Red Light, Green Light
Years ago, I moved to a community in a different state for a new job. While driving to work on the first day, I was involved in a number of near-miss automobile accidents. Let me describe a risky driving behavior, which I quickly learned was “the way we drive around here”.
Drivers approached an intersection with a traffic light. The green light turned to yellow. As expected, one or two cars entered the intersection while the light was still yellow. But what I observed next surprised me. After the light turned red, the next three drivers continued through the intersection. Remarkably, the cars in the opposing lanes (who had a green light) paused for 3 or 4 seconds for the red light violators to clear, then drove through the intersection. When the light turned red for opposing lanes of traffic, the same behavior repeated. The unspoken norm was that a “red light” meant that 3 more cars were allowed to pass through the intersection….the 4th car should stop. The amazing thing to me was that somehow everyone knew that this was the rule. At first, I thought this was an isolated incident. As I soon discovered, this happened at every intersection.
Now imagine someone who had never been to this town (me) approaching an intersection – and expecting that red means stop and green means go. It took me four or five close encounters (of the wrong kind) at intersections with local drivers to figure out what was happening. I quickly adapted to the local behavior. By the time I arrived back home, I was Driver #3 going through a red light. No consequences. No tickets. In fact, local police cars were following the same protocol! (I learned later that 3 cars was indeed the limit. If the police observed a 4th car driving through a red light, that person was always ticketed).
What was going on here? How could every local person in this large community end up developing and accepting a norm that was clearly violating the standard? One explanation could be the concept of entropy. The dictionary provides one definition as follows:
en·tro·py lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder.
Imagine that someone makes a business proposal that would significantly improve your company’s cost productivity. The sales pitch is appealing. This approach is claimed to have the following potential benefits:
- It will yield over 4 times your investment in bottom-line results within 24 months, with a long-term ROI exceeding 7x.
- It does not require any capital.
- It will enable the development of a broad range of skills for key employees.
- It will be the basis for culture change to a continuous improvement mindset.
Sounds great! Where do I sign up? But this is what you will not hear…
- It only has a 20% chance of succeeding!
Given this success metric, would you make this investment? It’s not likely.
Lean Six Sigma (LSS) has the potential to produce all the positive benefits itemized above. However, the success rate of deployments is abysmal. In a Bain & Company management survey of 184 companies, 80 percent say their Lean Six Sigma deployment efforts are failing to drive the anticipated value, and 74 percent say they are not gaining the expected competitive edge because they haven’t achieved their savings targets. Other surveys reveal similar disappointment or disillusionment in LSS by executives and senior leaders.
The bad news is that 8 out of 10 LSS deployments are not meeting expectations. The good news? Some organizations are “getting it right” and reaping the benefits of a strong Lean Six Sigma deployment.
An improvement project has just been completed at one of your sites. As the team provides their final report out to the sponsor, they highlight a number of ways the project was successful:
- The process improvements have resulted in work that is faster and easier.
- It takes fewer resources and adds more value.
- The hard savings are significant.
- The new work methods reduce the risk of injury.
At the end of the presentation, the sponsor turns to you and says, “Let’s replicate this same project at the other five sites. There’s no reason we can’t garner the same benefits by simply implementing these same changes, right?”
Why there is no such thing as identical processes
If only we could copy the project and create a blueprint, then another team could put these identical changes in place. All we need to do is determine the process steps that were followed and provide detailed documentation to the implementation team. With this road map, it should be a straightforward task.
Unfortunately, true project copying or replication is uncommon. Why?