The beginner guide to Lean Six Sigma for managers

Read time: 5-7 minutes

Managerial positions have always been high on the list of personal career goals. Because of this, we felt it appropriate to render advice on the topic of management and Lean Six Sigma. The Lean Six Sigma Company has been a course provider since the early 2000’s and since that time we have coached, supervised, trained, and certified managers of every level and type of industry.

We have noticed that the most common reasons for attending a course often involve seeking career advancement or (suddenly) having to deal with a growing list of responsibilities, i.e. having to start with Lean Six Sigma. Ideally, you want to be well-prepared for either, perhaps even experienced, before you are burdened with Operational Excellence or Continuous Improvement KPI’s and find yourself struggling. Naturally, a Lean Six Sigma course is a great way to prepare and thrive when the time comes.

However, before you enroll in a prestigious course on the assumption that managers require a high level of training, let us offer a word of advice. If, like us, you have been around managers and OpEx/CI projects long enough, you will come to realize two things. One, most managers have attended the wrong level of training. Two, most of them wrongly apply traditional leadership techniques during improvement initiatives.

Be wary of this, because the amount of Lean Six Sigma know-how a manager realistically needs is very different from what a Black Belt or Lean Expert needs. A basic understanding is sufficient and sometimes even more beneficial than extensive knowledge. You don’t need to know the ins-and-outs of a process capability analysis or whether you should reject the null hypothesis. To effectively guide your team of Lean Six Sigma professionals to impressive results, you just need to know the appropriate level of training needed and why traditional management styles would miss the mark.

Defining ‘management’

First, let’s apply some labels. Management literature will provide you with a wide range of management tiers, but for the sake of this article, and ease of reading, we will boil them down to top-level, middle-level and lower-level.

We define top level management as the Board of Directors, the chief executive officers (CEO), and the managing directors (MD) of the organization. They are the ones responsible for making strategic decisions, day-to-day operations and setting the overall direction of the organization.

Secondly, in the middle management layer, you will find department heads, general managers and division managers. They are responsible for implementing the strategies and plans developed by the top-level management and tasked with making tactical decisions.

Lastly, lower level management, which includes managers of specific departments or sections within the organization, such as the HR department, sales, or production departments. Lower level managers are responsible for supervising and coordinating the activities of the front-line employees and ensuring that the organization’s objectives are met.

Growing productivity per level of management

Each managerial level carries a number of responsibilities when it comes to the productivity of their team or department. To no one’s surprise, improving team productivity is one of the most important goals on the agenda. But each layer should approach this differently, especially with regards to continuous improvement.

Top level management should be:

  • Establishing clear and measurable productivity goals for the organization
  • Prioritizing areas for improvement and allocating resources to support productivity initiatives
  • Developing and communicating a clear vision and strategy for improvement
  • Building a culture of continuous improvement and encouraging employee involvement in productivity initiatives
  • Providing leadership, coaching and guidance to middle- and lower-level management.

Middle level management should be:

  • Identifying and overseeing projects that improve processes and productivity
  • Analyzing data and identifying areas for improvement
  • Communicating the goals and expectations clearly to lower level management and front-line employees
  • Coordinating the efforts of different teams and departments to achieve common goals
  • Providing mentoring and guidance to lower level management
  • Assigning budget for training

Lower level management should be:

  • Supervising and coordinating the activities of front-line employees
  • Communicating the goals and expectations clearly to front-line employees
  • Involving employees in identifying and solving problems related to productivity
  • Implementing productivity initiatives and process improvement
  • Continuously monitoring and measuring productivity
  • Developing employees through training
  • Encouraging employee engagement and ownership

Why combining traditional management styles and Lean Six Sigma  causes friction

Traditional management styles tend to rely on a hierarchical structure, where decisions are made at the top and then communicated downwards. This can lead to a lack of involvement from front-line employees, and a lack of ownership of the process improvement initiative. From a Lean Six Sigma point of view, the ones who carry out the work are consulted during improvement projects, not ordered around.

Another downside is that traditional styles of management often rely on control and command, where managers make decisions and then tell employees what to do. This approach does not align well with the Lean and Six Sigma philosophy of empowering employees to identify and solve problems on their own. Don’t forget Toyota’s motto “First we build people, then we build cars.” Lean Six Sigma should empower employees; improvement can’t be continuous if approval must be sought for every change or adjustment.

Also, it may not place enough emphasis on the continuous aspect of continuous improvement, which is vital to both Lean and Six Sigma. Both methodologies rely on regularly monitoring, checking and analyzing processes to identify new opportunities for incremental improvements. It’s very important to keep in mind that this is not a one-time effort.

Then there’s customer satisfaction. Traditional management may not focus enough on the customer. Delivering value to customers by e.g. better understanding what is considered ‘value adding’, eliminating waste from the process, and better meeting customer needs for higher levels of customer satisfaction are key principles of Lean Six Sigma.

Traditional management styles may not focus on data-driven decision making, which is another key principle of Six Sigma. Six Sigma relies on data and statistical analysis to identify and solve problems. While new methods, technologies and data-gathering techniques are now helping to resolve this, using data to guide your actions has been a given for any Lean Six Sigma expert for decades.

Lastly, taking the time to conduct research. Lean Six Sigma centers around researching the underlying cause of a problem, and resolving it in a way that prevents it from recurring. But this takes time and effort. Typically, traditional managers will try to bridge the gap between ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ as fast as possible, with as little effort as possible. Research does not even enter the picture. Yet any Lean Six Sigma professional will tell you that jumping to conclusions and fixing whatever is wrong on the surface (also known as fire fighting) hardly ever resolves the actual root cause.

Most suitable Lean Six Sigma training per level of management

With the responsibilities laid out and reasoning clarified, let’s move on to choosing the right course. From a Lean Six Sigma standpoint, you don’t want managers to interfere or affect the outcome of a project with their own interpretations or style of management. So when it comes to training managers at the right level, we recommend the following:

Top level management should be trained with Lean or Lean Six Sigma Executive Briefings or customized in-house training. The goal of training at this level is to learn about the overall strategy and vision of Lean Six Sigma, as well as how to effectively support Lean Six Sigma initiatives within the organization. Specifically, this might include training in Six Sigma project selection, leadership and change management, or providing guidance on how to measure and track the organization’s progress. Training in complex subject matter would likely be a waste at this level.

Middle level management should be trained on a Yellow Belt level, Sponsor and/or Champion training. They should possess some knowledge of the tools and techniques used in Lean Six Sigma. As they will be responsible for overseeing Lean Six Sigma teams and guarding project selection, it’s important for them to possess a decent understanding of the methodology and how expertise, budget, employee time are being utilized in areas that fall under their span of control.

Lower level management should be trained on at least a Yellow Belt level, but this is likely not enough. Ideally, lower level management should be trained at Green Belt or Lean Leader level, but for a different reason that you might expect. As Lean Six Sigma revolves around continuous improvement, you should know what helps to achieve a culture which fosters this cycle. A deeper understanding might be beneficial- not to personally take charge of initiatives, but to steer team initiatives and actions in the right direction to achieve a true culture of continuous improvement. Additionally, it’s important for lower level managers to understand how their work affects -and fits- into the overarching Lean Six Sigma objectives, so they understand the impact of their actions and be motivated to contribute to the organization’s success.

In order for Lean Six Sigma to be as effective as possible, it’s important not only to have the right training, but also the right implementation, support, and employees who are both motivated and committed to achieving a culture of continuous improvement. How to achieve the aforementioned is explained in detail during our courses.