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The Best Tool for the Job?

By Chris Cox | N/A 2011 | 6 | 5

All process improvement techniques have inherent strengths and weaknesses. Thus, to most effectively and consistently drive change, leaders should not only choose the appropriate solution for the given business problem and environment, but also be willing to make the most of tools and tactics across all methodologies.

Successful organizations continuously improve every aspect of their business. New products and services are developed to grow top-line revenues; cycle times shrink to respond to ever more challenging customer expectations and aggressive competitors; quality is enhanced every step of the way; and, of course, costs are doggedly managed. The drive to improve permeates the entire organization and challenges everyone to increase performance. Along the way, many professionals try to determine the best methodology to improve internal operations and supply chains as a whole. However, there is no best. Anointing any single tool as optimal presupposes that every organization or situation is the same--with the same goals, the same culture, the same challenges. This isn't the case.

Years ago, I was employed by a division of General Electric, where I had the opportunity to pursue formal six sigma training and certification. After years of driving continuous improvement initiatives with only common sense and pragmatism, I thought it was fantastic to have a comprehensive strategy and a full suite of accompanying tools. And six sigma is great--for the right problem and situation. However, I quickly discovered that the approach was too heavy-handed and complex for many of the changes I was trying to implement. Without another approach, six sigma became the solution used to attack almost any problem.

Of course, six sigma has several extremely valuable aspects. The focus on the "define" stage sets clear goals, establishes a project charter, and defines scope--all activities that would benefit any project. Six sigma also has a bevy of underlying tools that can be used to tease apart a problem: Quality function deployment and fishbone diagrams are great devices that can be applied to many different situations. However, there are so many methodologies out there at our fingertips--each with countless strengths. The key is to be exposed to and comfortable with as many of them as possible. The adage of "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" is exactly right.

Get the buffet
By gaining some familiarity with several approaches, project leads will have options for how to solve a particular challenge. Which approach to use is a critical decision that should be made relatively early on; it must be based on the problem to be solved, the data available, organization culture, and many other factors. But once it has been selected, you mustn't feel bound to follow the predetermined playbook. Go ahead and mix and match several different tools to advance your cause. Being creative and flexible is the mark of a superior change manager--and it usually leads to better results.

Be thoughtful of your overall strategy, and especially consider how its tenets fit the problem you're trying to solve and the environment you are working within. Feel free to use one strategy as your main course; but don't be afraid to have a side of failure mode effects analysis, a little quality function deployment, and a perhaps even some balanced scorecard for dessert. 

Chris Cox is senior vice president and reengineering practice leader at The Kessler Group, which focuses on supply chain and operational transformation across the financial services industry. He may be contacted at chris_cox@kessler.com or +1-804-915-7261. 

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