The Overstuffed Tool Bag
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

How many of you remember when color copying and printing first became not only widely accessible, but relatively inexpensive? The large office products company for which I worked was a pioneer in that field.

And we quickly needed to learn that Just Because You Could Print Every Color, Did Not Mean You Should Print Every Color. There were some “slides” that were downright headache-inducing. I’m pretty sure that I saw single pages with every color of the rainbow included. And maybe a few colors that didn’t yet exist in the spectrum. Fortunately, between management directives and bills for color toner, that trend came to a rather quick halt.

There’s a parallel here to Lean Six Sigma. The newly minted Black Belt is equipped with a bag of tools that, if physically manifested, would be, in a word, overstuffed. There are the usual appliances that are associated with Black Belt Land: control charts, regressions, hypothesis tests, fishbones, et cetera. And there are the lesser known but still important tools and techniques like the Current Reality Tree, Value Stream Mapping, and the Failure Mode Effects Analysis (a personal favorite), plus concepts that are popular outside of Lean Six Sigma (how many television shows have used “Brainstorm, no bad ideas!”at least once?). The list goes on and on... and on.

Because I believe that there is a certain demeanor that is attracted to becoming a Lean Six Sigma practitioner—which is a nice way to say you’re probably part Geek (and yes, I resemble that remark)—there is the resultant danger of going overboard with the tool bag.

In other words, Just Because You Have Lots of Tools, Doesn’t Mean You Need to Use All Of Them on Every Project.

Sure, there are some tools that come out of the bag on a regular basis, number one probably being the Project Charter, which we’ll cover in another post. But, frankly, we don’t do ourselves any favors by strictly following the “checklist” that the typical Belt is sent home from class with. The overuse of tools is akin to tossing every available seasoning into a recipe: it may seem sophisticated, but it’s more confusing than anything else. It also adds time and effort to a project, leading to the oft-deserved criticism that Lean Six Sigma takes too long.

What’s a Belt to do?

In two words or less, Choose Carefully. Instead of dumping the tool bag all over the floor in front of your audience, think about the problem, and, for that matter, the audience. Be sure that every tool and technique used genuinely helps to understand and solve for the situation at hand. In my travels, I’ve typically used around five or six tools per medium-sized project. Sometimes I’ve relied very heavily on just one, with a couple of others to round out documentation and benefits. It’s very much worth taking the time to understand what tools fit best, leaving the rest in the overstuffed bag for another time.

More from the Notebook...