People and Change - Six Sigma

Emotional Aspects of Change

Six Sigma is about change, at all levels. The textbooks on Six Sigma focus very much on the process of change but, as McAdam and Laferty (2004) note, Six Sigma requires attention to both methodology and behaviors (people). This is, in large part, conspicuous by its absence in both practical and scholarly literature (Moosa and Sajid, 2010).

Where change is considered as a topic at all it is usually considered in a mechanistic, process focused context with resistance being seen as a problem. The most common title of chapters in this respect is ‘Overcoming Resistance’ which clearly casts resistance (and resistors) as a ‘problem’ to be solved. Logic and clear communication is often seen as the way to address the ‘irrational and emotional’ responses of the non - initiated.

Much of being an effective manager of change comes down to understanding these ‘emotional’ reactions in otherswhere do they come from, what do they hope to achieve through it and most importantly, what can you do to help them move forward.

The starting point is to begin to develop a high degree of self - awareness – what is your motivation, why do you maintain the beliefs and values that you hold dear, what drives your behaviour and what effect does this have on others? Remember also that you are dealing with individuals – terms such as ‘the shop loor’, ‘the workers’, ‘the management’, ‘the front voice’ and so on are generalisations that hide a multitude of attitudes, emotions, motivations and behaviors. They do not describe the individuals that work within these units.

Figureis adapted from the grief curve defined by Kubler-Ross. This recognises that all change involves loss. In an organizational sense this can be loss of expertise, status, connections and contacts, or control. The initial response is to deny the need for change, followed by resistance (which can be active or passive), then engagement with the change and exploration of possible effects followed by commitment to the new status quo. However, it should be noted that this does not occur at the same rate for all and that adverse interactions can send an individual back to an earlier phase.

As a leader of change it is important to understand that all those involved go through this process (even you!) and that your job is to help them (and you) work through the emotional side of the change as well as the practical one.

The emotional phases of change (adapted from Kets de Vries and Miller, 1984)

Focusing on the individuals in change is an essential element of success. However we are talking about organisational change so we need to also consider the effect of the organisation. In the literature on change you will find a good deal of discussion of the relative merits of top - down and bottom - up change. Naturally there are strong arguments for both. Top - down change provides a framework for the organisation through the use of Strategy, strong Vision and the provision of enablers for change – such as resources, money, time, external support and so on.

The down side is that often the requirements for the change are not fully understood at a local level, the message is lost on the way and the individuals in the organisation can feel uninvolved and therefore are unlikely to be motivated towards effective implementation. This would it the typical Six Sigma deployment, as we shall see later. Bottom - up change ensures that the change is based on a good understanding of local conditions, the needs of a particular unit of the business and the skills and interests of the people within it. You may have heard the expression that the best way to get someone to support an idea is to get them to think that it is their own, well this is very true.

A major benefit of a bottom - up approach is that through involvement you can gain understanding and commitment. The down side of bottom - up change is that it can result in sub - optimisation of processes if the scope of the project is not great enough and of course it can meet with opposition from above if it is not seen to be supporting the goals of the businessor the goals of the individuals who have the right of veto.

As with many aspects of change the answer is to do both. This approach has been described as ‘Need - down, How - up’. That is the strategy and direction are provided from above (top - down) whilst the solutions and approach to change is generated locally and fed back up the hierarchy (bottom - up). We have seen this approach work well in an organisational context with Directors providing the strategy and a multi - functional, multi - level project team providing the solutions – presented back to the Directors as “this is what we are planning to do and this is the support we need from you in order to achieve it”. You may want to look again at Hoshin Kanri in chapter in this context.

Whether you are looking from the top down or the bottom up or even somewhere in the middle looking both ways it is important to recognise that successful change is achieved through the changing behaviour of individuals and groups within the organisation. This change in behaviour only follows if people are motivated towards it – they need the answer to the question “what is in it for me?” this motivation comes through creating meaning. The key to creating meaning is involvement – that is, when people are fully involved in creating change than they are given a real opportunity to develop their own understanding of what it means for them.

If you are not able to fully involve everybody in the change then you will have to rely on effective communication to spread understanding and meaning. There are many way to communicate information but the most important aspect is to remember that it is a two way process. The meaning of the communication is in the response it elicits and different people will need different approaches – don’t guess what makes people tick, build relationships based on trust and mutual understanding.


Quality improvement is a participative process. It is a very significant activity and it cannot be let to a small proportion of the organization to deliver its goals. Participation is all about involving a wide variety of employees in as much of the organizational strategy setting, policy making and deployment, and process improvement as possible. By mobilizing the brain power of all individuals within the organization it is possible to generate better ideas, better decisions, better productivity, and better quality (Goetsch and Davis, 2010). As we have already seen, the wider the participation, the more complete the organizational buy in to approaches and the more comprehensive decisions, process designs, etc. are likely to be.


If participation refers to the breadth of involvement within a company then we might want to think of empowerment as the depth of involvement. Empowerment is strongly linked to ownership. In empowering our employees we give them genuine ownership of the processes they run. True empowerment allows them to make decisions about how to do their jobs, how to best serve customers and what actions are in the best interests of the company. An empowered employee is able (and willing) to question the status quo in this part of the organization; asking not just ‘how can this be done better?’, but ‘why are we doing this?’ Empowerment implies trust; a manager must trust her staff before she can empower them, otherwise she will feel the need to put in checks and approval systems.

Clearly in some cases these are necessary, but the central idea of empowerment is for decisions to be made as close to the process in question as possible. Selmer (1993) points out that most participative leadership amounts to little more than consultation, as managers retain the decision making. Until you allow employees to take decisions they are not empowered and practical participation is hamstrung.

Empowerment may also require significant amounts of training; it effectively enlarges the job of the employee and they need to be prepared to take on the additional responsibilities. In some cases individuals and teams are fully able to adopt empowerment without any additional training, but where this is not the case it is unfair to push responsibility at an individual without giving them the tools to discharge the responsibility effectively.

In Six Sigma the Master Black Belts, Black Belts and, to a lesser extent Green Belts are all reasonably empowered, the trick is to spread this throughout the organization. The long term goal is to have an organization where the principles and approach of Six Sigma have become second nature, reducing (possibly to zero) the need for the Belt structure. Toyota, for example, point out that one of the reasons they have not pursued Six Sigma is the implied elitism. Toyota want everyone involved in improvement, not just a few specialists (Bicheno and Holweg, 2008).

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