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Expert Excerpts: Pete Pande, Author of The Six Sigma Way - GoLeanSixSigma.com

Whether you’re just starting your Lean Six Sigma journey, or you’re in the middle of improving a process, guidance from Experts can help make your efforts easier – and more successful! In this Expert Excerpt, we interview Lean Six Sigma Expert, Pete Pande, who shares key insights to being successful with Lean Six Sigma.

Pete Pande is the founder and President of Pivotal Resources, a global change leadership and Lean Six Sigma consulting and training firm. His experience includes supporting continuous improvement efforts for such organizations as GE Capital, adidas, Cisco, Charles Schwab, and American Airlines, and he’s author of several best-selling books including The Six Sigma Way and The Six Sigma Leader.

You’ve been in the continuous improvement world for decades now, but what got you started down this path?

Yes, but of course I was only 10 when I started! Actually my route into this field came through a series of fortunate events. Too many and too boring to share here, but it started in my early career in radio news. I worked as a news reporter/anchor at small-ish station in Southern California where we had to cover all kinds of stories, topics, organizations, cultures, etc. You had to be able to ask good questions, learn things quickly, understand issues, and then explain them to people on the air. In radio, you have to be concise and to the point. So I think that prepared me for a role helping organizations: learn about their situation and issues and help them learn to deal with them.

The rest of the long story is that I moved into marketing and was hired by a company that did “Problem Solving and Decision Making” management training, which is really at the heart of what we now call DMAIC. That gave me the opportunity to start running workshops, helping other people solve real problems (me, an English major, teaching root cause analysis to high tech engineers). Then we added “Total Quality Management” services and it was really a perfect fit for what was often missing: taking a common sense versus technical approach. So TQM has led to today. It’s evolved a lot, but the essentials are still there.

You co-wrote the seminal book, The Six Sigma Way and the accompanying Fieldbook – what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the continuous improvement landscape since you published those books?

Well, as I said the essentials are still the same: figure out the problem and priority, confirm that the problem is really what you think it is, clarify what you want to accomplish, figure out the best practical way to get it done, and then be smart about implementing it.

In terms of changes, I’d really contrast between what has changed and what hasn’t. What’s changed, for the most part, is that the practical and more common sense approach to improvement has — for the most part — won out over the very technical, tool-driven approaches that were very strong when Six Sigma was first expanding. In the 90s, there was a big push to keep adding more analytical tools and emphasize statistics; one of our clients called it an “arms race.” We actually lost potential business by saying “those statistical tools are really a small part of what makes improvement successful” — which was counter to what a lot of consultants were pitching.

The practical and more common sense approach to improvement has — for the most part — won out over the very technical, tool-driven approaches that were very strong when Six Sigma was first expanding.

That has not completely gone away, partly because analytical methods are valuable, but I think and hope that most organizations and people have learned that a good Problem Statement is much more important than a great t-test. The growth of emphasis on Lean methods has also helped — though you can overdo the technical and jargon-y side of Lean too.

And as Continuous Improvement has evolved and matured, one other big change is a much greater emphasis on change management and the people side of improvement. There’s this whole specialty of “Organizational Change Leadership” today that I suspect has come partly from the lessons learned through continuous improvement.

What has not changed, is that Lean Six Sigma is still thriving around the world — maybe under various names, but still as a very common and popular priority for organizations and people who are trying to make positive change and evolve their cultures. You know, a lot of past waves or fads like this faded because they became too impractical for “real people.” Fortunately, that complete crash has been avoided.

Can you relate a past client deployment that went really well, what surprised you and what was so good about it?

I’d actually choose one that we’re still involved in. It’s with the Swiss-based company Givaudan, whom we’ve been working with since early 2013. Givaudan is the world’s largest Flavors and Fragrances company and a very successful business. But it’s also in a competitive global market with big challenges to maintain their edge and deal with a very complex supply chain, cost pressures, need for innovation, and a legacy that goes back to 1796.

The group we started supporting in this century, Fragrance Operations, had begun using Six Sigma a couple years earlier and had some great results. However, their leadership team felt it was not really impacting the business they way they had hoped. They were facing some daunting improvement goals and felt somehow Continuous Improvement should help them achieve them, but were not sure how. However, they did realize that changing their behaviors would have to be a key to success — which was pretty smart. We were invited to talk to them and basically said two things: 1- If you want the culture to change, you (the leaders) have to be ready to change too. 2- We won’t give you a recipe for how to this, but we’ll work with you to come up with a way that works for you.

If you want the culture to change, you (the leaders) have to be ready to change too.

From there, we established kind of a partnership where we offered advice and options, but the Fragrance Ops leaders made the decisions. One early change was to make their training and project approach much less technical and statistics-driven. They developed their own process for linking improvement priorities to business and strategic goals, owned by management at all levels. We work with people at their sites all over the world with our consultants in Europe/UK, Asia (Singapore, China, India, Indonesia), the US and Latin America.

They were able to exceed their three-year goals — the ones that led to them to figure out how to enhance their CI efforts to begin with — and are continuing to refine and improve their capability as well as reinforce the fundamentals. What Fragrance Ops has achieved has played a big role in making CI a strong corporate-wide priority and is one of the catalysts for an effort to become a more unified company involving both divisions, Flavors and Fragrances (aka F&F).

Honestly, it’s not really a surprise, but just rewarding to see an organization that has been persistent, involved people across the globe, never gotten complacent, and that ensured CI is part of their business — not some separate department or team. And they know they are not “done” and never will be. We’re pretty proud to have been able to help them, but the success is all theirs.

What are the some of the biggest mistakes you see people make as they try to build a problem solving culture?

That world “culture” is a biggie, and especially challenging because honestly most people are really not good problem solvers — especially with processes and tasks they are very familiar with. So I guess that’s one of the first mistakes: assuming it’s easy to teach people to solve problems. It takes the right mindset and a long time to build that into how people work every day. The first part of that improved mindset is to begin by assuming “we really don’t understand the problem.” Many people — even those who’ve been trained — skip that step and then solve the wrong problem.

The first part of that improved mindset is to begin by assuming “we really don’t understand the problem.”

At an organizational level, the biggest mistake or challenge is discipline around priorities. Ironically, we’re a company that is fundamentally about helping people be better at change, and almost always one of the first recommendations we make is: Stop trying to do so much change! Formal systems like project selection, portfolio management, or “Hoshin Planning” can help a lot, but those don’t stop new projects from being launched, almost unconsciously, outside the formal management process. That takes better leader habits and discipline.

So that ties to the third mistake, which is confusing “support” and “ownership.” A leadership team that “fully supports” continuous improvement often has little clear idea what they’re supporting. And they’re not really responsible or accountable for its success. If they “own” it, leaders have to take real responsibility — including critically evaluating their own practices and behaviors. They do not need to be Green Belts, but they do need to be good change leaders.

What’s one key piece of advice would you give someone looking to bring continuous improvement into their organization?

Have a clear vision and rationale and adjust to the needs of the organization. We’ve never run into a business or agency where many people were not already trying to improve, so the real question should be: What do we need to do to become better at improvement, and why? If you tell people, “We’re going to start getting you to improve things around here,” you can probably expect some push-back. The goal is always to get more value or benefit from your improvement efforts.

The goal is always to get more value or benefit from your improvement efforts.

Who or what have been your biggest influences?

There are many, but I’d probably pick two: One is a book called Built to Last that studied companies that were standout successes in their industries. The authors — Jim Collins, who later wrote Good to Great, and Jerry Porras — did extensive research on these companies by comparing them to other really good companies in the same industry. They found that the main feature of the standouts was the ability and commitment to go after seemingly contradictory objectives at the same time. They called it the “Genius of the ‘And.’ ” That’s been a huge ingredient in our work with clients, especially leaders, where we talk about “paradoxes”: the fact that any key success factor for change needs to be paired with it’s exact opposite. Easy example: successful change means being able to not change everything. Or: You have to be able to go fast to make things happen. And slow down to do it well. Both are essential.

The other — like everyone? — is Steve Jobs and Apple. But this actually goes back to before Jobs returned to Apple and launched its rebirth. I heard him say in an interview that all the first computers were designed by engineers for their colleagues in the Engineering department. Jobs said (paraphrasing): “When we developed the Macintosh, we were creating a computer for the Liberal Arts department.”

Six Sigma, Statistical Process Control, Theory of Constraints, all these great continuous improvement concepts were like early computers — not super friendly for regular people to understand or use. So with Pivotal, our mission has always been to design and explain improvement methods so anyone could understand and use it. We were already trying to do that, but when I heard Jobs’ comments, it was great validation!

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

That’s a toughie. How about this?: There’s a lake in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California (John Muir Wilderness area) called Peter Pande Lake. As mountain lakes go, it’s pretty impressive. It was named after my grandfather back in the 1920s by people who knew him when he would vacation in the area with his family (including my dad). My grandfather never actually saw the lake himself, but was very proud of it. I have been there two times (almost three; another long story). It takes two days backpacking to get there. I don’t really know if they just thought it was a funny name or if they really liked my grandfather. Hopefully the latter; maybe both.

Have a question for Pete? Please feel free to ask in the comments below.

Pete Pande

Pete Pande is founder and President of Pivotal Resources, a global change leadership and Lean Six Sigma consulting and training firm. His experience includes supporting continuous improvement efforts for such organizations as GE Capital, adidas, Cisco, Charles Schwab, and American Airlines, and he’s author of several best selling books including The Six Sigma Way and The Six Sigma Leader.