Embrace a Continuous Improvement Mind‐Set

Embrace a Continuous Improvement Mind‐Set

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Many client organizations undertake global sourcing initiatives without an accurate understanding of the management that will have to be involved for the initiative to be successful. That’s why the sixth secret (presented in the previous edition) is to implement a strong governance model. But how will the client organization know if its governance model is strong enough? If its global sourcing initiative is successful? That’s where a continuous improvement mindset comes in. Embracing a continuous improvement mindset throughout the entire life cycle of your sourcing initiative will allow you to understand how well the initiative is working.

Plantronics CEO Kenneth Kannappan explains that the company spends at least 10-20% of its time on continuous improvement.
“If you go to our factory, 10% of time there is spent on improving operations. We spend a huge amount of time on this. In R&D, 20% of time is spent on process improvement.”

There are a number of well-thought-out, tested models for process improvement. Six Sigma has proven to be the most resilient as well as, importantly, the most cross applicable throughout many different processes in a variety of industries.

Six Sigma: Seeing the forest and the trees

One of Six Sigma’s contributions to global sourcing improvement comes from its focus on processes. Six Sigma’s forefather, Dr. W.Edwards Deming, cautioned to “Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets asking for zero defects or new levels of productivity. Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the workforce.”

Deming spent much of his career promoting what he called his “85/15 rule” – that 85% of productivity problems were built into the system and only 15% of the problems were the fault of individual employees. To fix productivity problems, then, the organization must focus on the system – on the processes.

Secret #2, on welcoming globalization as a transformation lever, talks about leveraging globalization to improve processes. But if processes are flawed because of the institutionalized way of doing things within the organization, simply shipping a few back-office processes overseas may not solve the problem. That confounds many executives, who expect globalization to be a panacea. But Six Sigma teaches us that to improve our business we must look at the cause of the problem, and fix the cause – not just the problem.

That means, according to the authors of “What is Lean Six Sigma” – Mike George, Dave Rowlands and Bill Kastle – “if you want to improve quality, you have to change the way work is done”.

To do that, George, Rowlands and Kastle say, “You need to become a process thinker– someone who frames problems and issues in terms of what may be happening in the process. Making this mental leap has a much more profound effect than it may sound at first.”

I’m reminded of a story author Peter Senge shares in his book, “The Fifth Discipline”, about a man who fell into a river at the base of a dam. No matter how he struggled against it, the man could not swim out of the back flowing current at the dam’s base. He died of hypothermia. After he died, the current sucked his body underwater, where it was caught by the downstream current and eventually surfaced about 10 yards downstream. If the man had dived down below the back flowing current instead of futilely struggling against it he would have been carried downstream where he could have been rescued.

The tragic story, Senge writes, is an example of “structures of which we are unaware [that] hold us prisoner. Conversely, learning to see the structures within which we operate begins a process of freeing ourselves from previously unseen forces and ultimately mastering the ability to work with them and change them.”

Voice of customer

Another of the great contributions we take from Six Sigma is its focus on the voice of the customer (VOC). As George, Rowlands and Kastle describe, “The companies who will do best in the marketplace are those who take the time to see everything through their customers’ eyes and deliver what they want.” If your product or service isn’t what your customers want, it’s defective. The ultimate goal of Six Sigma is to eliminate defects.

Of course, the definition of “customer” can vary. Is your customer external those who purchase and use your products and services? Or is your customer internal? Or perhaps your primary customers are shareholders.

No matter who you serve most directly say George, Rowlands and Kastle external customers “are ultimately judges of your company’s products or services. They’re the ones who determine whether or not your company will be profitable.” So even if you’re in the finance department, you’re ultimately responsible for your company’s external customers as much as the customer service representatives are.

In that respect, understanding the voice of the customer ties into the fourth secret of successful globalisers: Align business and globalisation objectives. Sourcing payroll processes to the Philippines may be envogue, but if it doesn’t ultimately help you serve your customers better, you shouldn’t be doing it.


Carpenters often repeat the dictum, “Measure twice, cut once.” In global sourcing, a wrong cut doesn’t have to be the end-all most mistakes can be fixed, but it is often more tasking to fix them once they’ve already come up than to preempt them. That’s ultimately what Six Sigma is about not fixing problems once they come up (“putting out fires”) but understanding the fundamental flaws in processes so that problems can be eliminated before they ever arise.

To do that, client organizations should institutionalize Six Sigma’s preeminent improvement model: DMAIC. DMAIC an acronym for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control is a step-by-step way to institutionalize the concept of continuous improvement. Indeed, a continuous improvement mindset is like a record player that plays DMAIC over and over. It’s DMAIC in every process, every engagement and every stage. By continuously defining, measuring and analyzing, the client organization can continuously improve (and maintain those improvements).

Define: Making business case

In Six Sigma, the define stage is about agreeing what the project is: What is the process that will be improved? Why does it need to be improved? What will the organization gain by improving the process? How will success be measured?

As it applies to services globalization, the define stage is about determining your globalization objectives. Recall Secret #4 align business and globalization objectives which asserted the importance of defining globalization objectives that are in line with the organization’s overall business objectives.

Measure: Benchmarks to measure success

Measurement really defines what Six Sigma is all about. It separates Six Sigma process transformations from ad-hoc projects with results that are short-lived or disappointing. George, Rowlands and Kastle write about the measure stage of DMAIC: “Combining data with knowledge and experience is what separates true improvement from just tinkering with a process.”

This stage is particularly important in services globalization, especially with its tendency that many organizations have to simply rush off and outsource a process to China without really considering the reasons behind the move,planning for its success or defining how success will be measured.

Applied Materials CIO Ron Kifer says that measurement is a critical factor in his company. “In this respect, a global sourcing initiative is no different from any large change programme,” he says. “If you don’t have before metrics and you don’t know what your end target metrics are going to be, you’ll never know whether you’ve improved or not improved.”

At Lenovo, for example, cycle time from order to delivery was extremely important. As the company centralized many of its global supply chain functions, it had to work hard to continuously improve its order-to-delivery times.

The key, Lenove’s former CIO Steve Bandrowczak says, was “getting metrics around your cycle times and those key drivers for your business – making sure you had those before-and-after and then constantly challenging yourself on how to improve those metrics”.

Lenovo also developed internal benchmarks that it used to foster continuous improvement across the business. Bandrowczak continues:

“As we rolled out infrastructure and systems and solutions in a country, we were benchmarking that country against another. We did India and then had China up and running; we had about 40% of our shipments and revenue running through our global system. We were benchmarking China against India across all processes. Then what we did was to take those benchmarks and forward project them against other countries.

“So, for example, how many people would it take to process US$5 million of invoices or X number of receivables or X number of payroll transactions whatever those key metrics were, now that you had a benchmark in terms of those processes, these systems, you should be able to forward project. So you say ‘If I take these processes and these systems and implement them in France, for example, it takes three people in India, it takes 16 people in France today, if I forward project, I better make sure I get down to three people in France if it has a similar type of volumes and business’.

“One of the things that happens and it happens very often – is that as you roll out new systems and infrastructure, you were supposed to do it with three people now all of a sudden you have 16 people who are busy. Of course they’re going to be busy if they haven’t benchmarked it against anything and you haven’t said ‘Hey I can do this with 3 people in country Y, why is it taking 16?’ Then you start to benchmark against the two countries and what you’ll find is a lot of non-value added, a lot of wasted energy.”

Analyze: Gathering knowledge

The analyze stage encompasses taking the data that’s been gathered in the measure stage and making sense of it. George, Rowlands and Kastle caution that “a challenge that all teams face in the analyze stage is sticking to the data, and not just using their own experience and opinions to reach conclusions about the root causes of problems.”

Analyze is the first stage in which the vision of process improvement really begins to come into focus. It’s akin to the plan phase discussed in Secret #3, on the life cycle approach where you’ll develop a globalization roadmap for your organization. Recall that the tasks you’ll tackle in the plan/analyze phase include:

Assessing the feasibility of globalizing current processes within the portfolio

  • Conducting a base-case cost analysis
  • Defining objectives
  • Conducting a strategic evaluation of offshoring options
  • Identifying candidate suppliers and locations
  • Defining a timeframe

Improve: Putting to test

In Six Sigma, the improve stage is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. It’s in this stage that all of the data gathered, measured and analyzed in the previous stages gets put to work to make process changes to eliminate defects. This is the source stage from Secret #3, which details the lifecycle approach. The tasks required in this stage include:

  • Creating requirement document
  • Conducting a scripted walk-through with prospective suppliers
  • Conducting joint solutioning
  • Reviewing and scoring each supplier’s solution
  • Conducting due diligence
  • Negotiating contract

In the improve/source stage it’s important to stay focused on the process improvement plan you created in the analyze/plan stage. Otherwise you run the risk of creating solutions that don’t really solve the core problems you identified, or coming up with solutions that have proved ineffective in the past.

Control: Managing engagement

The last phase of the Six Sigma DMAIC model is control managing the realized improvements. In this stage, you’ll want to take steps to ensure that the improvements you’ve made through the last stages will last. To do that, George, Rowlands and Kastle suggest:

  • Documenting the new, improved procedures
  • Training everyone
  • Setting up procedures for tracking key “vital signs”
  • Handing off ongoing management of the process
  • Completing the project documentation-creating your globalization playbook

In Secret #3 and #6, we talked about managing the sourcing relationship and implementing a strong governance model. While it may seem counter-intuitive to those who are globalizing services for the first time, it is critical to continuously govern the initiative – even with the best suppliers, continued governance is critical to ensuring that the improvements last.

Many companies look at global sourcing as merely a cost-cutting proposition. While it certainly is that, it is also so much more. Successful globalizers understand that managing sourcing engagements over time isn’t just about continuous cost improvements, but about overall quality improvements as well.

Tollgate Reviews

According to George, Rowlands and Kastle, the purpose of a tollgate review is to “Update management on the team’s progress; make sure the project is still critical to the organization; adjust or re-align the project as necessary; and let management know what they can do to remove barriers for the team.”

The institutionalization of tollgate reviews between DMAIC steps will be the backbone of your organization’s continuous improvement mindset. By requiring everyone involved in the sourcing initiative to pause in between DMAIC steps, to talk to each other and to talk to company executives, the tollgate reviews ensure that services globalization is never sent to the backburner to get cold.

A continuously running DMAIC process not only allows for faithful monitoring, but also allows for changes that are made based on experience. It’s true that a large number of data and facts the foundation of Six Sigma should be gathered prior to the launch of the global sourcing initiative. But many will come through experience. Developing a playbook an after-the-fact set of data, facts and successful methodologies after your first initiative can be a critical step in improving the process the second time around.

Ends over means

One of the most common mistakes that client organizations make is seeing services globalization as an end rather than a means. Applying the principles of Six Sigma to services globalization reminds us that global sourcing is actually the means to an end –an end that is, ultimately, serving our customers needs well.

The purpose of embracing a continuous improvement mindset in services globalization is to allow for continuous gains.

To realise continuous gains, adopt a continuous improvement mindset: never stop learning, use the define-measure-analyze-improve-control model, conduct regular health checks, and always keep a lookout for new opportunities to do better.

And remember, in Six Sigma founder Deming’s words, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

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