Tracy O'RourkeTracy O’Rourke, Master Black Belt, has trained over 1,000 people, mentored 200+ green belts and black belts, and has helped complete 200+ projects with results that range between $50,000 and $8 million dollars in savings. She advises companies and spearheads implementation on many aspects of process improvement including strategic planning, training, implementation, mentoring, project selection, and project consulting. O’Rourke is president of Catalyst Consulting, and an SDSU instructor.

Why do you think that companies fail in Lean Six Sigma?
Like most important initiatives, Lean Six Sigma requires a long-term strategy and a multiphase implementation plan based on an organization’s level of maturity with the initiative. Training is only one element needed for a successful initiative. Other important elements to consider are resources, project selection, alignment with company objectives, the approach for employee engagement, and cultural opportunities for change. Even process improvement needs continuous improvement! There are some things that may work great for organizations, straight out of the gate. Other things may not have the desired impact or result and the creation of a new strategy or approach is needed. It’s an ongoing process. Sometimes organizations do not invest enough effort, time, or money into continuous improvement and the initiative crumbles.

Why do a company’s non-manufacturing departments need Lean Six Sigma?
There is so much opportunity in administrative and service processes for reducing waste, cycle time, and streamlining processes. In manufacturing, waste can be easy to see on a shop floor, evident in the parts waiting in queue, or in the amount of scrap starting to pile up. But, it can be harder to see waste in administrative processes. An administrative process can hide waste. The work in process (WIP) may be in someone’s computer, making it hard to see a bottleneck. Or, because handoffs are electronic via email or by a system – it’s harder to see multiple handoffs and redundancy. Tools like process maps and GEMBA walks help you see the process, identify and eliminate redundancy and waste, and streamline the process. In the last 10 years, 90% of my time has been spent applying process improvement techniques specifically to service and administrative processes.

Can you give me an example of Lean Six Sigma working in an office environment?
I’ve been helping LA County Registrar-Recorder County Clerk apply Lean Six Sigma to their administrative processes. We did three GEMBA walks on three different processes, created value stream maps, and collected cycle time data on these processes. We did a GEMBA walk for the process of requesting a birth, death, or marriage certificate by mail. We discovered that there was 17 days of work in the process, with redundant and unnecessary steps. We removed the redundant steps (for example, multiple scanning and sorting), shifted resources to balance the workload and reduced the bottlenecks. Now, the process is much more streamlined and requests get through the process in one day instead of 17. This improvement was done in a relatively short period of time (roughly six weeks).

What are the first steps of Lean Six Sigma other than education?
I think even more important than learning the tools, is the approach to the projects and people. Always remember three words: respect, collaborate, and empower.

Respect means to focus on the process, not the people in the process. A badly designed process can be frustrating for workers. They are victims of a poorly designed process too. However, the tendency is to blame those in the process. This approach only makes people defensive, territorial, and resistant to change. People really embrace process improvement, when you grant them immunity, so to speak, by focusing on the process and not the person.

Collaborate means to work with other departments to understand the current process end-to-end. I encourage those walking the process to be students of the process. Their purpose is to learn and gain profound knowledge of the process. Interrogations are not allowed, nor are telling people “You’re doing it wrong.” It’s about understanding what the process is today versus what we think it is.

Empower the people who do the work and are involved in the process or project. Nobody likes others to fix their process without including them. Yet, many people try this approach all the time and then wonder why they get so much push back or resistance. I tell people in the process or department that they decide what will be changed, how it will be changed, why they need to be involved.

I could go on and on about the approach, and these three elements in particular, but I’ll save that for the course.

Speaking of the course, what are the key course takeaways?
Besides learning Lean tools and Six Sigma methodology, I think a big takeaway is that it does apply to administrative and service processes. Many service and administrative processes are replicated across different companies. Most companies have departments such as Human Resources, IT, Marketing, Sales, and Operations. Many of these departments have similar processes across different industries and companies. All of these processes can have opportunities to streamline or reduce waste. There are many opportunities to apply Lean Six Sigma across many administrative processes. In addition, the course curriculum requires a project to be completed; obviously we encourage students to have an administrative or service project. Students will have direct application of these tools within a service environment.

Tell me about course expectations.
I’ve been teaching lean Six Sigma for over a decade, and I really enjoy it when my past students say that they have a strong understanding of how process improvement can be applied, especially Lean Six Sigma, in all aspects of their life, both personally and professionally. Continuous improvement is the use of tools, but it’s also a mindset.

In the course, we set students up for success by requiring a project. This helps students learn new concepts and tools, and then immediately apply the principles to a real-life application. This helps students gain a better understanding of the methodology. This also allows students to get project mentoring and/or help from the professors should they need it while they’re learning these new concepts. The course is definitely not a lecture. It’s more of a workshop environment. The course ends in December with a completed project presentation.

What are the misconceptions of Lean Six Sigma?
I think the biggest misconception out there is that Lean Six Sigma is a headcount reduction effort. This is absolutely untrue, and here’s why. Lean Six Sigma projects involve the workers in the improvement effort. If during the first round of projects, the company decides to layoff those employees, how successful will the second round of projects be? It won’t be very successful. To the worker, the first round’s message was signing up to do a project has a high probability of a layoff. Lean Six Sigma is about streamlining the processes, minimizing bottlenecks, and redistributing resources to maximize efficiency and customer satisfaction.

How would you describe continuous improvement?
Continuous improvement is definitely dynamic. It requires frontline, manager, and leadership engagement in order to be successful. When an organization launches a continuous improvement initiative, it can be an exciting time. Seeing early adopters apply the methodology and getting impactful results is very rewarding and helps the effort spread throughout the organization. If Lean Six Sigma is applied with a static approach, it will surely fail.

I would add that Lean training is definitely a sound investment in employees, and benefits both the individual and the company. For companies, the employees will improve and streamline real processes while they are in the course. So, cost savings could be immediate. And, with solid project selection in the future, the return on investment can be very positive.

For individuals, it’s also a wise investment. Gaining knowledge about solving problems will not become obsolete and these are skills that are considered a valuable asset in the job market.