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We got the chance to talk to Black Belt Bill Guill, formerly of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) about the keys to success when applying Lean Six Sigma to this iconic institution. Signed into existence by Franklin Roosevelt 85 years ago, the TVA remains a vital source of power for 9 million people across 7 southeastern states.

Bill had been recruited by executives to become the Fleet Continuous Improvement (CI) Manager when changes to the power landscape in coal, gas, and hydro generating fleets left the agency with a $128M budget gap to close over a 4-year period. Bill was able to successfully lead the organization in closing the gap by $21 million the first year the CI Program was implemented.

Bill had been with TVA for 27 years when he was recruited to lead CI Strategy development and deployment. He had worked at the coal-fired generating plants as a laborer, operator, supervisor, plant manager and in the office of the CEO for several change initiatives. He knew that the dynamic power-generating landscape, the loss of coal jobs, and increases in regulatory requirements would mean big changes for the company. Bill soon found that his diverse corporate and plant operational experience provided the credibility to connect with people at all levels of the organization from the frontline employees to executives.

Hangover of Past Efforts

When Bill got involved, Continuous Improvement was not new at the TVA. There had been lots of one-off efforts. Consultants came in, completed a project and were gone. It wasn’t working even though continuous improvement was designated as a core TVA competency. Worse yet, Continuous Improvement got stigmatized as each previous effort failed. Bill initially experienced a lot of resistance and found Lean Six Sigma to be a hard sell.

Burning Platform

The budget gap left TVA with a challenge to reduce their non-fuel Operations and Maintenance spending $128 million in four years to reach top quartile spend. This was the burning platform that helped get people on board. Each plant manager was accountable for their budget and they were welcome to use Lean Six Sigma but only if they wanted to use it. Bill saw it as his job to make sure they saw it as a worthy answer to finding the company-mandated savings. It was a way to survive.

Starting Out

In his many years of change management experience, Bill realized the first step was to develop a strategy and tactical execution plan. During strategy development, he talked with Karlo Tanjuakio of regarding which courses to offer employees. Bill decided it would be more effective and sustainable if everyone had some level of training based on their responsibilities.

Typical Plant Plan

He described the average coal plant as having about 200 people with the hydro and gas plants having about 20 people. His typical approach to training at a coal plant was to give the 150 individual contributor, front-line employees the 1-hour White Belt Training. About 48 managers and supervisors would receive the 8-hour Yellow Belt Training and 2 employees would become Green Belt Certified.

He made sure that everyone in the plant had some level of training based on their responsibilities. This level of engagement was very critical in building an inclusive culture and laying a solid foundation. With over 1,900 employees targeted for training, Bill used a fleet tracking scorecard to ensure that the training was completed in a timely manner.

This level of engagement was very critical in building an inclusive culture and laying a solid foundation.

He looked to the Yellow Belts to lead the organization in improvement and he treated the Green Belts as process experts. His message to employees was not to get hung up on belt levels. People just needed to become familiar with the DMAIC process and quickly knock out some improvements. He knew everyone would get better at it over time, but the main thing was for them to get their hands dirty, use the tools and move forward.

Grassroots Effort

He said they were all a bit wary when he showed up at their plant. The first thing they all asked about was his background. But once they found out he was one of them, the whole room would change. Because of his plant background, he could relate to people and build their trust. But not everyone got right on board. Bill describes this effort as a “typical change model. You had folks at the top of the maturity model grabbing it and running with it. You had folks in the middle dragging their feet. And you had some people you had to drag along screaming and crying.”

You had folks at the top of the maturity model grabbing it and running with it. You had folks in the middle dragging their feet. And you had some people you had to drag along screaming and crying.

He described his dual role through his wardrobe — one day he was at a plant with frontline employees wearing Carhartt pants, flame retardant shirts, and work boots; and the next day he would be meeting with executives in a suit and dress shoes. Out in the field he covered the entire 7-state region. He spent time with hydro-technicians and frontline people at the plants and worked with them to connect their Lean Six Sigma training with their actual jobs.

His model was to first have employees complete a one-page, Continuous Improvement (CI) Thought-Starter focused on the 8 Wastes. The Thought-Starters were then used as a tool to facilitate waste elimination sessions with employees to develop actionable projects. That level of simplicity and practicality had immediate results and became contagious.

Early Success

Bill invested time in doing larger projects, labeled “DMAICs,” up front. As he noted, “Generally speaking, the more complicated a process, the more it costs in terms of safety, time and money.” The biggest effort and most success they had early on was transitioning from a “time-based” preventive maintenance (PM) schedule to a “condition-based” maintenance schedule.

Generally speaking, the more complicated a process, the more it costs in terms of safety, time and money.

He described the situation in terms of how you perform time-based preventative maintenance on a car. As humans, we have been conditioned through marketing that our oil should be changed every 3000 miles or 3 months whether it needs it or not. In reality, most car manufacturers prescribe much longer mileage intervals and very seldom mention durations. With most of TVA’s fleet being over 50 years old, the same thing happened with equipment in the plants and became the accepted norm.

The difference was that instead of one car, the plants had tens of thousands of pieces of rotating equipment. They took a more rigorous look at the Preventive Maintenance (PM) schedules and used predictive maintenance technologies to eliminate waste by extending PM intervals where it made sense. That one change saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was also an example of a solution that could be replicated across the fleet in all plants.

Spreading the Effort

One of his main messages to employees was that they were already doing continuous improvement — they just weren’t taking credit for it. His point was, “Even as we go to work, we figure out the most efficient route. We’re wired as humans to do things most efficiently.” They were trained to problem-solve and troubleshoot every day, so he leveraged that to focus on Continuous Improvement (CI) Quick Wins. He started seeing front-line employees getting excited about finding savings and getting recognition for making improvements.

Even as we go to work, we figure out the most efficient route. We’re wired as humans to do things most efficiently.

Bill cites training as essential in laying a solid foundation followed by application of the training through projects — investment through training and ROI through projects. He let everyone know that improvements could be as simple as creating a checklist for a task to eliminate waste, or they could be as complicated as addressing unit startups and shutdowns. This approach is what got them to the $21 Million in savings. They saved big dollars with application of the training through lots of CI Quick Wins and projects.

In order to integrate Continuous Improvement into their daily work, he focused on getting one CI Quick Win a month that was sent out across the fleet for replication. They tracked each of these improvements on the fleet Continuous Improvement Scorecard.

From there he began working on sustainability by integrating Continuous Improvement into key meetings at the plant, fleet, and corporate levels. During these meetings, executives, managers, and employees spent time discussing CI Quick Wins and ideas. They also integrated Continuous Improvement goals into the Performance Management program as part of the employee-specific goals for the year.

Modified A3 Serves Its Purpose

Bill developed a modified A3 that utilized the Continuous Improvement training and DMAIC Model as a way to share projects across the Coal, Gas and Hydro fleet. He collaborated with his network of Champions in each area to help spread the news. Employees became excited and energized as they started to see the possibilities. Bill shared that people really liked using the one-page summary (8×11 version of an A3) because it quickly communicated results and did not require thumbing through numerous pages of data and information.

He customized the A3 by adding a box called “Value” which quantified the savings of each effort. Many of these efforts didn’t require a lot of in-depth description and analysis. A great example was reviewing the rental equipment list at several of the plants and understanding the usage. They saved $500k by returning unused and seldom-used equipment. Another example was a plant that moved oil changes on their diesel generators from time-based to condition-based intervals (see A3-DMAIC example).

Creating a Problem-Solving Culture

Bill felt that from a cultural standpoint, it was critical to have all three phases working together at the same time. He had people going through training, conducting improvement projects and communicating the wins all at the same time. The robust oversight metrics in the scorecards drove the right behaviors and allowed him to monitor their performance to ensure improvements were aligned with fleet strategy.

On the communication side, he created a “drumbeat” of fleet-wide communications that he drafted for the Vice Presidents. They took those drafts and sent out the scorecards with the most recent CI Quick Wins. The executive communications, scorecards, and Quick Wins created lots of healthy competition as the Continuous Improvement movement spread rapidly across the fleet.

Leadership Provided the Backbone of Support

“I could not have done it without Executive Support.” Bill shared that in his many experiences with effectively managing change initiatives, “you are doomed if you do not have strong executive support. My executive team provided great support and allowed me to use my boots-on-the-ground experience when developing the strategy and tactical execution plan.”

I could not have done it without Executive Support. My executive team provided great support and allowed me to use my boots-on-the-ground experience when developing the strategy and tactical execution plan.

Replication Was the Great Multiplier

He saw that the highest value from a fleet perspective was to find a solution and replicate it. He worked to spread the message that even though they had different generating technologies — it really wasn’t that different — they just spun the generators in a different manner. The idea was to focus on the executing the process and behaviors associated with the Quick Wins and projects as opposed to focusing on fuel source.

All plants have many common rotating pieces of equipment like turbines, pumps, and fans — it doesn’t matter what kind of fuel was involved to spin the generator. When people from a coal plant saw the word, “Gas-fired” in the A3-DMAIC, they told him, “it doesn’t apply to us.” Bill worked to get people beyond the piece of equipment to look at the behaviors associated with the equipment. For example, with the diesel generator A3-DMAIC, it didn’t matter if you had a diesel generator or not, the key thought and behavior is what vessels of oil do you maintain that can be moved from time-based preventative maintenance schedules to conditions-based maintenance schedules.


During the first year of CI deployment, TVA Power Operations built a solid Continuous Improvement foundation by training 93% of the population or 1,845 employees. The training was applied to identify over 600 projects, resulting in $21 Million in hard cost savings and avoidance.

Next Steps

After 28 years of service, Bill retired from TVA in January 2018 and began a new career with Covanta in February as a Plant Facility Manager at one of their largest flagship plants. Since Continuous Improvement is relatively new to Covanta, he is very excited to apply his experience as a Black Belt and champion improvements the plant. Currently, all of his employees are completing their White Belt Training while targeted frontline leaders are completing Yellow Belt and Green Belt Training. Bill shared that he is already seeing amazing results!

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