from Six Sigma, you do not want your belts piddling around with project management and implementation of changes. That’s not their job. Let the people who do that job do that, not you, all right? That’s how I think about it.

“I have a friend who has a very interesting statement. He says, “I’m a paramedic. I’m not long-term care.” That’s how I think about it. I’m a paramedic. I’m going to get in and do triage and then get you into a place where they can start to care for you on a long-term basis, but then I’m going to go back and treat the next person who’s having some sort of crisis. So be a paramedic, not long-term care.

“That’s my Improvement Insight for this week. Let’s go out and improve something.”