Engagement: From the Top and Bottom

POSTED: Mar. 08, 2017

Written by Kent State Facilitators John Novak and John Potkalitsky

An effective continual improvement program needs to include involvement from everyone in the organization. Achieving this level of cultural awareness takes time and must be nurtured employee by employee. One of the first questions that employees ask is, “What do you want me to do?” If we can’t define the roles we want employees to play when it comes to improving processes, how can we expect a cultural transformation to take place?

Let’s start with the expanded roadmap we introduced in the previous article, “Putting The Rs In DMAIC.” We added the Recognize Phase at the beginning and the Realize Phase at the end of the traditional DMAIC Roadmap. Both Phases help to categorize activities that take place in any continual improvement project. These Phases also encompass additional responsibilities in addition to those already included in the DMAIC Phases. We would like to explore where engagement takes place, and by whom, within the R-DMAIC-R framework.

Developing a Culture Of Continual Improvement

Building this culture must encompass all employees. John Toussaint, CEO at Catalysis and formerly the CEO at ThedaCare, said it rather succinctly, “The ultimate arrogance is to change the way people work without changing the way we manage them.” Everybody has to play their part for the cultural change to take place.

A senior level employee within the organization must step up and lead the change efforts within the organization. This person must:

  1. Gain respect throughout the entire organization, from the leadership group through the mid-level supervisors, all the way down to the employees that work on the front line.
  2. Be willing to challenge the status quo at all levels in the organization and be able to articulate why it is in the best interest of the organization and the employees to change the way business is conducted.

Stephen Covey defined a leader in this way, “The first job of any leader is to inspire trust. Trust is confidence born of two dimensions: character and confidence. Character includes your integrity, motive and intent with people. Competence includes your capabilities, skills, results and track record. Both dimensions are vital.” This is important as you move to a culture of continual improvement. In many cases you are asking the employees of the organization to go on a journey through unchartered waters. You are asking them to leave their comfort zone and enter the panic zone, where the expectations are unknown.


Next, we need to examine is the infrastructure that drives projects through R-DMAIC-R. Figure 1 depicts a typical hierarchy of people from all areas of an organization necessary to build a culture of continual improvement.

Improvement Teams

Lean Six Sigma is not just about projects; it is a management system that keeps the focus on continual improvement as part of its strategic direction and transforms the culture into one that will not accept the status quo as a way of doing business. Everyone must be on board and be thinking every day, “How can I improve my job and find a way to make it happen.”

John Kotter, in his book, Leading Change, articulated eight steps for implementing change. Step number two was to form a coalition with enough power to lead the change.

That Guiding Coalition may manifest itself in the form of a Steering Committee. In larger organizations, you may have a Corporate Steering Committee that articulates overall strategy for the enterprise. The local steering committee aligns with the Corporate, but drives continual improvement efforts based on their specific local issues. If you are a smaller organization, you will just have one Steering Committee. The responsibilities of the Steering Committee include

  • Selecting areas of the organization that are not very effective and could be putting the organization at risk or limiting its ability to take advantage of opportunities.
  • Articulating those areas of concern in the form of Business Cases and Strategic SMART Goals.
  • Identifying critical processes that are creating the concerns described in the Business Cases.
  • Assigning a member of the Steering Committee to serve as the Champion/Sponsor for the Project Team that will address the issues.
  • Generating a Project Charter that forms the basis of a Project Team that includes process performance goals and metrics and defines what they want the Project Team to do.
  • Selecting team members with appropriate process knowledge (Champion/Sponsor).
  • Removing organizational barriers that are encountered by the Project Team.
  • Managing the pace of change so that it isn’t so fast that it chokes the organization or so slow that no discernable progress is made.
  • Developing internal experts. (Kaizen Promotion Office)

Improving The Process

To quote Mark Graban, a healthcare consultant, “In a lean organization, goals, objectives and strategy tend to flow top down. Ideas and solutions should flow from the bottom up, with assumption that frontline (or value adding employees) are closest to the process.” A key to success when improving processes is the engagement of the frontline employees. While it is the top-level management group that defines “What” needs to be done, in the Recognize and Define Phases, it is the frontline employees who must figure out “How” to do it in the Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control Phases.

Engagement with these frontline employees helps in:

  • Gaining an understanding of the current process during the Measure Phase.
  • Generating ideas on how best to improve the process.

When we get this participation, we end up with change being done by the employees and not done to them. This goes a long way to get buy-in and ward off resistance. Implementation is easier and will be longer lasting.

The Frozen Middle

We looked at engagement by the senior leaders of the organization and they are generally pleased with rapid results that focus on the strategic issues they identified. The frontline staff are engaged by providing knowledge of the process and ideas for improvement. Once they see how it will improve their jobs (What’s-In-It-For-Me (WIIFM)) they are generally pleased. Who’s left? Middle Management, sometimes referred to as the “Frozen Middle” and frequently left out of the improvement process because of their importance in meeting production requirements.

Even though they did not directly participate in the improvement process, the middle managers (process owners) must integrate the new process into the day-to-day operations of the organization (Realize Phase). They are handed the responsibility of realizing the benefits designed into the new process over the long-term. This situation breeds resistance and jeopardizes the continued success of the new process. Middle Management needs to be brought into the improvement process much earlier and should be trained, just like everyone else. Just like the frontline staff are expected to follow the processes’ newly designed Standard Work, the same should be true for the Middle Managers, who should be held accountable for following the Manager’s Standard Work as well.


We need to achieve engagement and accountability at all levels in the organization during the R-DMAIC-R process improvement efforts if we expect to develop a culture of continual improvement. The mechanism for doing this lies with Standard Work. We consistently talk about creating Standard Work at the frontlines as we move through the Improve Phase of process improvement. That’s not enough! Leadership and middle management need Standard Work to define what they are expected to do in supporting the continual improvement efforts. This includes walking the process and looking at Visual Management Boards and Huddle Boards to see the status of the process and what is being done to improvement it.

Standard Work (Best Way We Know) at all levels needs to be created, implemented and standardized throughout the organization. Everyone needs to follow the Standard Work until we determine a better way. In our experience, failure to do this will result in mediocre processes that fall short of expectations.