Did You Forget To Tell Me Something?!

I was asked years ago by an operational management executive, “Where do you see the most important leadership position for successful Lean Six Sigma transformation?”  I answered, “The Frontline.”

Frontline leaders are those in positions at gemba that lead, coach, and manage the manufacturing or service  process.  Some of these leaders are Hospital nursing staff supervisors, manufacturing foremen, banking operation leaders, and restaurant lead servers.  These are just a few examples, but the point is that within every business there is a ‘frontline’ that needs to be led and managed effectively.

Let me explain why I see the frontline as the crucial area for success. From my experience when a company decides it wants to initiate a change in their business model the executive leadership had already done  their homework, discussed implementation among themselves and agreed to support the plan.  Now granted this doesn’t mean that there are not some executive leaders that nod their head in agreement and then passively resist the process of change.  It just means that at least there is someone typically the CEO or COO that has mandated the need for Lean Six Sigma and the executive force get’s in line to board the bus for change.

There is one big problem…the place where change actually takes place ‘gemba’, also known as the frontline never really understood that the tide of change was occurring.  Oh Sure, there was a general announcement made but the frontline leaders who were busy fighting fires didn’t hear the message.   This lack of effective communication can be identified as the “root-cause” of many transformation failures.  A state of ambiguity is created when those who are accountable for frontline change management do not understand  the game plan. This ambiguity generates  unfulfilled expectations and unmet needs resulting in frustration.  Change is unsettling to everyone and adding   frustration can lead to a total organizational meltdown. This catastrophe can be avoided.

A lean six sigma tool that can help facilitate effective communication throughout the business enterprise is “catchball”.   Catchball is a communication process (named after a child’s game of throwing a ball back and forth) [1] in which parties engage in a series of information exchanges about the means for achieving a particular objective. The purpose for the exchange is to build consensus around the best approach for achieving an objective.  Catchball is based on the belief that the best approach will evolve from the back and forth exchange of information between the person who is responsible for achieving the objective and the persons who will be most influential in achieving it.  The secondary benefit from using catchball is a higher degree of commitment to achieve the objective. [2]

Thus managers and their teams pass around suggestions and possibilities to agree how to align plans, taking into account those things they expected to do anyway. [3] This process of alignment takes place early in the life cycle of a lean six sigma transformation, primarily as part of Hoshin Kanri (aka Policy Deployment) .  Research has pointed to a strong need to work to short timescales to complete catchball activity, to compel people and teams to reach conclusions [4] and begin the activity of leading.   There comes a point in catchball when the emphasis shifts from discussion of managerial objectives and how to develop them in terms of means, to a more prescriptive form of activity, that is primarily about how to detail responsibilities and action plans. [5] An organization can benefit greatly from the catchball method and the result will be unification of leadership, message, and means.  An effective communication plan is not the silver bullet to successful LSS transformations. It can help to develop buy-in so that those who lead the change management process do so with passion and understanding of the desired result.  The result is to deliver a lean six sigma business transformation which will create  a  world class business enterprise that fosters flawless safety, service, quality, and delivery.  It all begins with communication.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  G. B. Shaw


[1],[3],[4],[5] Barry Witcher; School of Management, University of East Anglia, Rosemary Butterworth; University of Durham, “What Is Hoshin Kanri-A Review”, The Economic & Social Research Council, 1999

[2] Jay Deragon; The Relationship Economy…, “Should Your Company Play Catchball?”, 05/16/2008


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