The Driving Force

Creating line of sight from strategy to process

by T.M. (Tom) Kubiak

Not long ago, I conducted a workshop at a client’s site to help develop a pipeline of meaningful lean Six Sigma (LSS) projects. Before I had a chance to describe how I planned to conduct the workshop, members of the client’s newly formed project identification and selection team began furiously rattling off project after project.

One team member actually grabbed a marker and began scribing on flip-chart paper as other team members called out ideas. This activity continued for about 15 minutes as I watched quietly and let the situation play out.

When the commotion subsided, I thanked them for their unsurpassed level of enthusiasm as I retrieved a document I received earlier that morning from the CEO. The document was the organization’s strategic plan.

I quietly thumbed through the document as everyone watched and waited for me to take control of the meeting. When I did, I told them they had generated quite a list in such a short period of time, and it was evident they were proud. Side conversations suggested more than a few hoped the meeting would be finished shortly.

Clearing my throat in a rather attention-getting manner, I asked with a fake puzzled look on my face, "How do these projects support the strategic plan I have here in my hand?"

Of course, it was a rhetorical question. The answer was obvious to anyone who actually read the strategic plan. Many to most of the projects did not link to the strategy. A few other projects’ links to the strategy were—at best—tenuous.

The silence was deafening as the audience looked back at me with blank stares. Mind you, this was not the first time I’ve received blank stares. Not wanting to break the silence with noise, however, I remained quiet, fully expecting several of the team members to ask, "What do you mean?" or "Why do we care?" And I was not disappointed. Several individuals leapt forth and spoke in unison.

"Glad you asked," I sighed with relief. "Let’s talk about that."

Earlier that week

Many organizations that have implemented LSS initiatives have frequently voiced concerns or expressed disappointment with the extent to which the initiative has failed to advance the organization’s business objectives. If you have ever had the opportunity to revive several failed implementations, this is not particularly surprising, as many tend to follow a common path:

  1. Hire some or all of the Master Black Belts and Black Belts.
  2. Now, hire the LSS leader.
  3. Announce training opportunities.
  4. Now, develop or purchase the training.
  5. Fill training classes with whoever signs up.
  6. Belt candidates show up without a project or sponsor.
  7. Mad rush ensues to get any type of projects for candidates.
  8. Conduct training to the level of the candidate.
  9. Projects fail as sponsor loses interest or transfers, or candidate transfers.
  10. Organization blames lean Six Sigma.

At this point, you may think this is an exaggeration and that no implementation can be that bad. But they can be that bad—or worse. In fact, most of the 10 points listed in the pattern happened at my client’s organization before I arrived that day for the workshop.

Let’s not dwell on the list of 10, however, and focus on item No. 7: "Mad rush ensues to get any type of projects for belt candidates."

Earlier that week, training began as scheduled. Most candidates, however, did not arrive prepared with projects. Those who did bring projects brought ones that were trivial and, for the most part, inappropriate for LSS. Realizing its initiative had just ground to a halt, the client decided to bring me in to help.

Herding cats

It was clear from the rumblings around the table that many of the team members did not understand the concept of business planning and execution. They also didn’t seem to understand how project selection fit into the planning and execution process.

To help give them some perspective, I showed them Figure 1, which illustrates—at a very high level—how planning (regardless of level) combined with execution generates results. In the simplest of terms, Figure 1 represents an equation that can have profound effects on an organization’s survivability.

Figure 1

Figure 2 provides greater visibility into the impact of the level of effectiveness of planning and execution on results, depending on the approach taken:

  1. All dressed up and no place to go. This approach is taken when an organization has an effective planning process but doesn’t know how to execute. When plans are deployed for execution, chaos often ensues. At best, this approach yields average results (blue box).
  2. Ready, fire, aim. Note the level of effectiveness of the processes is reversed from the first approach. This approach is chosen by organizations that don’t know how to plan but do know how to execute. While it is a foolhardy approach, organizations choosing this way falsely believe effective execution can make up for poor planning. Like the first approach, this approach, at best, yields average results.
  3. Going out of business. Organizations that plan and execute poorly generally don’t choose this approach. It’s usually thrust upon them. Such organizations are doomed to failure (burgandy box). The only exception is the fourth approach.
  4. Luck favors fools. This approach, while identical to the third approach, yields different results. There are the occasional organizations that plan and execute poorly and survive in spite of their inabilities. Of course, some organizations like to cite their exceptional results, as shown by the green box in Figure 2.
    Upon further review, however, it often becomes clear a causal relationship between planning and execution processes and results is all but nonexistent. Essentially, those positive results occur by chance or pure luck. This can be a dangerous situation for organizations to be in and is even worse when they fail to recognize they’re in it.
  5. Who dares, wins. This approach occurs when planning and execution are effective and are derived from a thoughtful, directed effort. In this case, results follow and business objectives are achieved. Organizations choosing this approach come out ahead over the long haul.
    At this point, most of the team members were buying into the idea that effective planning and execution were required to generate intended results. A few team members were even beginning to ask detailed questions regarding how project selection fit into this process.

Figure 2

Creating line of sight

Fortunately, I never go anywhere without Figure 3, which depicts the complete flow of top-level planning through process execution, culminating in customer and shareholder value. Several important aspects should be evident in Figure 3, including:

  • While the flow from strategy to process is straight, planning must be systematically decomposed into manageable elements (for example, tactical and operational planning) to create visibility and subsequent alignment to processes. Often, tactical and operational planning is abbreviated or completely forgotten by organizations. When these detailed plans are created, however, such alignment can be achieved. Meaningful projects can be identified, selected and prioritized for execution. Furthermore, this alignment between strategy and process creates a driving force for business success.
  • Processes are executed. While this is self evident to quality and LSS professionals, often it is not apparent to other disciplines and professionals. When processes are executed, work is accomplished and results are achieved. When processes are improved, better results are achieved. And, as we know, LSS projects drive improvement at the individual process level.
  • The categorization of the processes depends on the specifics of the organization, though those provided in Figure 3 are common. In fact, the suggested categorization may be beneficial in helping prioritize selected projects, as stakeholders of the processes are somewhat evident.

Figure 3

After discussing Figure 3 in depth, I surveyed the team again. This time, the blank, lifeless stares were gone, replaced with looks of agreement and comprehension. They had finally seen how planning, execution and processes connect to projects.

Remember the strategic plan

LSS project identification and selection requires significant thought and time investment if it is to advance an organization toward its business objectives.

The organization’s strategic plan, which supports its business objectives, must be dusted off and disseminated so it can serve as the foundation for more detailed levels of planning—in this case, tactical and operational planning.

Tactical and operational planning helps create visibility and subsequent alignment to processes. After this visibility and alignment is created, LSS projects can be more easily identified, selected and prioritized. Projects can then be executed to drive process improvement, which further enhances customer value and, consequently, shareholder value or return.

One last thing worth mentioning: The project identification and selection team members reported directly to the CEO.


  • Blazey, Mark L., Insights to Performance Excellence 2009-2010: An Inside Look at the 2009-2010 Baldrige Award Criteria, ASQ Quality Press, 2009.
  • Kubiak, T. M. and Donald W. Benbow, The Certified Six Sigma Black Belt Handbook, ASQ Quality Press, 2009.
  • Reidenbach, R. Eric and Reginald W. Goeke, "Six Sigma, Value and Competitive Strategy," Quality Progress, July 2007, pp. 45–49.

T.M. (Tom) Kubiak is president and founder of Performance Improvement Solutions, an independent consulting organization in Weddington, NC. He is co-author of The Certified Six Sigma Black Belt Handbook. Kubiak, a senior member of ASQ, serves on many ASQ boards and committees, and is a past chair of ASQ’s Publication Management Board.

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