The Hard Part: Holding Improvement Gains

by Ronald D. Snee

You’ve overcome the obstacles to launch your latest improvement initiative: scarce resources, time pressure, unforeseen glitches at every turn. Now comes the hard part—sustaining the gains.

In organizations of all kinds, whether they practice Six Sigma, lean, Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria, total quality management or some other improvement methodology, sustaining improvement gains proves to be far more difficult than many think.

Why? Because many organizations focus on sustaining the gains only after improvement has been achieved. Intuitively, that may seem the correct sequence, but it is in fact backwards. The time to focus on sustaining improvement gains is well before the initiative is launched and during the initial six months of implementation—that is, at the strategic and tactical levels, respectively. Mistakes at either of these levels virtually guarantee improvements won’t last.

Chemical Company Case

Consider the experience of a $1 billion chemical food additives company. Its improvement initiative—a Six Sigma program—ran into trouble almost from the beginning. Despite the CEO’s desire to try Six Sigma, there was considerable resistance from senior management.

The company decided to pilot Six Sigma at one plant and expand it to other areas of the business if it succeeded. Further, the criteria for project selection were unclear and the finance team was not involved in project selection or evaluation. In choosing leaders for individual improvement projects, management also failed
to select top talent. When the project leaders returned from Six Sigma training they were asked to resume their regular jobs and lead improvement projects simultaneously.

After the projects were under way, they were reviewed only once in nine months by site managers—not at all by senior managers. When management finally reviewed the projects at the end of nine months, it found only one project had been completed. Not surprisingly, senior leadership concluded Six Sigma didn’t fit the company. Although the completed project did achieve some significant gains, sustaining those gains would have been difficult, if not impossible, given the CEO’s lack of leadership, senior management’s halfhearted involvement, and poor project selection, evaluation and review.

The Strategic Level: Setting Up for Success

Slipshod and inadequate planning and deployment of improvement initiatives almost guarantee the inability to sustain any gains that might initially materialize. This is a failure at the strategic level—going into battle with neither a clear plan to success nor the resources to win. At this level, three key factors determine success:1

Management leadership and involvement: Success starts from the top. Senior leaders must lead improvement efforts with relentless enthusiasm and energy. This doesn’t mean simply supporting the effort through speeches and e-mails; it means giving time, attention and resources. In the most successful improvement efforts—those that sustain gains and fundamentally change the way the organization works—senior leaders personally lead implementation.

Use of top talent: Significant improvement is too important and difficult to be left to anyone other than top talent. The clearest message leadership can send about how seriously it regards an improvement initiative comes when it announces the names of people taking key roles. Rank and file employees know their colleagues well and will judge immediately whether the effort has been staffed with top talent or with people who were simply available or unable to do anything else.

Creation of infrastructure: In the larger strategic context, the key to establishing an improvement initiative in the larger strategic context depends on whether it is considered merely a technique or—more productively—an infrastructure that forms the backbone of the organization. This infrastructure comprises four components:

  1. A structured approach to problem solving.
  2. Proven analytical techniques.
  3. People.
  4. Management systems.

Of course the precise nature of these elements will differ depending on the improvement approach. Six Sigma, for example, employs two proven approaches to problem solving—define, measure, analyze, improve, control (DMAIC) for improving existing processes and design for Six Sigma (DFSS) for generating and designing new processes. The proven analytical techniques Six Sigma employs include Pareto charts, failure modes and effects analysis, multi-variate studies, design of experiments and control plans.

The capstone of this infrastructure is the people—the leaders through whom projects are achieved. In the case of Six Sigma, this includes Champions, Master Black Belts (MBBs), Black Belts (BBs) and Green Belts (GBs). Champions facilitate selection of projects, remove barriers to success and review progress regularly. BBs, each directing an employee team charged with a specific task, act as project managers and assign work. MBBs, who usually have completed several BB projects, serve as technical leaders who enable the organization to integrate Six Sigma into its operations. GBs work on a portion of a BB project or lead a project.

By establishing a cadre of improvement leaders and adopting a structured approach to improvement along with its analytical techniques—as your organization’s general, all-purpose problem solving tool—you can begin to build the infrastructure of a continuous improvement program across the organization.

Deployment Plans

Management involvement, the use of top talent and the improvement infrastructure are integrated in the overall deployment plan for the effort. At this strategic stage, the deployment plan is first developed. Once its elements have been determined and fleshed out, the deployment plan guides the launch and implementation and creates the final element of the improvement infrastructure: management systems such as communications, project portfolio management, and recognition and reward systems.

A typical deployment plan includes the following elements:2

  • Strategy and goals: Vision, rollout, timing and goals stated in financial terms.
  • Process performance measures: Key measures identified—such as quality, delivery and cost—used to define success.
  • Project selection criteria: De-veloped from business goals and key process performance measures and might be based on areas to improve, effects on measures like customer satisfaction and bottom-line impact.
  • List of projects for a project hopper: Initial project candidates prioritized and assigned.
  • Lineup: List of project champions, individual project leaders and project team members selected after projects have been identified so important projects won’t be overlooked.
  • Defined roles: Specific roles tailored for management, champions, individual project leaders, team members and supporting functions within the organization.
  • Training plan: Current and ongoing needs identified instead of conducting a mass training effort.
  • Project and initiative review schedule: Weekly reviews by champions; monthly reviews by plant manager, functional leader or strategic business unit leader, as appropriate; and quarterly reviews of overall improvement program by senior management scheduled
  • Project reporting and tracking system: Results of the project documented and management reports at several levels generated to keep improvement on course.
  • Recognition and reward plan: Designed to attract top performers to the improvement effort.
  • Communication plan: Various media used to communicate organization’s commitment to the initiative.

All these elements of the deployment plan are important. Omitting any of them risks undermining the improvement initiative at some point and ultimately makes it far more difficult to sustain results.

The Tactical Level: The First Six Months

The first six months of an improvement initiative are critical for securing some early wins, demonstrating the initiative’s effectiveness and establishing a rhythm of identifying, launching, reviewing and completing individual projects—and then moving to the next round of improvement projects. Why six months? Support for improvement initiatives typically declines after that.

In addition to manageable scope, selected projects should have these characteristics:

  • Clear connection to business priorities, linked to strategic and annual operating plans.
  • Major importance to the organization, producing significant pro-cess performance and major financial improvements.
  • Clear importance to the organization, inducing people to support it.
  • Clear quantitative measures of success.
  • Management support and approval.

As previously noted, projects should be reviewed weekly by champions and monthly by the management team, which also performs quarterly reviews of the overall initiative deployment. As projects are closed within four to six months, their successes should be recognized, rewarded and celebrated. Meanwhile, the project hopper should be reviewed and updated quarterly.

At the end of the first six months, it’s time to start the next wave of projects. This is a transition point that will be critical for putting you in a position to sustain the long term gains.

Often the best defense for sustaining those gains is a good offense. You can extend the deployment from the original functional or operational area into other areas of the business where you can rapidly achieve additional results. As you do so, you also can refine management and control processes necessary for managing the effort. As you establish the rhythm of these waves of improvement, gradually you will achieve the most important transformation of all for sustaining improvement: culture change.

Culture Change

The desired end game is to make the improvement methodology an integral part of the way the organization works—a part of the organization’s culture. The most effective means to achieve this new way of working include:

  • Integrating the improvement methodology’s concepts, methods and tools with process management systems.
  • Creating and managing an overall improvement system that guides and integrates all types of organizational improvement.
  • Integrating the improvement initiative with other strategic initiatives such as Six Sigma, lean, Baldrige award criteria and others to create a holistic approach to improvement.

Process management systems encompass design/redesign, improvement and control, whether the process is operational (an assembly line) or managerial (a budgeting process). Integrating the concepts and methods of the new improvement initiative into these formal, documented process management systems helps ingrain the new way of working. If those process management systems are ad hoc and undocumented, you have the opportunity to formalize them using the methods of the improvement initiative.

As the deployment of an improvement initiative progresses, it becomes apparent it must compete with other improvement activities for resources and management attention. The long term goal should be to combine all improvement initiatives into an overall improvement system and create the management framework to sustain that system. Thus, improvement will become a routine managerial process, just like any other. Some guiding principles for an overall improvement system include:

  • Managing and reviewing projects in a common system and as a portfolio.
  • Linking projects to the strategic needs of the organization.
  • Emphasizing process improvement and process control equally.3

Once you have consolidated all of your improvement projects into a single, organizationwide system for managing improvement, you are ready to take the ultimate step in the transformation of the way you work—integrating all strategic improvement initiatives in a holistic improvement framework that connects the various methodologies in one unified approach. The overall umbrella might be one of the methodologies—DMAIC or DFSS, for example—generalized to a higher level as an overall approach to improvement.

You must keep in mind that each of the most familiar approaches to improvement is both a methodology and a set of tools. By sharply distinguishing the tools from the methodologies with which they are associated, all tools can be brought together under one umbrella. The tools appropriate to a particular problem—whether Six Sigma tools, lean tools or something else—can be applied at the appropriate point in a highly structured and sequenced approach.

Arriving at this ultimate state—when improvement ceases to be an initiative and becomes simply the way the organization performs its work—may take several years. Benefits, however, begin to flow to the bottom line in the first six to eight months. Because each larger step on the journey consolidates and sustains the gains of each previous step, the drive toward improvement continually gains momentum as it pushes inexorably into every activity of the organization until the transformation is complete.

One of the strongest spurs to maintaining momentum and sustaining the gains of an improvement initiative comes from the effect achieving significant, measurable benefits has on the culture. People like to succeed. When they see tangible results, they are eager to repeat the process. That is the simple, but powerful, principle of the kind of culture change that sustains improvement over the long term: Culture change doesn’t produce benefits; benefits produce culture change.


  1. R.D. Snee and R.W. Hoerl, Leading Six Sigma—A Step by Step Guide Based on the Experience With General Electric and Other Six Sigma Companies, FT Prentice Hall, 2003.
  2. R.D. Snee and R.W. Hoerl, Six Sigma Beyond the Factory Floor: Deployment Strategies for Financial Services, Health Care and the Rest of the Real Economy, Pearson Prentice Hall, 2005.
  3. Snee, Leading Six Sigma—A Step by Step Guide Based on the Experience with General Electric and Other Six Sigma Companies, see reference 1.

RONALD D. SNEE is principal of performance excellence at Tunnell Consulting in King of Prussia, PA. He has a doctorate in applied and mathematical statistics from Rutgers University. Snee is a Shewhart Medalist, a Grant Medalist and an ASQ fellow.

Very good concise article. My company has employed several LEAN initiatives but have not produced the results they hoped for precisely because of some of the reasons outlined in this article.
--Oliver G, 02-21-2015

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