Think Like a Black Belt, Act Like a Ninja. Part III – Backwards is the New Forwards

ninja1My first job out of graduate school was working for an environmental engineering company located in Lester, Pennsylvania.  Lester is south of Philadelphia and is the home of that city’s airport.  Although Lester doesn’t provide much to write home about, it does have some of the best cheesesteak places around. I was never much a cheesesteak guy but there was one particular place (for this story I will call it Joe’s) that had hands down the best tuna fish I ever had. They would mix in melted provolone and heat it on the greasy grill for just the right amount of time to make a hoagie I would end up eating for lunch every work day until I left that job.  I became such a regular that just by walking into the place would result in a smile by the owner (let’s call him Joe) and a hoagie and a Coke waiting for me on the counter.

One day the crew had a very early morning job to do. We had to be in northern New Jersey by 8AM to drill some monitoring wells. We needed to meet at the office at 6AM so we could group and get to the site on time. Since I rushed out of my place before eating breakfast, I was happy to see that the “open” sign was shining in the window at Joe’s. I knew that a bagel and a coffee would hit the spot.

As soon as I walked in I was greeted by Joe along with his usual smile and customary “Hey Chief!” greeting.  Joe hopped right on the grill, got the tuna and cheese going and would not stop talking at me (not with me…at me) for a good five minutes. I could not get a word in between his sentences. Whether it was about his Flyers tickets right on the glass or his kid’s antics at Villanova, he didn’t give me a moment to tell him I just wanted a bagel. It wasn’t until the hoagie was wrapped and on the counter that he even thought to acknowledge that I may want to say something.  At that point I just paid for the sandwich and left. When I tell this story to others I am often asked why I didn’t ask for the bagel and the coffee also. The answer is I just didn’t. I guess I was just thrown off by the whole experience.  I ended up eating the sandwich at 6AM on the ride to the site. It didn’t taste as special as it would have six hours later.

Let me ask you. Has the same thing ever happened to you? Maybe not inside of a deli, but possibly when engaging one of your company’s Black Belts? Maybe it was you in the role of the offending Black Belt? I can’t count the number of times I would see a business owner engage a Black Belt with a problem and before a full sentence can be spoken the Black Belt would start going into their customary shtick. “First we need a Charter! Then we need a process map! Give me a D! Give me an M! Give me an A-I-C!”. When you start talking charter before you even understand the problem you aren’t a “Joe”,  you ‘re a jackass. While a Black Belt puts the improvement process before the problem, a ninja is much smarter than that.

Too many times I see a Black Belt taking a team’s valuable time to fill out a CTQ tree when a CTQ tree provides absolutely no value in solving the problem at hand.  SIPOCs too. The same can be said for many other Six Sigma tools. Why does this happen? It’s because some Black Belts are so ridiculously focused on the DMAIC process, since they are taught that every problem can be solved using Six Sigma if you do it correctly. In the mind of some Black Belts, “do it correctly” translates to “use every tool”.

A Six Sigma Ninja on the other hand knows that “Backwards is the new Forwards”.   What does that mean exactly? It means that a ninja starts with the solution and works backwards. Here’s how:

  • Step 1: Listen and understand what is ailing your stakeholder. Completely understand what their desired end game is. Ask questions, but outside of that, shut up.
  • Step 2: Ask yourself one simple question:  “In order to deliver the end game the business owner is looking for, what would I need to do or what question would I need to answer right before I deliver it?”
  • Step 3: Ask yourself the next question: “That one thing I need to do or question I need to answer right before I deliver the end game? What do I have to do or answer so I can deliver that?”
  • Step 4: Repeat Step 3 as many times as you need until you know what you need to do first.

I hear CI folks talk about “Lean Six Sigma” all day long, but never do I hear them talk about “making Six Sigma Lean”.  This four step process will do just that. No more delivering tuna hoagies when your business partners want a bagel. No more wasting time praying to the Six Sigma Gods on your business owner’s precious time. No more jumping through hoops because the DMAIC way says so.

True ninjas travel light. They can because they only carry what they need. All those magic tools you got in your Black Belt handbook?  When they don’t provide you any value, they really don’t amount to more than a tuna hoagie.

You have a Six Sigma Ninja tip? Let me know! I would love to hear about it.


About Russ Sacks

Russ is the current Managing Director of Exceptional Outcomes. He has over twenty years of experience in the areas of operations research, process excellence and software development. Russ has worked with organizations such as United Technologies, Allied Signal, GM and NASA in implementing computer aided optimization and continuous improvement methods. Russ is a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, and has worked in the area of process excellence in both the healthcare and information technology industries. Russ holds a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Union College, a Master of Science in Management from University of Maryland University College and a Master of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Vermont.
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1 Response to Think Like a Black Belt, Act Like a Ninja. Part III – Backwards is the New Forwards

  1. Lee Gregory says:

    Great stuff Russ – have enjoyed the whole three-part “Think Like a Black Belt, Act Like a Ninja” series. My contribution – though I’d never claim authorship – is the Lean rallying cry of “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

    Seems to me that the first thing a real ninja does is to size up the situation in its entirety, in a deep manner, without prejudice or preconceived notions of what the right answer is. Then and only then can a successful course of action be sketched out. And even after that, it starts with the first step, and requires continual reassessment of reality along the way to navigate to the desired destination.

    Masterful ninjas of course have developed the capacity to do this really quickly and very clearly – but I’m pretty sure the “seeing clearly” ability needs to come first, and the “quickly” part comes with experience. Steve Hoeft tells a wonderful and very funny story about his “stand in circle” experience in his terrific book “Stories from My Sensei” (pg 45-49) that speaks to this. Highly recommended.

    Keep up the great work!

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