Lean Six Sigma Implementation - Top Down or Middle Out?

Improvement Insights Blog

Lean Six Sigma Implementation – Top Down or Middle Out?

Traditional Lean Six Sigma wisdom says to start top down, but that’s a sure fire way to fail. Here’s why:

“Hi, I’m Jay Arthur, author of “Lean Six Sigma For Hospitals” and the QI Macros [software].

“I think there’s a lot of conventional wisdom in in Six Sigma and Lean and Six Sigma that says, “Oh, you must start with the leadership team.” Well, I was reading this book that was recommended to me, “Creating A Lean Culture.” This was used by Virginia Mason up in Seattle to transform how they deliver health care. I thought this was interesting about how Lean typically starts and grows. Let me read this to you:

“The Orthodox or Purist approach for bringing Lean to an organization calls for the Lean Sensei to start at the top…” Start at the top. “In this view, the Lean Sensei starts by gemba walking the CEO to teach him or her to see through Lean eyes. The Sensei then works his way on down through the organization’s structure, building knowledge and support for Lean from the top down. In my experience, this approach is unrealistic. The most typical scenario I’ve seen is for Lean to start in the middle and then spread slowly, propagating like a beneficial virus until everybody catches the Lean bug. They begin experimenting on small scale Lean applications. That success sparks the interests of others and the experiments expand. As Lean applications succeed and spread, the improved results catch the attention of their superiors.”

“That’s how it works, okay? That’s the diffusion of innovation. You start somewhere, you make some people successful, other people notice, they try some more, that creates the next early majority of people who start to learn how to do it, and then it expands and expands and expands and infects everybody with this idea: The Lean bug, the Six Sigma bug. It does not start at the top. That’s an imaginary situation.

“I love this this thing he says: “In my experience this approach is unrealistic,” (starting at the top). Start where you are, start making success, people will notice, they will ask you how you do it, then you can help them, and then people around them will notice and people around them will notice and pretty soon the top leadership will notice and guess what? You get what you wanted to begin with, which is top leadership commitment.

“So that’s my Improvement Insight for this week: Start where you are. Let’s go out and improve something this week.”