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Book Review and Q&A of Strength-based Lean Six Sigma

Posted by Ben Linders on Jun 16, 2014 |

The book Strength-based Lean Six Sigma: Building Positive and Engaging Business Improvement by David Shaked supports applying strength-based change approaches with lean thinking and Six Sigma.

Instead of addressing defects and inefficiency in organizations this book helps us to actively search for what is working well, explore the reasons why it is successful and use the underlying strengths to continuously improve performance in organizations.

InfoQ did an interview with David about the ideas behind the strength-based approach, applying techniques like appreciative inquiry, solution focused, positive deviance and 5-why's with Lean Six Sigma, and measuring performance in organizations. 

InfoQ: Can you explain to the InfoQ readers what Strength-based Lean Six Sigma is? What is it that makes it Strength-based?

David: Strength-based Lean Six Sigma is a term I coined to describe the application of various strength-based approaches to change (such as Appreciative Inquiry, Solution Focus coaching and Positive Deviance) as well as a general strength-based ‘lens’ to Lean Thinking or Six Sigma (or the combination Lean Six Sigma) process improvement efforts.

In very broad terms, the common idea behind all the strength-based approaches to change, is the active search for what is working well (rather than what is broken, inefficient etc.), where a problem does not occur and what contributes to that (rather than where it does and why), what is wanted (rather than what isn’t) and where do we have ‘positive deviants’ (cases of particular excellence) rather than negative deviants (defects). What we focus on grows so if we look for excellence, we find and grow excellence. If we look for waste, we find and generate more waste (even when we successfully eliminate one source of it). Applying this thinking to Lean Six Sigma completely transforms the conversations we hold and helps generate much better results.

InfoQ: Where does Strength-based Lean Six Sigma come from, how did it start?

David: In 2007, when I first learned about Appreciative Inquiry (AI), I found myself torn between two seemingly different worlds. While I knew how to solve problems methodically by the traditional approaches of Lean and Six Sigma, I could also see how the positive approach of AI unleashed an enormous potential within organizations. My big question at that stage was how to integrate this fantastic new approach with everything I had been doing before. At that stage, I felt that my work with Six Sigma and Lean thinking was “bad” and that AI was “good.” I felt I had to throw away everything I had learned and experienced until then and re-start a new learning journey. All my experience to date seemed to fundamentally clash in style, language, process, and logic with AI.

It took about a year for me to gain some breakthroughs in thinking and in practice. I experimented with the strength-based approaches to process improvement, inventing tools, processes, and principles as a result and discovering what worked and what didn’t.

I was at an AI conference in 2009 and for the first time noticed the keen interest in the topic by others. It encouraged me to start a LinkedIn community for it called “strength-based lean six sigma”. I used it to share what I was experimenting with and to ask for ideas, advice, and suggestions. After a while I realized that I was learning a lot and that there was definitely an interest in this new approach, and in early 2011, I started contacting publishers to explore the possibility of publishing a book on this topic.

InfoQ: You structured your book according to the 5D framework of appreciative inquiry. Can you briefly describe the framework? Why did you decided to use it?

David: The 5D framework is a common and effective process to applying Appreciative Inquiry to change efforts. The D’s stand for Define (in which we define the topic we wish to inquire into – remembering that what we inquire into grows!), Discover (where we discover the best of ‘what is’ about the topic), Dream (where we envision the ‘best that could be’), Design (when we design what should be based on our vision) and Deliver/Destiny (when we implement what we decided to).

I have worked with this framework and others in my AI projects and it felt that exploring the topic of Strength-based Lean Six Sigma using this flow would be very useful. To start with I define the topic, I then explore some of what I discovered, dream on the possibilities for it, present potential designs for strength-based Lean tools and processes and eventually talk about delivery.

InfoQ: How did you combine strength-based techniques like appreciative inquiry, solution focused, positive deviance with Lean Six Sigma? Can you give some examples?

David: The key to combining is in applying the principles behind the strength-based approach you are working with to the tools and principles of the process improvement methodology of your choice. You also need to completely reconsider the questions you use if you believe (like I do) that what we focus on grows. For example, Appreciative Inquiry has six guiding principles. If I take one of them – the ‘positive principle’ and apply it to Lean Six Sigma, it invites me to actively search for what is working well, peak moments of performance, and the wisdom that already exists in the system I work with.

InfoQ: Strength-based Lean Six Sigma aims to find good practices within the organization. What about organizations that are deploying external best practices which they perceive to be better to practices that they are currently doing, wouldn't that be more effective?

David: I spent many years of my career as a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt (and even before I came to this area) researching best practices from elsewhere. I no longer do that. I believe that the clues to success are very unique to each context and are always there if we choose to look for them. When I bring a good idea from elsewhere, it is more likely I would get resistance to it – either active or passive resistance. However, if I help someone find what works well for them in their context, there is no reason for them to resist it. In this process I also build trust, confidence and pride. It is an easier and quicker way to improve!

InfoQ: Sometimes organizations apply five times why to find the root causes of a problem so that they can address them to prevent similar problems in the future. Could they also use a strength-based technique to reach the same or better results? How?

David: Yes absolutely. The strength-based approach to using the 5-Why's is actually very simple: in fact, no change is required. We still ask ‘why’ five times. However, the key is in the choice of topic to focus on. To solve a problem, we first re-frame the question to a situation where the problem didn't exist. We then identify what did exist instead. Once we know what existed in place of the problem, we can ask ‘Why did it exist?’ and continue the line of inquiry as usual

I use this re-framed version occasionally and it works really well.

InfoQ: My experience is that people tend not to recognize what works well, Often they are more focused on problems and defects. How can you help them to explore their strengths?

David: Focusing on problems and defects is a habit. I too had it ingrained in me through the education I received and through the career experiences I have had. It is the common way we approach our change and improvement efforts and for many years it seemed to have worked. It took me quite a while to change my habits. Even after I worked with strength-based Lean Six Sigma for a while and saw the potential, I occasionally slipped into old habits. As the saying goes ‘old habits die hard’. In my book, I dedicate two chapters (#8 and #14) to help the readers develop their ‘strength-focused eyes’. Learning more about the different strength-based approaches to change, truly experiencing them (rather than just reading about them) also helps immensely.

InfoQ: In the book you talk about the 'positive core': everything we know that is at the heart of our successes to date. Can you elaborate on it?

David: The ‘positive core’ is an important concept from Appreciative Inquiry. It is the full collection of what we know about our successes, high moments, strengths, resources and also what enables and ‘gives life’ to them. Inquiring into our positive core helps it grow (again, what we focus on grows!).

Using the positive core to imagine what could be possible if we used it to its fullest potential, is an incredibly effective way to define our future vision/strategy and achieve greater outcomes. Identifying the positive core of a person, a group, an organisation or a situation is a very energising and generative process. In fact my whole work in the area of Strength-based Lean Six Sigma came out of self-inquiry into my own positive core. In chapter 6 of the book I explain the process I went through and invite the readers to try it out on themselves in the hope they would be able to release their own unique and fresh ideas for growth.

InfoQ: Enterprises often have systems in place to measure and report the performance. My experience is that implementing useful measurement can be difficult. People can resist them, object stating that they are not valid, game them, etc. How can a strength-based approach combined with Six Sigma help to effectively implement performance measurements?

David: There are a few ways to apply strength-based approaches to performance measurements, scorecards and dashboards. They are all detailed in chapter 9 of the book.

First of all, if we are only starting to define metrics to track, it would be a lot more effective and would reduce the levels of resistance if we measured what we want more of rather than what we want to reduce. This is again done because metrics drive focus and what we focus on grows (have I mentioned it already??). In one of my projects at a distribution centre I implemented a metric called ‘perfect orders’ instead of the existing metric of ‘delayed shipments’ that was used before. Imagine what would happen if hospitals would measure ‘cleanliness’ rather than ‘infections’ and if airlines measured the number of luggage items arriving at their destination on time rather than lost/delayed luggage.

If we already have deficit oriented metrics in place or even a deficit focused review process (i.e. one that focuses on understanding the ‘red metrics’) we can completely shift the conversation and gain new insights by asking about what happens when this metric isn’t red (or ‘as red as’ it is now).

InfoQ: Can you name some of the Strength-based Lean Six Sigma tools, with some examples showing how you have used them?

David: In the book I took some of the most well-known and used Lean Six Sigma tools and created strength-based versions of them. For example the fishbone root causes analysis (of defects) tool became the ‘wish bone’ (identifying the enablers to our hoped future). I also reframed the ‘7-wastes’ into the ‘7-signs of value’ and I use strength-based process/value stream mapping (mapping a process when it works well). I use the 7-signs of value when I run ‘value walks’ (sending people to identify and learn where value is being generated so that they can deliver more of it). I also often use strength-based value stream mapping in many of my kaizen events.

What I have learned is that almost any of the tools we have in Lean Six Sigma can be applied with a strength-based approach if we set our minds to it. The outcomes are always surprising, positive and energising!

About the Author

David Shaked is a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and NTL-certified AI practitioner and trainer. He has many years of experience in business improvement methodologies and strategic planning with large corporations in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. David is also the author of ‘Strength-based Lean Six Sigma’. You can contact David at his email address or visit his web site, LinkedIn, Twitter: @DavidShaked1

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