Towards Organizing a Three-House Paper Route

LSSI’ve been driven to distraction for several years now at work by people who have drunk and want everybody else to drink the Lean Six Sigma (LSS) kool aid. My initial reaction, without knowing what the ins and out of LSS were, was that it sounded like an industrial process that people were trying to force on us working in a service industry in which there are so many outside human variables that it couldn’t possibly be appropriate in our non-widget-making industry. However, I paid little attention to this push in favour of LSS and went about my job. So yes, from the start and with no real empirical evidence, I was dismissive of LSS.

Then, more recently, in an environment in which traditional financial institutions are facing competition from Fin Tech start-ups, another methodology has become all the rage: Agile. Unlike my initial reaction to LSS, my impression upon reading a few blurbs from Agile advocates and converts on our intranet brought me to think that this methodology made more sense in our context. However, reading something through the filter of the company intranet is also akin to mindlessly drinking the company kool aid, so I resolved to do some research on my own one day to understand it a bit better and to compare it with LSS. Are the two complementary or two different beasts?

But doing this research was never a great priority of mine. I had real work to get done and I didn’t relish the idea of spending much of my off-work time on such a research endeavour. Maybe I would have been more motivated if I were younger or a careerist, but I’m no longer young (though I’m not ancient) and I’ve never been a careerist. Being a careerist is not inherently bad even though the term certainly has some negative connotations, but the focus of all my hard work in life, whether as a freelancer or today as an employee paid to do a specific job, has always been about providing exceptional service to others. I get more out of the gratitude of others than from climbing the echelons of power.

In recent months, however, I started to pick up on a trend. That trend is seeing how some people at work who are very good at articulating all the right “high level” ideas that those above them in the hierarchy want to hear but who are in fact quite bad at handling details, complexity, outside-the-company perceptions, and real-life highly variable work flows are all proclaiming on their email signature that they are yellow belts (or whatever colour belts) in LSS. Mere coincidence or a damning indictment of LSS?

To be totally blunt as is usually my way (at least in this blog or when I vent with someone in person), these people are often so feckless that I doubt their ability to organize a wet dream. Worse, when I hear some tell clients that they’re “just following standard procedures,” I doubt they have any idea how badly clients receive such lines.

Six Sigma started out in 1986 as “a set of techniques and tools for process improvement” at Motorola. LSS is a breakaway from Six Sigma that attempts to blend in notions of Lean, which is often referred to the Toyota Production System. In short, in both cases, the origins of these methods are strongly rooted in manufacturing. Proponents of LSS are eager to explain at great lengths how those principles are applicable in the service industry, but often their arguments lack the academic rigour that would be required to be convincing.

The roots of Agile, on the other hand, is in software development. There I can see the appeal of this method for large financial institutions that are slowly but surely having their ass handed to them by Fin Tech start-ups. To remain relevant and not lose their large share of the market, large FIs need to be able to provide better online services, faster — a tall order within an environment where processes have become rigid, complex, and highly siloed. But already I’ve witnessed some remarkable achievements with this methodology in which changing process midway if it will better meet consumers’ demands is par for the course.

That’s not to say that I’m a total nay-sayer with regard to LSS and a total devotee with regard to Agile. Outside nature, any system depends on identifying all the variables and trying, if possible, to minimize their number. Abstraction allows to give a variable X different values yet still end up with a similar outcome each time. If you bother to notice the difficulties well-heeled scientists are having with developing artificial intelligence, then it becomes clear that humans and nature are astonishingly complex and extremely difficult to define and replicate.

In my view, if LSS has any merit, it’s that it has the potential of providing a framework for those who have problems with visualizing complexity or having a consistent methodology where details matter even though each detail, on its own, may seem trivial or not worthy of attention. However, the emphasis on the process itself (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) leaves me cold for being far too formulaic to my liking. On the other hand, from what I’ve seen at work, those who have embraced the Agile methodology have shown signs of being much better and adaptable.

But my overall conclusion on the merits of LSS is indeed damning. From what I’ve seen, those who have bought into it have, by the time they’ve achieved yellow belt status, gone from being able to organize a wet dream but not yet mastered the complexities of organizing a three-house paper route. As such, their inability to grasp the impact of the vagaries of human behaviour and, in turn, their impact on organizing anything leads me to having a rather dim view of their alleged achievements. But if in 2017 you still use “automate” as a buzzword, then you’re likely going to love the LSS kool aid and won’t be able to get enough of it.