Not only will the teams be trained in Six Sigma methods and statistical techniques, but they will also get training in project management, business analysis and team building. You’ve looked at mentoring, staff development and change management, and you have built these elements into your training programs as well.
Months go by. The vice president of manufacturing for the Asian region receives a three-inch binder with the title, “Six Sigma Recommendations.” He scans the report, can’t find anything interesting and gets interrupted by his director of quality who says that Line A is down. The report sits on the VP’s desk for a week and then gets moved to a bookshelf.
Two months later, the chief operating officer calls him, saying, “I just got a report from the CFO that says that your plants have ignored Six Sigma recommendation 5A outlined in the report. The CEO is furious, because it looks like we aren’t serious about change.” He wants to know why the VP of manufacturing ignored the report.
In reality, recommendation 5A was hidden within the binder. It was presented in a way that would have taken the vice president days to figure out and longer to implement. And to understand it, he also would have had to “understand” dozens of other recommendations that he would have found were totally irrelevant to his area. He had tried scanning the document and had wanted to find the information that could help, but he couldn’t get through the sea of irrelevant information. Had he found 5A, he also would have found that the recommendations for improvement were not presented in a way that would permit efficient implementation.
So, what could possibly be missing from your Six Sigma training strategy? Chances are you’ve missed one of the most critical success factors for any quality or productivity initiative: communication skills training. Six Sigma, like ISO 9000 and total quality management (TQM), will fail without a relentless organizational focus on information and communication.
Adding Six Sigma to the Communication Mix
Six Sigma initiatives will require you to significantly increase the quality and quantity of communication within your organization. But let’s face it, most organizations are already struggling with communications that are unfocused and difficult to read, with buried key points in endless lines of irrelevant information. The number of poorly written e-mail messages, reports and proposals that come across their desks each day already overburdens managers. And workers already have difficulty interpreting all of the complicated policies, processes and procedures they are supposed to follow. Adding Six Sigma ideas, reports, proposals, solutions, project updates and process changes to the mix will only add to the problem—unless they are presented in a clear, effective way that highlights key points and allows readers to quickly access and understand the information they need.
Adopting organization-wide communication standards, methods and protocols, and adding communication skills training to the Six Sigma curriculum, will help Six Sigma teams communicate and sell their ideas, plans and solutions internally, will make life easier for overburdened managers, and will substantially increase a project’s likelihood of success.
Communication and the Themes of Six Sigma
According to Six Sigma experts Pete Pande and Larry Holpp in their book, “What is Six Sigma?” there are six themes of Six Sigma:
- Focus on the customer.
- Rely on data- and fact-driven management.
- Focus on key processes and how to improve them.
- Take a proactive management stance.
- Collaborate across boundaries.
- Drive for perfection, but tolerate failure.
Each of the themes requires a relentless focus on clear, concise communication.
Theme One: Focus on the Customer
Savvy companies have proven over the past decade that excellence starts with an accurate understanding of customer needs and the ability and commitment to meet those needs. Achieving this objective in a Six Sigma environment requires strong communication with customers, as well as the ability of salespeople, R&D and marketing to clearly capture and communicate customer needs and desires to others within the organization.
How accurate and clear is your sales force when describing your products’ features, benefits and implementation processes to customers? How skilled is your sales force at conveying real customer needs back into your company? How effective is your operations group when communicating out to the customer? If you are like CLOs in most organizations, you’ve spent very little time and effort thinking about how to improve these communications, but a focus on the customer demands more than “business as usual” communication effectiveness.
Theme Two: Data-Driven and Fact-Driven Management
One of the primary differences between Six Sigma and other quality initiatives is the relentless focus on data. Much of the power of the Six Sigma process comes from its avoidance of speculation and conversation in favor of tests and measurements.
Graphs and charts are often touted as the language of Six Sigma–and they are important–but it is equally important that Six Sigma teams wrap their charts and graphs in clear, effective communications that make sense of the data and their interpretations and solutions. This result can only be accomplished if the people preparing the statistics–and their managers–can communicate effectively.
Theme Three: Processes Are Where the Action Is
Six Sigma projects usually focus on key processes and how to improve them. In most companies, process, procedure and guideline information is poorly written. Since processes typically involve many departments and many people, even a small change can have a huge impact on an organization. Providing clear and effective communications about what is changing and why it is changing is essential to ensuring that project objectives are met and changes are replicated consistently throughout the organization.
Providing training in communication skills that helps Six Sigma teams and others throughout the organization learn to communicate new policies, processes and procedures clearly and effectively will help support your Six Sigma initiative and will have a positive, long-lasting impact on employee performance.
Theme Four: Proactive Management
Implementing a Six Sigma strategy produces many organizational changes. Obviously, you want the right changes to happen in both evolutionary and revolutionary ways. Change involves various levels of an organization and many different functions. To be successful, the need for change and the type of change needs to be communicated clearly. In short, there must be a focus on getting the right information to the right people at the right time in the right form so that they can make good business decisions and take effective action. Clear, effective communication is essential to successful change management.
Theme Five: Boundary-Less Collaboration
In global corporations, important activities and lines of business are located throughout the world. Business processes often cross organizational as well as geographic boundaries. Six Sigma’s relentless focus on process and business results forces staff members to work together across departmental, geographical and organizational boundaries. Six Sigma teams are likely to meet challenges and resistance when they enter new territories and inadvertently “step on toes.”
Translation can be a key issue. Translation effectiveness and cost can be improved with well-structured communication. The written and spoken communication skills of your Six Sigma teams must be strong enough to break down organizational walls, or your Six Sigma effort will fail.
Theme Six: Drive for Perfection, Tolerate Failure
It may sound easy to “drive for perfection, but tolerate failure,” but it is not. Failure is tough. It is often complicated and difficult to explain in a non-threatening way. Poor communication around failures lessens the opportunity to prevent those failures from happening again.
Teams must be able to communicate clearly what happened that led to the failure, why it happened and what the organization can learn from the experience to help ensure that the next project is a success. Once again, without effective communication skills, it can be difficult to survive and thrive in a perfection-driven environment.
The Need for a Shared Communications Methodology
Communication and information are endemic to any Six Sigma effort. Communication skills can be learned and must be demanded by all who are a part of the Six Sigma effort.
The grammar-based communication programs you have used unsuccessfully in the past will fail again. They are simply not up to the many needs of today’s complex, fast-changing, results-driven world. They are essentially useless as you begin to structure information for online and Web-based delivery.
Your organization needs a communications methodology that is comprehensive enough to support your Six Sigma initiatives and can be shared across the organization. You need to bring your organization’s communication to Six Sigma levels. If your organization sends 100,000 communications (memos, reports, e-mail messages) throughout the organization in a month, and you are at one sigma level of errors in your written communication, then two-thirds of those communications will have mistakes, clearly a major problem for your company.
By training Six Sigma teams to use a replicable writing standard, methodology and best practices for developing high-performance communications, you can help writers:
- Develop information with the readers’ needs in mind.
- Communicate key points clearly and concisely.
- Present complex information so it is clear, effective and easy to use.
- Convey the right information to readers when and how they need it.
Our experience, as well as numerous research studies, has shown that structured communications yield the measurable results that Six Sigma efforts demand. This saves significant amounts of money and provides better utilization of scarce resources.
Charge to CLOs
As a learning executive, you are responsible for improving communication skills so that your Six Sigma initiative will work. The Six Sigma team needs to adopt a communications methodology that:
- Communicates problems and opportunities related to existing processes.
- Communicates the new way of doing things so that implementation actually occurs.
- Communicates within the team and to upper management.
- Communicates across organizational boundaries.
- Communicates consistently.
Building communication skills training into your Six Sigma communications strategy will help ensure the success of your organization’s Six Sigma initiative. It will also drive better communication skills throughout your organization and pay dividends long after the Six Sigma focus has moved on to the next problem or opportunity.
Doug Gorman has been CEO of Information Mapping Inc. for almost 20 years. Information Mapping helps organizations meet their business goals through high-performance information that supports business processes, technology and people. For more information, e-mail Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org.