Guthrie’s Lean machine: ABC executives to get black belts

By Stephen Easton

Thursday October 6, 2016

The ABC wants eight executives to become certified black belts by mid-2019, but martial arts has nothing to do with it.

The new Grandmaster Fu, Michelle Guthrie, wants her team to learn the (slightly) mysterious art of Lean Six Sigma, a management doctrine defined in a 2002 book that combined two earlier sets of systematic management principles, most commonly used in engineering and manufacturing concerns.

Lean Six Sigma methodology used coloured belts typical of martial arts — white, yellow, green and black — to describe levels of training. Only master black belts, who’ve spent at least two years leading projects in line with the doctrine, are experienced enough to pass on their skills.

The national broadcaster is calling for tenders to put together a panel of organisations to meet “future requirements for training and coaching in the Lean Six Sigma continuous improvement methodology” as required.

The concept of “Lean” organisations is fairly simple — basically, they minimise wastage — but has been fleshed out extensively over many years, based on systematic creeds that emerged from large companies that had success with designing and manufacturing products on a mass scale like Toytota, Ford, and General Electric.

Six Sigma was developed by Motorola engineer Bill Smith in 1986 and taken further by GE chief executive Jack Welch in 1995. It emphasises continuous incremental improvement to smooth out the wrinkles in systematic processes and achieve the most consistent outcomes possible. Lean Six Sigma combines the two.

It relies on fostering a commitment to the dogma throughout the organisation, enthusiasm in senior executive ranks, evidence-based approaches and the DMAIC — define, measure, analyse, improve and control — system.

The Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales, which teaches the Lean Six Sigma system, claims it helped Optus “reached the pinnacle of lean maturity” in a cheery advertising feature to promote its courses.

The tender documents indicate a rough plan to start by putting about 10 senior executives through “a day-long continuous improvement leadership course” in the first half of 2017.

After that, the plan is to run increasing numbers of staff through the training, and pay for somewhere around 150 hours of “coaching” each year, starting from June 2017, to help it stick.

By the end of the first full year of the new training, in June, 2018, the ABC would like to have around 20 staff certified as green belts and three as black belts. The next year would see five more get their official black belts and many more go through various other Lean Six Sigma courses.

Part of Lean Six Sigma and the earlier doctrines it builds upon from Japan and the United States is the TIMWOODS model that says wasteful activity is usually found in transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, over-production, over-processing, defects and skills.

ABC bosses apparently aren’t clear about whether one needs any training to be a Lean Six Sigma white belt; such courses do exist, but in the world of martial arts, a white belt normally signifies nothing and simply holds your pants up. Nonetheless, they don’t need fancy management training to be wary of being sold something they don’t need:

“If White-Belt training is not a mandatory pre-requisite for participants to undertake Yellow-Belt training then the ABC will not require White-Belt training.”

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