If you are a leader of an organization or team, you understand what I mean. The challenge of implementing quality and cost recovery initiatives can be demanding. Resistance to change is difficult enough to overcome, but many organizations cannot seem to help themselves even when attempting to right the ship with full support of their people.

So what we have is a plethora of articles, blogs, books, conferences and webinars challenging organizations to "get Lean," "be Lean," or even "think Lean."

How did we get here? It is fair to wonder how any alternative to "being Lean" was ever suggested as a business mantra in the first place. This is an important place to start if we are to fully understand the obstacles to quality improvement, as history tends to repeat itself if we are not careful. The practice of Lean, and its close cousin "Six Sigma," can offer powerful benefits to the executive that understands how to leverage the principles. And they can offer you a winning hand.

The truth is Lean and Six Sigma principles have been hiding in plain sight for centuries. Our agricultural industry depended on the application of these concepts long before the industrial revolution as a means of optimizing the yield from crop production. Fast-forward to the end of WWII and the Japanese used Lean to gain a competitive edge over other industrial nations while rebuilding their infrastructure and economy. They recognized that they could not afford to compromise on quality when they were already starting from behind in building an export-based economy.

Lean is all about accelerating the flow of value to a customer by eradicating waste. Six Sigma is about reducing defects by controlling those critical few inputs that have the most significant impact on outputs. Both approaches are powerful methods for creating a highly repeatable and reliable product or service that is ultimately "better, faster and cheaper." Some creative consultants have mashed the two together to create "Lean Six Sigma."

So with this strong and enduring credibility for Lean-inspired improvement, why do we continue to speak of it as if it were a choice? In a series of upcoming columns, I’ll be providing a roadmap for operational excellence using a variety of time-tested approaches like Lean. But first, we must confront some of the obstacles.

Desire for feature-rich and flexible design. We live in a society in which "instant gratification takes too long." Customers want products to be feature-rich, with lots of options, and available to us instantly. We want processes that are flexible and customizable. As appealing as this may sound, the more flexible a product, the more complex the design, because the design must anticipate near infinite requirements. This is particularly true in the tech industry where the creation of so many capabilities leaves the consumer to wonder simply "how do I turn it off."

While it is not impossible to practice Lean under these conditions, it does present an additional challenge to streamline every step in the manufacturing life cycle. But there remains great potential to create a design and deployment protocol that is efficient and with minimal rework (i.e. "defect free"), and will challenge the manager to constantly ask the right questions, starting with "why?"

As a product manager in a rapidly growing software company, I was constantly hearing from my clients about desired new features, capabilities and especially, system reports. "We want to have a report that will tell us ..." was a common refrain, or "we want to be able to ..." Initially, my desire was to make my customers happy by simply promising the capability in the next release - and I wrongly interpreted this as making us more responsive and competitive. But when I started to push back with "why?," it was surprising how many times we found the customer could accomplish their objectives with the existing capabilities in place. Additional complexity and production cost averted!

Granted, this is an intuitive solution, and you didn’t need an article to tell you about it. In the coming months, however, I’ll dig deeper into the "systems thinking" behind Lean and Six Sigma for the manager that wants to adapt best demonstrated practices into their organization. And since you can expect a bit of resistance along the way, we will also talk about how to leverage the concepts of emotionally intelligent leadership, helping you to become the leader you wish to be.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey!