Project management vs. process improvement vs. Six Sigma vs. Lean (Part 2 of 2)

Project management vs. process improvement vs. Six Sigma vs. Lean (Part 2 of 2)

Although there are many approaches to process improvement, Six Sigma and Lean are far more familiar to lawyers than any of the alternatives, as a result of Seyfarth Shaw's highly publicized success in applying them.  Over the last two years, I've written several posts about Seyfarth's innovative programs, including here, here, and here.     

A Legal Intelligencer article that described the evolution of the program quoted Carla Goldstein, Seyfarth's director of strategic management, about how lawyers reacted when the process started in 2005:

We were dying....[Consultants] came in with these binders of jargon and statistics and numbers and the lawyers' eyes were rolling around in their heads.

As their program developed, they moved away from Six Sigma concepts and toward simpler Lean ideas, grounded in customer value.  The program is now called SeyfarthLean, which their web page calls "A Lean Six Sigma approach" and describes as "A commitment to deliver quality and measurable results."
In many ways, I am a fan of Seyfarth's innovation, their commitment and their results.  But, as I explained in a previous post, this is an expensive and time consuming way to go.  According to an April 2010 American Lawyer article, "Seyfarth has spent over $3 million to date administering and training workers...and budgets $200,000 - $500,000 annually for such costs." 

What's more, as Eric Verzuh noted in his book Fast Forward MBA in Project Management, "A Lean culture...requires top management commitment and persistence [and] a genuine pursuit of perfection by the entire workforce, along with inspired education and training" (p. 409).

One reason process improvement requires so much effort is that you not only have to analyze how to change things, you have to convince people to change.  It's human nature to want to do things your own way.  Getting people to do things a new way can require enormous effort from a powerful central management team.  But wait - most law firms don't have a powerful central management team.  Law firms are partnerships, and the partners don't want to be managed.  They want to do things their own way. 

According to Carl Binder of The Performance Thinking Network, the same problem is often found in other professions.   Consultants identify better processes but then they "can't get the damned people to execute the process."  That's why his company concentrates on understanding and improving performance by explicitly focusing on how to change human behavior.

Naturally, in a world of competing consultants with differing views, not everyone agrees with this analysis.  When I asked process improvement consultant Rafael Reisz to review an earlier draft of this post, he said in an email, "I would argue that process management does not only involve convincing people to change. It involves guiding people through a process through which they discover what they wish to change and are provided with the tools necessary to effect desired change. It is true that adoption of improved processes is sometimes difficult but once the process proves itself - via metrics - it is only a matter of time (or a nudge from the managing partner)."

Whatever your views about the difficulty of changing lawyers' behavior, there can be no doubt that process improvement is valuable and important.  And if you devote several years and millions of dollars to this change, as Seyfarth has, you could win big. 

Then again, Seyfarth is in its sixth year of change, and in the current marketplace, you may not have six years to get better.  That's why we recommend a just in time approach in which individual lawyers identify what they want to work on, and start today. 

If you don't know where to begin, turn to page 11 in my Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.  That section is called "How to quickly apply key concepts from Lean Six Sigma," and it includes ten simple questions about typical matters that will help you to "work more efficiently, reduce cost, and increase the client's perceived value."  Today.

Read Part I on the Legal Business Development Blog.