How ‘Failure’ Can Be A Good Thing

Posted April 8th, 2010 by Candy Medina | Tags: | Posted in Uncategorized |

April, 2010

“Failure is not an option”. That phrase has been instilled in me for many years, and has served as a personal mantra through many initiative launches. But, what if it’s wrong? What if failure is actually an expected, ‘good’ thing that helps drive positive change? I never thought about it this way until I read the book ‘Switch’, by Chip and Dan Heath (the same guys who wrote ‘Made to Stick’ – another favorite).

Of course we’re not talking about failures that are a result of inattention or incompetence here . . . we’re talking about well-intentioned misses that just didn’t have the positive consequences we envisioned. In their book, the Heath brothers make a strong case for a different approach to successfully creating change. In fact, this book is really a playbook for change, with a very compelling model for how to do it well. It’s their view of the framework in which the change occurs that is so interesting. Typically, the reason WHY the change needs to happen is pretty well understood (at least by the change leader). And, the ultimate goal, or ‘vision for success’ has some level of definition. It’s the space in between these bookends that is the focus here. In my linear, engineering brain, you know the start and stop points and you map the steps in between – each being a milestone of ever-increasing success, performance, whatever – until the ultimate goal is reached. However, this is NOT the way most successful change occurs! In fact, the between-bookends space is a nebulous, gray zone of two steps forward, one step back. The backwards steps are the ‘failures’ (in most people’s view) – but, in reality, they are what make the change stick.

I’m working with a team right now, developing a rather innovative scorecard that will help them pulse the health of their organization on a monthly basis. The first six weeks went great – everyone knew the mission and the goal, and the knowledge-gathering phase was fun and informative. After the second iteration of the work product emerged, discord was evident. The process owner was impatient and the team members disagreed on elements that had been in harmony only a few weeks previous. It was depressing, and I felt like it was a personal failure on my part. Fortunately, I finished reading ‘Switch’ shortly thereafter, and it completely changed my viewpoint. I know now that the key to this is perseverance, and focus on the positive. Change that sticks is incremental, not monumental. It takes digestion time.

Well-intentioned failure is learning that benefits the mission. In fact, the ‘failures’ let you clearly see what DOES work. “Follow the bright spots – investigate what’s working and clone it” – page 259.

Six Sigma Geekdom

Posted February 8th, 2010 by Candy Medina | Tags: , | Posted in Home Process Improvement |

Over the weekend, a friend of mine asked me for help regarding his seriously declining financial situation. He has many loans and credit card bills, and doesn’t have enough income to cover the total of minimum payments and other things like rent and food. So, I suggested some specific tactics that he could use to begin digging out of the hole he has created for himself. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized the profound influence the Six Sigma philosophy has over everything I do.

As always, measurement validation figured prominently in the advice I had offered (although I didn’t realize it at the time). When I looked at the monthly budget line item he had labeled ‘Miscellaneous – $200’, my first reaction was to question the measurement system. I suggested to my friend that he begin logging and tracking all expenditures, because he can’t start figuring out what to fix unless he knows what he is actually spending  on ‘Miscellaneous’. We also need detailed data (rather than summary data) to diagnose the issues and reduce the amount of this budget line item.  Once again, characterizing the current state of the process with valid data is the first step towards improvement.

Another suggestion I made was to create a bar chart showing his total debt, and then track the monthly decline in the payoff balances as he makes payments. Not only does this provide visual feedback as to the size of the problem, it also provides motivation – the good feeling you get from seeing the bar get smaller. In essence, this is a scorecard where the Vital ‘x’ being tracked is ‘debt magnitude’. (The ‘y’ is ‘financial stability’, by the way). There still could be other x’s out there driving the variability in his financial stability, but debt is an obvious one that needs to be controlled. The data my friend gathers on his spending habits can be used to dig into the other potential x’s driving his situation, once the baseline data collection is complete.

Does this make me a Six Sigma geek for unconsciously gravitating to the DMAIC methodology to resolve personal issues? I guess it does. But I firmly believe that the Six Sigma approach is the right way to solve ANY process problem, be it personal- or business-related.

Six Sigma and ‘Customer Capitalism’

Posted January 22nd, 2010 by Candy Medina | Posted in Uncategorized |

In the latest edition of Harvard Business Review (Jan-Feb 2010), an article titled “The Age of Customer Capitalism” by Roger Martin is both thought-provoking and exciting. You may be questioning how I could consider such a topic exciting, but it truly is. This article provides support and maybe even vindication for the fundamental message that has been preached by me and other Six Sigma professionals for 15 years now: that the ultimate focus of any process improvement endeavor must be to ‘satisfy customers profitably’. Mr. Martin provides an historical context for capitalism that begins in the early part of the 20th century with a call for ‘professional’ business management, then shifts in the 1970’s to a mandate for ‘shareholder value capitalism’: the premise that the primary purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder wealth. This is what I learned in business school in the 1980’s, and what an entire generation has been brought up to believe. The Six Sigma methodology ran somewhat counter to the ‘maximize shareholder wealth’ philosophy, because it required the improvement team to start with the Voice of the Customer and establish effectiveness criteria before moving into efficiency improvements. I saw the incongruity when I began working in the Sales organization, where the number one customer requirement was ‘on time delivery’. However, we were not initially allowed to work on improvement projects in this area because better delivery performance could not be validated by Finance as improving the ‘bottom line’ (i.e., cost reduction). It was a frustrating time.
The HBR article claims that we are on the verge of a new business era in which customer value must be the top priority, with shareholder value as a sub-tier deliverable. By revising management philosophies in this way, the oft-repeated scenarios where CEOs make decisions that hurt the business in pursuit of ‘shareholder value’ would be avoided. In this new era, business leaders would first be rewarded on how well they met customer needs, then on the financial metrics. What an amazing future awaits, if this message is taken seriously. Dr. Deming, Peter Drucker and the other visionaries will finally have their concepts put into practice. Improvement projects will finally be prioritized and aligned to customer needs. This is why I’m excited!

A Healthy Dose of Skepticism

Posted November 19th, 2009 by Candy Medina | Posted in Measurement Validation |

It happened again this morning.  I opened my e-mail and was greeted by a subject line reading:  “This is TRUE!!  Check it on Snopes!!!!”   As soon as I see this, my radar goes up and I launch into investigator mode.  It has become a perverse pastime – de-bunking extremist e-mails from both sides of the political fence (especially the ones with an excess of exclamation points in the title).  In my rather informal data tally to date, approximately 85% of these e-mails are either lies or worse, damn lies.  All it takes is five minutes of web surfing to uncover the issues . . . so, why don’t people check the content before they forward half-truths, misrepresentations and other garbage?

 I have a theory.  I’m going to call it ‘The Principle of Attractive Media’.  As with many things, The Principle applies to both home situations and ‘pure’ Six Sigma applications. The core of the theory is that even educated, intelligent people are easily seduced by flashy fonts, embedded pictures or tables and, especially, COLOR.   They want to believe stuff that looks cool. 

 The Principle is evidenced in the world of process improvement by the extreme reluctance of practitioners to even do the most basic checks on the validity of the measurement system they are using.  The blinders come up for a plethora of reasons (excuses), which fall into several general categories:

  1. Duration:  “This is the measurement system we have always used, so it has to be right”
  2. Expense:  “We spent $350,000 on this coordinate measurement machine, and it is robotic – so there is no need to check it”
  3. Output:  “The measurements come off ‘The System’, so they must be good”, and, “The report is coded red, yellow and green”

 Although I am certainly an advocate of statistical methods like Gage R & R to validate measurement systems, it doesn’t always have to be that complicated.  Valid measurement systems have two key characteristics:

  •  They measure what the customer cares about
  • They tell the truth – reflecting actual customer experience

 So whether you are faced with wild-eyed, panic-inducing e-mails or a three-color tabulated report, you should always respond first with skepticism.  Invest the time to check things out.  Where did the information come from?  How can you be sure it’s accurate and reliable?  Answering these questions will give you a better foundation for decision-making in your process improvement projects, and keep you from being one of ‘Those People’ who forward spurious e-mail.