The Curse of Being a Six Sigma and Lean Black Belt

–Why We Can’t Make This Stuff Work Well in Most Companies

Originally I was a Deming guy. I implemented Deming’s work in my own company and became an expert in the Deming management method. Notice I didn’t say I became an expert in the Deming quality or productivity program. Still, even though I owned the company and was 100% committed to this systems-based management method, getting my people to buy in and utilize this new way of working, managing and leading was difficult. Painful even.

When I began consulting and training in 1990, I found the implementation of Deming’s work to be even more demanding in other companies. Although my clients and I were eventually successful, it was tough sledding.

I found myself working much harder and longer keeping things going, often having to ask for forgiveness rather than permission to get things done.

Even then I was constantly having to shore up leaks in the dike as people fell back into old ways, including, of course, the CEOs. In most instances, even successes were short-lived as the “program” fell apart after I or the CEO supporting the program left the company.

Fast forward from 30 years ago and much has changed. Deming became TQM, which begot reengineering then morphing into Six Sigma, Lean and Lean Sigma. There have been other names for basically the same types of programs but these are the most prominent quality and productivity programs that emerged. Notice I said “programs.”

Today, not much has changed in the difficulty in getting these types of programs into companies. Many really good Six Sigma and Lean experts I know are just as frustrated today as they were many years ago in implementing this stuff. Who wouldn’t be frustrated? In the vast majority of companies implementing Six Sigma and Lean, results have been less than expected and in many cases outright failure. I recall one expert telling me that when he went to a unit in a hospital to work on the front line systems, he was told, “Okay, Lean us. We have a lot of work to do.”

In the early 1990s, I looked at why these types of programs were so difficult to implement and failure rates so high. I created a sizable list of problems around implementation and use of the tools and sought to remove or at least round off the sharp edges of what became Six Sigma and Lean that made people want to reject or wait out these programs. With the new model, implementation immediately became faster and easier resulting in real transformation at the level of leadership, management, and within front line systems. Key to this new model were the following:

  • Implemented as a systems-based leadership/management development model
  • Bottom/up rather than top/down
  • Uses a “pull” strategy rather than a “push” strategy
  • Avoids “buy-in” in favor of “ownership”
  • Simple, easy to learn and apply at any level of the business
  • Grows organically
  • Creates non-push transformational leadership at the same time as optimizing systems

For all you frustrated Black Belts, as you know, there is nothing wrong with the technology behind Six Sigma and Lean. The stuff works and works well wherever implementation is successful and sustainable. However, this is much more exception than rule. I do not believe that Six Sigma or Lean or the next flavor of the month that will undoubtedly appear can be widely successful doing the same thing expecting a different result. Still, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it simply needs changing.


David Dibble
David Dibble
As a 24-year-old, I founded a company with $5000 and built it into a $10M business with 200 employees. I was an early adaptor in the quality movements of the late 1970s and early 1980s, often speaking to business groups on the subject. Since 1990, I’ve been doing consulting and training, teaching leaders and managers how to be better in their roles, resulting in much higher performing businesses. My life’s work is embodied in The New Agreements for Leaders training, a systems-based paradigm shifting leadership and management model that creates significantly more value in businesses than traditional models. My latest book (I’ve written five) is The New Agreements for Leaders. The engine for implementation of this model is the 7 Tools for emerging leaders and managers. Importantly, the use of 7 New Agreements Tools for leaders and managers actually grows good and even great leaders and managers. For eight years, I worked directly with don Miguel Ruiz, author of the best selling The Four Agreements and prior to that studied both the physical science of change and the spiritual science of transformation. I’m now living in Napa with Linda, my wife of 46 years, so we can be close to our children and grandchildren. I’m learning to drink wine out of a glass rather than a pitcher and still enjoy a bad round of golf now and again.

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    • Thank you, Mary. Yes, buy-in is needed when transformation is “pushed” top/down. However, with an implementation model designed to implemented bottom/up using a “pull” strategy, ownership replaces buy-in and makes the systems-based transformation robust and sustainable. Best, David

    • David, I agree that a bottom up strategy works. However, folks who teach change management still support top down. I hope your experience and that of others will change this thinking.

    • So true, Mary. There is even a foundational problem in the language. Change cannot be managed (pushed). Systems and people can only be transformed. I can’t imagine decision makers talking about transformation management, at least for very long. Fundamentally, leaders and managers, for the most part, have the theory of change both wrong and backwards. And we wonder why change is seen as so difficult by most. Best, David

    • There is an old saying — you cannot lead a horse to water and make it drink. Funny that we do not apply the same insight to people and change.