As a young process excellence author, I often got asked, “Wow, you wrote a book… how long did it take? And what made you do it?”
If the first question is relatively easy to answer, the second is a bit harder to explain to someone who has never gone through the writer’s journey. The first time I was asked the question, I probably answered, “I don’t know, I just did it.” Now, the more I hear it, the more mature and the more prepared I have become to answer from the bottom of my heart.
However, it is never an easy answer, and the more I think about it, the more I now visualize my journey to becoming an author as a path in three incremental steps, fueled by a strong and increasing passion for process excellence.
Step 1: Process Excellence as an Effective Business Tool
To start, let’s define what we mean when we talk about “process excellence.”
Process excellence is merely a business tool. In using it, you get acquainted with a methodology that many are skeptical about. You quickly realize that the more skeptical folks fall into one of two categories. Either they’re the old-fashioned guys who do not want to get rid of their old way of doing things, or they are the ones who are too lazy to have the rigor and discipline to follow methodical steps before seeing a result: they want solutions before being even aware of the problems they are trying to resolve.
When you’re using process excellence, you commit to finding effective ways to deal with identified problems. So in the middle of the chaos, you decide you want to forge your own opinion. And if you apply the steps with rigor and discipline, you discover a world of opportunities: a toolbox that gives you the potential to unlock any kind of situations, by following a simple three-step process: Define, Understand, Resolve.
It’s true that Lean Six Sigma in its pure form can sometimes be cumbersome. Its whole toolbox, including statistical analysis and all its blended variety of analytical acronyms such as FMEA, SIPOC, VOC & CTQs, QFD, and so on is of course not to be used in every single situation.
Yet the backbone of the methodology is what I discovered and shaped into a three-step problem solving approach:
- Define the problem
- Understand its root causes, and
- Resolve the problem by addressing its root causes.
The power of this approach is that it can be used in any type of business—medical, financial, manufacturing, writing, and beyond—and to resolve any type of problem—process, system, organization; simple or complex; concrete or abstract; old or new.
When you start to use this methodical approach, the only obstacle that you may face is the old-fashioned guys who ask you to jump to the solution before giving you time to define and understand the problems.
But really, it’s an incredibly powerful approach. And particularly if your coworkers follow you on this path, there is no problem that you cannot overcome with this system.
Once you choose to use process excellence, you decide to use more or less elaborate tools to dig into the various problems you face, according to their nature, their complexity, and their urgency.
This doesn’t have to be a huge commitment: it could take you just an hour or two to go through the steps of Define and Understand if you are really in a rush to lay out a solution for the next day. Yet following these two steps before trying to resolve the problem will guarantee that you are finding a solution that is appropriate to the problem. If not, at least you are aware of what you are doing and can take a more reasoned, analytical approach to things!
Using the Three-Step Process Excellence Approach to Solve Problems
It’s not hard to implement the process excellence approach to tackle any issue that faces you, from figuring out a system at work to handling a plot problem in your novel.
In brief, the Define step consists of stating the problem by answering three basic questions:
- What is the problem?
- Why is it a problem?
- How do I know this is a problem?
If answering these three questions does not help you better understand the situation, at least it helps you make sure that everybody is on the same page from the start.
Once you get further into process excellence, you can decide to use other tools if you deem them appropriate.
Next, the Understand step consists of identifying the root causes of the problem by asking why the problem is happening as many times as you need, until you start turning the problem into an opportunity. You can stop asking “why” when the problem statement established in the Define step starts to get turned into a solution.
Here again, lean Six Sigma offers many more (and more complex) tools that you can use at your own convenience, but none of them is compulsory. You decide what you need, and no single opportunity will require you to use all the tools at once.
Lastly, the Resolve step comes naturally, without requiring genius ideas nor an especially advanced brain able to create the new iPhone. Indeed, this methodical approach leads you to simple solutions, adapted to the problems you are aiming to resolve. No more, no less. And it works 100% of the time!
When you have gone through the journey two, three, or four times, you’ll no longer need to be convinced anymore of the effectiveness of the approach. The only thing not to forget is to stick to the methodology with rigor and discipline each time you are facing a new problem.
Step 2: Process Excellence as a Philosophy of Life
The step in the incremental journey to excellence that comes after this “ah-ha!” moment discovering the power of the process excellence methodology is to see the opportunity to apply the thought process not just in business, but everywhere. That is when process excellence becomes not just an effective business tool, but rather a philosophy of life.
Let’s start again with the Define, Understand, Resolve thought process.
Each time I go and see a doctor, I can’t help but follow along the logic with him or her. The doctor starts by asking you what is wrong with you—for instance, states the problem by listing down its symptoms.
Then, the doctor tries to understand why you are having these symptoms: virus, bacteria, exotic disease… Whatever the diagnosis is, you will never be confident, as a patient, that you will get better until you have been explained what is truly going on.
Lastly, the doctor resolves the problem by giving you the appropriate treatment for you to get better. Note that this treatment can be made of two components: one component to hide the symptoms (pain killers, aspirin, etc.) so you feel better quickly; and one component to truly address the root cause of your disease. The former is just a way to seemingly get rid of the problem in the short term only. The latter is what will truly cure you in the long run.
And you cannot get real, long-term treatment or resolution without having spent the time to analyze the root cause to establish a proper diagnosis of the problem.
I often compare the old-fashioned guys who want a business solution straightaway to auto-medication: you are able to take aspirin on your own for a mild fever, but if the problem gets bigger, you will not get better until a proper diagnosis has been made and a real treatment has been administered. If you want a solution immediately, without going through the steps to define the problem and understand its root causes, you can only expect to resolve small problems, or low-hanging fruits.
State the Problem to Move Beyond It
Beyond the extreme experience of being sick, the process excellence philosophy shows up every day in front of me with my three-year-old daughter.
Whenever she gets angry, it immediately sounds dramatic. It looks like the greatest problem in life is lying in her hands. I see some parents who sound immediately alerted, thinking their child has broken a leg or an arm each time he cries. And the toddler starts crying even more now, thinking that he or she actually did break a leg or an arm.
In contrast, I see other parents who ask their young child: what is going on? Somehow, they start by asking their child to state the problem. Funny enough, with young children, you often find out that they stop crying when you ask them why.
That’s because forcing them to state their problem might simply tell them than there is no actual problem. They have just been afraid of being hurt because they fell, or they are just tired because they had a long day.
So stating the problem sometimes helps them realize that there is no problem, just fear and anxiety.
Is that not sometimes the case with grownups, too? Or even in business? Everybody runs around because of an apparent fire drill, but the reality is that it is just one client screaming louder than the others for a simple business-as-usual situation…
If that sounds familiar, remember to start by stating the problem!
Back to my daughter. Once she has stated what is going wrong with her, then we start analyzing why together. Your leg hurts because you fell? You are angry because I did not give you your favorite snack? You are tired because you played too long in the park? This simple form of root-cause analysis helps us to express facts as well as emotions, allowing us to be less emotional about the situation, and more factual.
Establishing the facts, and separating them from the emotions, is also a way to approach a solution together, with her buy-in (instead of me telling her what to do when she cries).
If the root cause of the problem is a fall, then we come together to the agreement that she needs a bandage, and we choose her favorite color, so she becomes happy again quicker. If the problem is that she didn’t get the food she wants, she might or might not have the choice to have something else. But, at the very least, she says it and feels listened to. If we find out she is tired, she agrees she has to go to bed early, pushing her into making her own decision to go to bed, rather than mine; and that becomes a win-win situation for the whole family.
In any case, the Define, Understand, Resolve thought process has become embedded in our day-to-day problem resolution, helping us to build solutions together, adapted to every single situation, big or small, easy or complex.
Internalize Tools until Using Them Is Automatic
Another example of the power of the process excellence approach in daily life lies in the usage of some tools, without necessarily having to go through the whole thought process.
Imagine you regularly lose your keys: you are always in a rush just at the time when your keys disappeared and seem to play hide-and-seek with you.
Now, imagine you use the 5S tool with your keys: each time and every time, your keys are always in the same cupboard, ready to be picked when you go. You never lose them anymore, and there is no more stress to find them when you are late to go to work. Once more, problem resolved with a simple technique!
Want more? Have you ever gone home after a long day, exhausted, overwhelmed, just hoping for your home to be quiet for you to get some rest…but when you come in, your children have not done their homework, your pile of laundry cannot wait any longer, and dinner is not ready. And then, along comes your wife or husband, in the same mood as you are, complaining about their own bad day.
What do you do then? Get angry yourself, adding a bit of extra mess to the house? Or do you talk to your husband or wife and ask: Why did you have a bad day? You can go through a 5 Why’s exercise that will allow both you and your spouse to move away from these bad thoughts and come to the realization that, in the end, each problem has its own solution, and that some people are certainly less happy than you are…so maybe you should breathe and relax in your own reality, instead of wishing for something different. This simple 5 Why’s technique is full of power in every kind of situation, in business as at home.
In brief, with these few examples, you can fully envision how process excellence can become a way of life, once you apply the philosophy behind the approach rather than just the tools and techniques available for business.
Step 3: Process Excellence as a Passion I Want to Share
Most people who truly apply the methodology with rigor and discipline will buy into Step 1, and acknowledge the fact that process excellence works as an effective methodology and toolbox in business. Very few who have tried will say the opposite.
Then, a good half of the people will recognize the power process excellence can have as a philosophy of life. When you really get into it, it becomes part of you, and you cannot help but see it everywhere and use it with your family and friends. You do not even think about it anymore; it becomes part of the way you speak and breathe.
The last step, turning process excellence into a passion, is the one that few people walk through, and that explains why I decided to write a book: in my opinion, process excellence is more than something I want to keep for myself. It is a thought process than I want as many people as possible to be aware of, and to use. By putting the systematic step process in writing, I hope that I can share my passion with more, and help people to realize the power of what it can bring to every aspect of their lives.
This being said, when you read a book, you do not necessarily grasp all the contents of the methodology. You need to apply these concepts and live through their ups and downs to fully understand their power.
Plus, when you read a book, you only read it for yourself, so you are only impacting yourself at the time of reading, until you reach the second step of the incremental journey and start to influence others thanks to what you have learned.
Therefore, rather than just writing a book about process excellence, I instead decided to write a book about coaching process excellence professionals. With that focus, the coaches who read the book can influence all the people they interact with, helping me share my passion with more enthusiasm than with someone reading on his own, and at a greater scale.
The model I had in mind when writing this book, Lean Six Sigma: Coach me if you can, is the one described by the mathematic series of Fibonacci: 1 coach will coach 1, and then, the 2 people become 2. 2 + 1 more “coachee” then makes 3 passionate people. 3 + 2 becomes 5…. And so on and so forth until infinity.
As impossible as it may seem to reach infinity by being a simple coach or process excellence expert, the only way I found to spread the process excellence approach beyond what I could do with my bare hands, being as limited as anybody else by the capacity in my day, has been to write a book helping Lean Six Sigma coaches to coach Green and Black Belts as effectively as possible.
Overcoming the Fear of Writing
Then comes the next obstacle to overcome once you know that you have a great idea and that you want to make a book of it. You think: me?…. I will never be the next Ken Follett, or I will never create the next Harry Potter effect…
And?! How many books have you discovered at random in a bookstore or in a library, that you knew nothing about before coming face to face with that book? How many books change the life of one or two, or 10, without being the next New York Times bestseller? Does it matter? Is it still worth keeping your ideas to yourself rather than sharing them, just because you are not going to be on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper?
You do not have to focus on being the next bestselling publishing sensation to go ahead and write. It’s the same way you do not have to run marathons in less than three hours to enjoy running, the same way you do not have to win the PGA to enjoy playing golf, or the same way you do not have to be on the ATP list to enjoy tennis. We now live in an interactive world where unknown authors really do have the chance to express their ideas and publish them. Why not do it?
Only one thing is sure: only those who play can win a game or a tournament. If you never try, nobody will ever be aware of what you want to share.
Instead, share what you have to say before you die, rather than keep it silently under your mattress where, without a doubt, nobody will ever know anything about your own personal passion. If not now, it will probably be never. Furthermore, even if you decide to never publish, just the fact of having written a book is a personal achievement that not many people have had the courage to accomplish.
Be part of that group if you want to. It will be too late to think about it again and have regrets in 50 years.
Just remember: Define, Understand, and Resolve. With that simple approach to business, life, and writing, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.
About the Author
Author of Lean Six Sigma: Coach me if you can, Anne Ponton is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with broad experience in both Lean Six Sigma projects execution and Lean Six Sigma training and coaching. Now heading a change management project team for a French bank in the USA, Anne is dedicated to accelerating successful project execution while helping her team, stakeholders, and clients develop the skills they need to manage problems and projects at work and in their daily lives.
Want to learn more about how to be more efficient and effective? Read on!
- 9 Calendar Hacks to Maximize Your Productivity
- Schedule Your Success
- Time Management for Writers: The Stopwatch Method for Massive Creative Productivity