Friday, July 19, 2019

Lesson from the Moon Landing: Expect Unexpected Transformations

Fifty years ago on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to land on the moon.  This undertaking was an enormous challenge, requiring technical innovation, countless hours of devoted work, and a big dose of courage.  It was heralded at the time as the dawn of space travel.  We were told that soon everyday people would be traveling to other planets and then the stars.  Well, that hasn’t happened yet, but let’s look at what happened instead.  The transformation based upon space travel did not go exactly as planned. Instead it has gone far beyond what was envisioned.  Let’s consider some of the reasons for the technical and cultural revolution that has ensued.

When President Kennedy made his famous speech in 1961 stating that the USA would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, there was no clear plan for how to do that.  There were some general ideas, but there were many things yet to be discovered and developed.  However, the focus on putting a man on the moon did bring together three vital enabling elements of the space program’s success.  First, there was a clear goal or mission that galvanized everyone involved into action.  Second, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) went on a hiring spree to bring in bright, young, technically savvy engineers and scientists (the average age of Apollo 11’s mission control team was 28) who could both envision and design the needed systems.  Third, the integrated circuit technology (computer chip – invented in 1961) received a massive investment which set it on a path of ever-increasing processing capability at an ever-decreasing size and use of power.  This combination of a clear goal, innovative resources, and technological capability came together to give us the moon landing on July 20, 1969.

The USA space program’s innovative journey of discovery has impacted far more than the transportation sector in society.  The program fundamentally transformed society around the world.  This was not part of the original plan.  But the results of the space program opened doors that were beyond most people’s wildest dreams.  Let me just point out two of the innovations that occurred and their impact.

As already mentioned, the development of the integrated circuit, or computer chip, was greatly accelerated by the NASA program.  The result was the creation of an industry and technology that was not even foreseen in science fiction at the time.  Today, virtually every electrical device that is manufactured has a chip in it doing data processing or communication.  When the space program started, computers were based upon vacuum tube technology.  Today, vacuum tubes are only found in museums.  This technical innovation, the computer chip, did not stay confined to its original sphere of development in the space program. Computer use spread and transformed every other aspect of society.

That is the hardware perspective, so now let’s think about software innovation.  When NASA started the space program, the program plan did not include the word “software.”  There was no budget, no resources, and no time allowed in the plan to develop software because software as we now know it did not exist.  Keep in mind this was ten years before Microsoft was started.  The only people who interacted with computers were engineers and scientists.  The idea of a user interface did not exist.  NASA pioneered the development of the principles of software design that were needed to make the integrated circuit computer chip work within the system.  Part of that was the creation of the user interface keypad and screen.  A new technical discipline, software, was born.  It has grown to dominate innovation and 50 years after the start of the space program Marc Andressen wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, “Why Software is Eating the World.”  Software controls how we interact with technology, and that often includes how our customers interact with us.

As we look at society today, nearly every aspect of our life has been impacted by innovations that can trace their roots back to the NASA space program.  Consider the field of medicine.  Medical imaging technology, mapping the genome, and patient monitoring would be impossible without the innovations from the space program.  Or consider communication.  Smart phones, wireless systems, even the internet, have roots in the space program.  Transportation systems today are orders of magnitude better than the 1950’s in speed and reliability.  We have seen the impact of these transformative systems in industries like retail, agriculture, banking, energy, and entertainment.  And the nature of the changes and improvement are far beyond anything envisioned by the NASA engineers who were trying to put a man on the moon.

So, what does this have to do with digital transformation?  Your business, once it has started on the transformation journey, will likely change in ways that you can’t even envision at this time. Today we can’t imagine doing business without our smart phones, yet the iPhone was first introduced in 2007.  There are millions of apps that have integrated the smartphone into every aspect of our life.  The capabilities of Siri and Alexa are constantly expanding as household systems are integrated with those devices.  Other new technologies, like blockchain, have the potential to change the way business is transacted and to transform culture and society.  Your digital transformation plans may not include these items now, but if they become dominant you will need to adapt.  The point is, you cannot know precisely where your digital transformation will take you.  You may have a goal, but it is just a door to many more possibilities.

Now that may sound scary.  Why invest in something if you can’t predict the result of the investment?  There are two reasons.  The first is that your competitors are investing in digital transformation and when they discover the new business models and opportunities, your business will soon be like the vacuum tube manufacturers of the 1950s.  The second reason is that digital transformation opens up a world of possibilities and opportunities.  The fact that you don’t know all of them at the beginning is not a reason to hold back.  Instead, go forward and select the path that you believe will be best for you, your company, and society.  Digital transformation is an enabler of the future. Go down the path and see what the future reveals.

Let’s go back a moment and look at the elements of the NASA space program that combined to put a man on the moon.  You should strive to ensure your digital transformation has these same elements.  First was the clear goal.  While there are many opportunities that are created by digital transformation, a near-term goal is needed to focus the effort.  This goal should come from senior leadership and be clearly articulated and supported.  The second is to apply the appropriate resources to achieve the goal.  Assign the people in your organization who are expert at what you do and what you want your business to become.  If you don’t have them, hire them and give this team the time and money to do the job right.  Finally, embrace the technologies that are at the heart of digital transformation.  The specific applications will be based upon your industry and your products.  Regardless of the application, you need the core of digital communication, data acquisition from every product and process in your value chain, data processing to turn that data into business intelligence, and the computer processing power do each of those.

So, let’s commemorate the moon landing and the insight, innovation, and courage of all those involved.  Then let’s use the example of the NASA space program to inspire our own digital transformation.  The future may not be exactly what we predict – it’s likely to be far better!

First published at

Friday, April 26, 2019

Four Lean Six Sigma Principles That Strengthen Your Digital Transformation

Digital Transformation is a major element of strategy for many businesses. But according to studies done by Forbes and McKinsey, most digital transformations are failing. There are many reasons for the failures - some are cultural, some are related to technology, and some are resource based.  Regardless of the underlying reasons, a company with a strong Lean and/or Six Sigma program can leverage this program to improve the success of their digital transformation.

Digital Transformation Challenges

According to the Forbes and McKinsey research, the primary reasons for digital transformation failure are cultural. And just to be clear, the reason was “corporate” culture. Issues included top-down decision-making, inappropriate organizational structure alignment, lack of senior management support, and a poor understanding of digital trends and approaches. But the issues were not only cultural. There were also problems with poor process definition and control, and a lack of data and use of data management techniques. Of course, there were also challenges such as finding the right talent, acquiring the technical infrastructure – or finding the right partner to augment the infrastructure, and funding the projects to include the training of the workforce. What is clear is that digital transformation challenges are not limited by the technology. They are limited by the organizational capabilities and resources.

Lean Six Sigma Characteristics

Fortunately, Lean Six Sigma can assist to overcome these challenges. Let’s review the characteristics of Lean and Six Sigma. These methodologies, which are often combined, are problem solving approaches to drive continuous improvement. Lean emphasizes the process flow and knowledge of why the process slows down or is less than 100% effective in delivering exactly what the customer wants. The ultimate goal of Lean is to eliminate waste. Six Sigma relies on a structured problem-solving process that is grounded on data associated with the problem, process and products being studied. The problem is defined from the customer perspective with data. The problem is analyzed statistically using data. A solution is implemented, and data is again used to demonstrate it works and the situation is improved. The ultimate goal of Six Sigma is to eliminate variation and problems. In both cases, you are likely to have a trained cadre of individuals who are accustomed to using a structured process for driving customer-focused continuous improvement that relies on data. If incorporated into the digital transformation approach, these will be a tremendous advantage.

Let’s look at four principles of Lean Six Sigma that can accelerate and support your digital transformation:

Principle One: Understand Your Processes

A common approach for achieving digital transformation is to automate manual processes or even better, to replace them with technology-based systems that can perform the same functions in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the resources. The Lean Value Stream Map and data boxes for each business process are an excellent method for documenting the existing processes to then either automate them or replace them with a system that has equivalent functionality. A problem that has often occurred when doing digital transformation is that everyone has a different idea of what the digitally transformed system should do. The Lean analysis removes that uncertainty. In addition, a Six Sigma project to find and fix problems in the existing process before it is digitally transformed will help to ensure that the new process does not start off with a fatal flaw. The process knowledge gained with Lean and Six Sigma will accelerate your ability to transform.

Principle 2: Rely on Data

Digital business systems use digital data – lots of data. When implementing a digital transformation, an organization often finds that through the use of the Internet of Things and digital portals for their customers, they are creating massive amounts of real-time data. In addition, the data mining of unstructured databases creates even more data and information. The organization can quickly reach data overload and not know how to prioritize and use the data that is generated. This creates confusion for the organization trying to implement the digital transformation.  Lean and Six Sigma establish disciplines for using data to make day-to-day business and process management decisions. The data box found at each step in a Lean Value Stream Map is a great vehicle for aggregating the data and setting warning flags if the data shows the process or product is unsatisfactory. The final phase of Six Sigma, the Control phase, encourages the establishment of statistical process control charts to track process or product performance with real-time data. The use of these disciplines prepares the organization to establish and manage the business operations with data and analytics. When this has become standard practice, it is easy to use more advanced digital tools of a digital transformation to maintain that discipline.

Principle 3: Use Problem Solving Methodology

The third way in which Lean and Six Sigma can improve a digital transformation initiative is to institutionalize a problem solving methodology and continuous improvement mindset. When undergoing a transformation, there will inevitably be some unexpected situations that have a detrimental effect on business performance and customer satisfaction. If these situations are not quickly and effectively resolved, they can derail the entire transformation as both customers and employees reject the new digital processes and products. Lean and Six Sigma provide a structured method to confidently identify the root causes of problems using numeric and statistical tools. They also provide a baseline of performance against which solutions can be evaluated to ensure they have the desired effects. While everyone knows that problems happen, when there is confidence and trust in the methods used to resolve the problem, the organization maintains the momentum that will sustain them through the transformation. Without a trusted methodology, the organization often flips and flops around, trying to decide if the issue is a problem and what should be done about it. This only creates delays and confusion along with extra costs and loss of customers. Over the years, Lean and Six Sigma have established a proven track record of problem solving and continuous improvement.

Principle 4: Establish Culture of Customer Preeminence

The fourth way in which Lean and Six Sigma will assist in a digital transformation is by keeping the organization’s focus on the customer experience and customer impact. It is very easy when implementing process and technology changes to become internally focused. After all, that is what you are changing. Yet in digital industries, the customer has increased power and the customer experience is often the most important factor in determining market share. An internal focus can lead to disastrous business performance. Both Lean and Six Sigma (when implemented correctly) will start and finish their analysis with the customer experience. Lean tracks the critical customer KPIs through the process with its data boxes. The As-Is Value Stream Map quantifies the customer experience. The To-Be Value Stream Map demonstrates the customer impact of the process change. Six Sigma starts with a problem definition that is based upon what is a customer-defined Critical to Quality (CTQ) characteristic.  And a Six Sigma project does not end until the project team can demonstrate that the CTQ is meeting customer expectations and is under control. By using every customer complaint as the starting point for the next Six Sigma project, the customer experience is maintained as the most significant aspect of the business operations throughout the digital transformation.


Your organization may have been using Lean and Six Sigma for years. In fact, you may have felt that you got all the benefit you could from these approaches and you then moved onto other business initiatives. But don’t abandon these when undergoing digital transformation. The principles of these methods are excellent enablers of your digital transformation and are essential elements for resolving the speed bumps you are sure to encounter. A cadre of trained and experienced Lean Six Sigma Black Belts and Green Belts are a critical element of your organization’s successful digital transformation.