Six Sigma Leadership has nothing to do with leading six sigma projects. It does have everything to with leading people to new levels of excellence in any organization.
What is Six Sigma Leadership? How does the philosophy of 3.2 defects per one million opportunities fit into a discussion of leadership? Are we talking about a return to the 1980’s philosophy of “Zero Defects” for Leaders? Absolutely not! That would assume that there is the perfect leader out there somewhere. Six-Sigma Leadership is a new twist on Leader development that applies the Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control (DMAIC) quality methodology to Leadership. Six-Sigma Leadership is about applying the principles of Six Sigma to leading the people of any organization. It is important to understand that leaders do not lead organizations; they lead the people within the organization. All too often this point is misunderstood at every level of some organizations.
In order to discuss Six Sigma Leadership, we will establish a baseline on what we really mean by leadership. First it is important to understand the difference between management and leadership because these two terms are used interchangeably by corporations every single day. All too often these two terms are confused by people who really should know better. This may be due to an assumption that leadership and management are the same thing or could very well be due to the fact that “we have always done that,” thus making it “right.” If this is the case, it is good example of doing things wrong for so long that wrong looks right.
However, it could be due to the fact that some people just do not know the difference. The easiest way to distinguish between the two is that you lead people and you manage resources. You can be the world’s best manager from behind a desk and a computer screen, but to lead people you have to get on the ground and see what is going on. General George S. Patton put it best when he said, “No effective decision was ever made from the seat of a swivel chair.”
In order to discuss Six-Sigma Leadership, it is necessary to set a foundation of what Six Sigma really is and how it came about. Six Sigma was developed by Motorola in 1986. It started as a continuous quality improvement technique. According to Tom McCarty in an article in EuropeanCEO, Six Sigma “has evolved into a fully integrated management system to execute business strategy.” Six Sigma uses a framework of Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control. For this analysis of Leadership we will use the same five areas.
Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control
Define: What is leadership?
Every dictionary appears to have a different definition of leadership, none of which really provides a good start point for a discussion of leadership. The US Army defines leadership as “Leadership is influencing people—by providing purpose, direction, and motivation—while operating to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.” There is nothing here about improving your career, getting promoted, or getting a pay raise. However, if one provides workers and organizations with purpose, direction, and motivation and gets the job done while at the same time improving the organization, that person will probably get promoted, get a bonus or get a pay raise as a collateral benefit.
“Great leaders inspire their teams to believe so deeply in their mission that they become immersed in what they’re doing… Average leaders inspire their subordinates to do just enough to get by, just enough to get raises or keep their jobs… Bad leaders destroy their followers sense of commitment.” What type of motivation do you provide your employees? Are they content to adopt the mantra, “Minimum effort, mediocre results,” or are they motivated to “become immersed in what they’re doing?”
The Define phase of DMAIC includes looking at what is important. In looking at Six Sigma Leadership, this includes not only defining leadership, but looking at the question: “What do my employees expect from me?” In DMAIC the questions include what is it that the customer wants? In Six Sigma Leadership, the customers for leadership are the employees and the company that the leader works for. In order to determine what “we can do to meet the customers’ needs,” as leaders we must know where we are in the process. We must ensure that our actions, our guidance, and our vision for the company and the future are couched in terms that the employees understand. It is imperative in leadership to make sure we are speaking to our employees through their favorite radio station, WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?).
In order to develop Six-Sigma Leadership it is imperative to adopt the attributes of world class leadership as developed by the Supply Chain Leadership Institute:
Measure: Can you really measure Leadership? Absolutely! Some organizations, including the US Army have implemented the use of 360 degree assessments. This is not a new technique; the US Army Ranger School and at one time the Reserve Officers’ Training Course have used peer ratings to supplement the assessments of their superiors. The 360 degree assessment takes it one step further by adding subordinate assessments in addition to the ratings from superiors and peers. This is one way of measuring leadership.
Think about leaders that you have worked for, worked with, or observed during the course of your career. The success of subordinates is a measure of leadership. Look at some of the great National Football League coaches and then look at how many of their assistant coaches have risen to the ranks of head coaches. This is because in addition to coaching the players, the good head coaches are also coaching, teaching and mentoring their assistant coaches. As a coach of the All Army Powerlifting Team and later as the Coach of the National Champion Women’s Armed Forces Powerlifting Team, I gained more pleasure watching my athletes win the National Championships than I did from my own personal National and International Championships.
Let’s take a look at some of the metrics that the Supply Chain Leadership Institute lists as metrics and ways for measuring the quality of a leadership:
1. What are the employee retention rates for your organization? A company, division, section that continues to have high turn over rates is a good indication of a leadership problem. It could be that a good manager was promoted into a leadership position without any leadership training. Why are the employees leaving the organization? Once a metric is in place to measure employee retention rates, an analysis of why can be conducted. One company that I encountered recently had a 50% retention rate. It is hard to stay in business very long with that low of a retention rate. There was a distribution center in West Memphis, Arkansas a few years ago with a rate that was much higher. The Toyota North American Parts Distribution Center in Ontario, CA, has a retention rate of almost 99%. Which distribution center would you want to work for?
2. What are the internal promotion rates? Of course this metric does not work if your policy is to only promote from within. Are your employees being trained for responsibility at the next level? Just promoting the employee is not a measure of success if the employee is not trained for the responsibilities of the next level. How many of your first line supervisors and mid-level leaders come from within your organization? How many of your mid-level leaders move on to another company? Why? And once you promote an individual from within, do you give them any additional training to ensure success at the next level? The hardest promotion of all is going from “one of the guys on the line” to being the supervisor. If your policy is to promote from within, I recommend that the person promoted is moved to a new section after completing training geared to ensure his/her success at the next level.
3. “Climate of Command” surveys. In the US Army, quality units have an outside organization conduct a “climate of command” survey that asks the soldiers a series of questions about how they are treated, their perceptions of how discipline is handled in the unit, and how often they see the unit’s leadership in the offices, shops, warehouses. This same concept is applicable to your organization. In your company this would more than likely be called a “climate of leadership” or “climate of management” survey. The principles are the same: to find out the problems and perceptions of your organization. If the leaders of your organization have walked the processes, visited the shops and sections of the Distribution Centers, or offices, then there should be no surprises when the results of the surveys are compiled. One company had an assistant manager with 3 Department Supervisors. Out of the three supervisors, one stayed, one left and one departed on indefinite sick leave for mental stress. Not exactly a good “climate of command.” This is why companies need leaders to lead the managers. In fact this assistant manager was overheard saying, “You don’t understand, I am not paid to do any work. As an assistant manager, I am paid to delegate.” This attitude is part of the reason for the poor work climate in the organization and why this assistant manager will always be a manager and not a leader. Another part of the “climate of command” is based on caring for your employees. In the introduction to The Carolina Way, the great University of North Carolina Coach, Dean Smith, states, “The most important thing in leadership is truly caring.”
Another example of not creating a good “command climate” was passed on to me recently by a colleague. This individual had been asked to speak at a professional development conference. The individual’s boss consented to the presentation but then two weeks prior to the conference called the individual in and said, “I know this is good for you and good for the organization, but it is not good for me. Therefore I am not going to let you go to the conference.” Now since there was nothing really important going on other than “holding the boss’s hand” what kind of climate does this type of leadership convey to the workers?
“Good Leaders create a work environment that is like a family, where people care for one another, help one another, celebrate the success of their fellow workers…..If you want to motivate people to work hard, work together and work smart, help them to be successful. People give back what they receive.” Does this describe your organization? If no, why?
An example of setting the right climate is punctuality. How often have you worked for a boss that made you wait for an appointment? How often have you waited for one or two people to show up for the meeting to start? What signal does that send? Basically you are saying my time is more important than yours. I had a boss that was always 30 minutes behind schedule and kept every one waiting for appointments and meetings. If the meeting starts at 8:00 AM every one should be seated and ready for the meeting to start. This includes the leader of the meeting. In fact, my position was always to be there before the meeting in enough time to speak to everyone at the meeting before it started to make them feel part of the meeting and make them feel important.
One way to improve the climate at work is to make the work fun. Every employee should look forward to coming to work every day. Establish a climate where employees are excited to come to work every day. Do this and watch your company’s productivity improve.
4. Leadership Recognition is a metric of leadership. Do your employees know who you are? I know this sounds strange. But here is a true story about one “leader” that I observed a few years back. As this “leader” was showing me around his operations, we came across a couple of soldiers that were doing some work in an unsafe manner. In the US Army the entire chain of command has their pictures on every unit’s bulletin board and all soldiers are supposed to know their chain of command all the way from their first line supervisor through the President of the United States. When we came across these soldiers, the response of my escort was, “Do you know who I am?” As if this made a difference in why they were doing something unsafe. One soldier responded, “I’ve seen your picture somewhere.” It was all I could do to keep from laughing. The moral of this story is get out of the office, talk to your employees, and let them see you so you are more than just a “picture on the wall.”
5. Another form of recognition that is inherent in Six Sigma Leadership is recognizing employees for doing a good job. In coaching, it is important for coaches to tell their athletes when they are doing a good job in the sport or are practicing/playing well. How often do you praise your employees? Not empty praise or false praise, but honest and sincere praise for what they are doing? As you measure your leadership, what is the ratio of praise to criticism?
6. Understanding of your leadership vision/philosophy. How well do your employees really know your vision for where the organization is going? This is a measure of how well you are communicating with your employees. For a vision/philosophy to be understood, it must be clearly stated, clearly articulated, and clearly understood by the employees that have to implement it. Just because it is clear to you does not mean that it is clear to your employees.
7. The quality of your products/on time delivery rates/perfect order fulfillment rates. Wait a minute, aren’t these measures of quality not leadership? Yes and no. If you are leading your employees, if they understand the company standards and how meeting these standards impacts on them, then these quality/customer service measures are also measures of your leadership. Employees with quality leadership strive to produce quality products, ensure that the distribution center is clean, meet customer delivery standards and ensure that the order is complete. Companies that have delivery or order fulfillment problems can usually trace these problems to poor leadership or a lack of leadership interest/involvement.
8. The appearance of your distribution center/operation. Habitually, distribution centers or other operations with quality leaders are easy to spot when you walk through one of them. How? Watch the supervisors, distribution center managers, and workers. When they see something out of place, they pick it up and put it where it should be. This could be an item on the wrong shelf or trash on the floor. Next time you walk through your operations, watch how the employees respond to trash or items out of place.
9. Employee pride. Are your employees proud of the product that they make or service that they provide? This metric is a little harder to quantify than some of the other leadership metrics. However, your employees pride will be a direct reflection of your leadership style. Are your employees willing to put their names on their products?
10. Esprit De Corps. This metric is closely related to the “climate of command” metric. Like employee pride this one is hard to place a quantifiable measure on, within 48 hours of visiting an organization or supply chain operation, you can tell if the leadership is concerned about the people. Are they smiling, do they seem to be enjoying their jobs? During a recent follow up visit to one company’s remote site, I was told, “no one has visited us to see how we are doing since the last time you were here.” Leaders that are concerned about their workers will take an interest in their employees and the workers attitudes and esprit will reflect it in their daily work.
11. Employee courtesy. How do you treat your employees? Why do I ask? Because the way you treat your employees will manifest itself in the way your employees treat each other and how they treat your customers. 2500 years ago the “Golden Rule” was established – “Do on to others as you would have them do unto you.” Regardless of your religious background or beliefs, this principle for leadership is a good standard to use. As long as you treat your employees with courtesy, it will show in their customer service.
12. Employee burnout. I know this one may be a bit harder to measure but it is a key indicator of leadership. All too often, leadership is responsible for this burnout. I have heard leaders preach about the need to have a balance between work and family but never practice it themselves. One such senior leader tried to set the example by leaving the office every day at 6:00 PM but from the times on the e-mails the next day it was quite obvious that he was not spending time with his family. Eventually the workers started staying later in the evening and coming in earlier in the mornings to work the e-mails and projects that the boss created at all hours of the night. The result was employee burnout and a loss of real productivity.
Analyze: In order to analyze your leadership and move towards Six Sigma Leadership, you have to establish the metrics from the preceding section. You cannot jump from Define to Analyze. Just like the six sigma process improvement methodology you have to move sequentially from one step to the next. Once you have established your leadership baseline with the world class metrics above, you have to do a gap analysis between world class leadership and where you are today. The 360 degree assessment is one way of validating the gap. In the analysis phase, you determine the areas that you need to focus on to improve your personal leadership and to improve the leadership of your organization.
Part of the analyze phase is to look at the performance of each individual on your team. All too often, experience shows that the only time supervisors sit down with individuals is once a year at annual performance appraisal time. This is the wrong time to analyze performance. As you shift into the analyze phase of Six Sigma Leadership it is time to sit down with every employee and assess their strengths and weaknesses. How can you evaluate an employee against a standard of performance if you do not set the standard at the beginning of the appraisal period and then provide routinely scheduled azimuth checks so the employee knows where they stand? Only when you establish each individual’s base line can you move to the improve phase of Six Sigma Leadership.
Improve: Based on your gap analysis or individual assessment and it is time to develop a professional development plan to improve those areas you identified in the Analyze phase. How do you develop your subordinates into leaders? The first step is to sit down with each person individually and discuss their strengths and weaknesses and establish a training development program for them with goals and programs. Are you starting to get the point that it is important in Six Sigma Leadership to sit down with your employees on a regular basis to evaluate performance, give direction, and coach them?
The next step is to allow your subordinates to make decisions and put them into leadership positions. The Supply Chain Leadership Institute has a track record of assisting companies design leadership professional development programs. Part of the Improve phase is to establish new programs to bring your organization closer to world class with the above metrics and attributes.
Control: During this phase of the Six Sigma Leadership program the goal is to implement the professional development plans for every leader in the organization and for the future leaders to develop them and prepare them for positions of greater responsibility in the organization. During this phase, a monthly face-to-face session is necessary with each of your subordinate leaders. The US Army finally made it mandatory for all leaders to sit down at least once a quarter with every employee that they rated or “Senior Rated” on annual performance appraisals. Why did the US Army make this mandatory? Because if they did not the leaders in many cases would never talk to their employees unless they messed something up. Did this solve the problem? No! Contrary to a popular opinion, not every person can or should be a leader. The true leaders that I have encountered did conduct face-to-face meetings with their subordinates. Unfortunately, too many just initialed the form without ever talking to the subordinate. Does the face-to-face meeting have to take place in the office? No. Some of the best counseling sessions that I had with subordinates were conducted while walking across the maintenance yards or walking through the distribution centers. Doing these sessions out of the office occasionally allowed me to use real life examples and visuals as training aids.
When you move to the Control phase, it is time to move to mentoring and coaching. Please do not mistake this leadership phase for the traditional controlling that forces people to do something that they do not really want to do. In Six Sigma Leadership, the control phase is where you implement the programs that you developed from the measuring phase and the improve phase. During this phase it is imperative to institutionalize your development, coaching, and mentoring. During your monthly sessions, it is time to assess progress and develop corrective actions to get the employee back on track if necessary. If these monthly sessions are properly conducted, when it comes time for promotion or annual performance appraisal time there should not be any surprises.
Coaching is just as important in business – the ultimate team sport – as it is in athletics. The principles for Six Sigma Leadership are based on experiences in athletics as a National and International Champion and as a coach of teams from Little League to National Championship Powerlifting Teams. Coaching and Six Sigma Leadership both focus on people. As an athlete my goal was to always win when I stepped on the lifting platform. To get to a national-level caliber level meant focusing on the small aspects of the three major lifts. Six Sigma Leadership involves focusing on the little aspects of each individual’s performance. Just as one size does not fit when coaching a National Championship Team, the same is true for leading a group of individuals comprising a team in business. Although there is only one standard, there are as many ways of achieving excellence in individual performance as there are individuals on your team. This is where the monthly sessions tie in.
Six Sigma has produced phenomenal improvements in quality, customer service and supply chain operations. Using this adaptation of Six Sigma for leadership will produce phenomenal improvements in your organizations that will bleed over into other operations and activities. Using Six Sigma Leadership in your organization will eliminate the poor leadership at all levels that all of us have seen in organizations. Some of these include surprises at performance appraisal time, not really knowing what the boss wants – “I’ll know it when I see it,” and leaders that come right out and say, “I am more concerned about my career than I am yours.”
The bottom line is that a focus on leadership will produce the following equation:
P3=P! People + Passion + Pride = Profits. When you focus on the right side of the equation, the left side will improve. However, if you focus purely on the right side of the equation, you may fail on both sides of the equation. One company told me that they did not have time to focus on people because they were so focused on profits. That company was in bankruptcy. I could not resist stating the obvious – “Focus on the people and the profits will come because the employees will take pride in the company and work to make it better.”
Implementing Six Sigma Leadership will enable you to achieve operational excellence in your operations. Remember, regardless of what business you think you are in, you are in the people business and that requires leadership.
Director, Supply Chain Leadership Institute
 Tom McCarty, EuropeanCEO, September – October 2004, Leadership Edition, “Six Sigma® At Motorola.”
US Army Field Manual 22-100, Leadership, August 1999.
 Smith, Dean and Bell, Gerald D., The Carolina Way, The Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2003, p. 33.
 Joseph Walden, Velocity Management in Logistics and Distribution