Lean and Six Sigma

Lean six sigma

I’m a big proponent of using Lean and Six Sigma to improve business. As W. Edwards Deming stated, everything is a process. Thinking in terms of processes, it is critical to understand the process you work within and develop ways to improve. Lean focuses on eliminating waste while Six Sigma focuses on preventing defects and solving problems. Both techniques have a wide-array of excellent tools that Product Managers can use to improve all aspects of product development, marketing, and various processes.

Lean tools such as 5S, standardization, process flow reviews, and voice of the customer are immensely efficient at helping to reduce wastes and simplify processes. The main tool from Six is the DMAIC problem solving tool, that involves strong data analytics and voice of the customer feedback. Combining both techniques can truly help to improve the business, improve efficiencies and solve problems to ensure improved customer satisfaction.


Osborn Verbal Checklist



Alex Osborn developed brainstorming in 1939. The tool has been used for problem solving and the development of creative ideas for decades. In his book Applied Imagination, Osborn explained additional ways to change perspectives and look at problems from new angles. The Osborn Verbal Checklist provides nine elements for innovators to review when searching for new ideas. These elements are excellent and easy ways to analyze current products to modify for incremental innovation or completely redesign for radical change.

The nine elements are:

  1. Put to Other Uses?
  2. Adapt?
  3. Modify?
  4. Minify?
  5. Substitute?
  6. Rearrange?
  7. Reverse?
  8. Combine?

Listing these nine elements and systematically reviewing each within the context of the product or problem, can provide new insights for strong differentiation. Structuring your ideation eliminates wasted effort and provides a strong foundation for additional ideation to develop innovative solutions.



Product management requires a diverse skill set. A critical skill Product Managers (PMs) need is finding and solving problems. A great tool to ensure a systematic problem solving methodology is the DMAIC model. DMAIC is an acronym for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. DMAIC is the problem solving tool within Six Sigma. Analysis is the foundation for successful DMAIC.

The ability to effectively use data to drive analysis and decisions is the backbone of DMAIC. DMAIC allows for strong creativity and the development of innovative solutions to carefully analyzed problems. You do not need a Six Sigma black belt to use DMAIC. Just some basic statistical understanding and strong inquisitiveness. The following is a general overview of the model:

Define – requires a deep understanding of the problem that culminates in a simple and straightforward problem statement. PMs can use voice of the customer (VoC), data analysis, customer contacts, warranty claims, etc., to understand the problem.

Measure – using basic statistical tools allows the PM to identify gabs between the expected and actual targets. The goal is to develop key data baselines to start the analysis.

Analysis – the goal of this stage is to carefully review the data and various information acquired, and develop a root cause of the problem. This step is critical and it is necessary to avoid focusing on obvious issues as they usually mask underlying causes.

Improve – this stage requires the team to create, test, and implement a solution. deBono’s Six Thinking Hats is a great tool to develop a beneficial solution.

Control – after implementing the solution it is critical to monitor and measure its performance and modify as necessary.

DMAIC is an excellent tool for systematic innovation. With similar foundations to plan, do, check, and act (PDCA), PMs can carefully yet quickly understand the root cause of a problem, develop and implement a solution, and ensure the problem is solved.

The 7Ps – Are You Ready?


So you have done all the hard work researching, experimenting, testing, and evaluating the market. The product is ready to go and you are ready for the big launch. You have determined the proper pricing, analyzed the competitive specs and made sure your product had a clear competitive advantage, and you have positioned for optimal differentiation. The messaging is crafted and the studio and location shots are done. Catalogs are being printed and the website is being updated. Everything is on pace for that big launch. But wait! Are YOU ready? Have you made sure your presentation to the troops effectively explains the advantages and how you plan to win? Have you practiced the presentation multiple times until you know it cold? Do you have a backup of it on your laptop and on a couple of memory sticks? Is it saved on a network drive in case your laptop dies?

No, this is not overly anal-retentive behavior. This is the core of the 7Ps that the U.S. Marine Corps drill into their teams. The 7Ps = Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Yes, clear, simple and oh so true.

Did you get to the hall where you will present the day before the big launch to meet with the audio visual (AV) guys to ensure all your videos work, the sound is good, all your images are there (especially if there will be a transfer of files from a Mac to a PC). Are the microphones working? Is the clicker easy to use? Do you have a laser pointer?

Not only is a checklist an essential requirement, but a run-through in the actual facility you will present in is critical. You want everything to look smooth. No hiccups, no stuttering on stage, no missed slides. All that work will pay off when the presentation goes well and you avoid looking like a fool. Remember the 7Ps and you will ensure a great launch!

Trend Analysis


Trend analysis attempts to predict the future based on past occurrences. Managers often focus on major trends, ignoring less obvious but increasingly important trends that can affect business. It is increasingly important for managers to focus on the core market trends as well as peripheral trends. Firms in turbulent markets need to develop a strong competitive knowledge intelligence system.

Managers need to be continually informed regarding competitive actions when operating in high velocity environments. They need to balance intuition and rational decision-making to leverage experience and data. The ability for leaders to obtain real-time market information allows for faster decision-making. It is critical that the information that managers receive is based on strong foundations to ensure proper decision-making.

Ensuring that managers accurately identify trends is critical for long-term firm health. The accurate collection of industry and peripheral market knowledge is critical to identify future trends. Nike successfully identified the iPod craze by developing the Nike+ and allowing fitness and technology savvy consumers to combine both products for market success. Ensuring trend identification within and outside the core market allows firms to capitalize on trends in infancy for long-term product success and the avoidance of negative effects on the firm. Leaders need to ensure understanding between trends and fads, and compile proper market knowledge to successfully identify and capitalize on trends for optimal competitive advantage development.

Cheng and Chi


It is important to keep your competitors off-balance. You need to do the traditional blocking-and-tackling that your competitors expect. However, you have to develop surprises to keep them off-balance and gain market advantages. Two concepts from ancient Chinese strategy texts are cheng and chi. Cheng and Chi are concepts you should keep in mind when developing both strategy and tactics. Cheng are the basics and Chi is what surprises the competition (and customer). First is the concept of Cheng (orthodox or expected) and then Chi (unorthodox, unanticipated, irregular, surprising elements). Some things to consider:

  • Do not Cheng unless you Chi
  • Engage with the cheng, win with the ch
  • Chi is basically to find and exploit (it is the magical element that should be what gives your enterprise focus and direction)

Some military examples of chi are was the double envelopment, used by Hannibal against the Romans at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC,  Rommel’s use of Blitzkrieg during WWII, General MacArthur’s invasion at Inchon during the Korean War, and General Schwarzkopf’s invasion of Iraq. These maneuver-type of operations were completely unseen and successfully surprised the enemies for quick and total defeat.

The Decathlete and Product Manager

HELSINKI, FINLAND - JUNE 28:  Roman Sebrle of Czech Republic celebrates during the Men's Decathlon 110 Metres Hurdles during day two of the 21st European Athletics Championships at the Olympic Stadium on June 28, 2012 in Helsinki, Finland  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

Just like a decathlete, the Product Manager needs to be proficient in a wide range of skills. The ability to use many different business tools and techniques makes the job not only challenging, but fun. The following are eight key skills that Product Managers should improve upon and impart within their work.
  1. Politician – work with multiple cross-functional teams and understand the needs of all work groups
  2. Presenter/speaker – create professional decks, and be extremely comfortable in front of crowds
  3. Marketer – develop key marketing strategies and positioning for effective market success
  4. Salesperson – have the ability to sell the product to executives for approval, and team members for buy-in and market support
  5. Researcher/Analyst – ability to interact with customers, understand needs, sift through data, and discover unmet opportunities
  6. Innovator – use systematic innovation tools and techniques to develop and implement creative ideas
  7. Leader – inspire team members to follow direction, even without formal authority
  8. Strategist – position the product for optimum market success and competitive advantages

These are not in any specific order, and depend on the how the organization defines the roles and responsibilities. However, most Product Manager roles require all of these at one time or another. Understanding the key elements of each and continually studying and practicing them, will allow any Product Manager to provide ongoing value to the organization.



5 Books for Product Managers

Product managers need to have a wide and deep set of skills. The way to improve skills is through constant reading. Here are five excellent books that can broaden the Product Managers’ perspectives and overall knowledge. To become an expert in one’s field requires strong commitment and daily practice. A goal of one books read per week will make you stand-out and be a source of irreplaceable knowledge and expertise within your organization.

The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox


Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths And Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton

Hard facts

Winning at New Products: Accelerating the Process from Idea to Launch, Third Edition by Robert G. Cooper


Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout


Out of the Crisis by W. Edwards Deming



The Undisciplined Discipline – Product Management


Working in product development roles for over 20 years has made me a bit biased towards product management. One of, if not THE most important role in an organization, product management is one of the jobs that most have no formal training in, management does not quite understand the role within the organization, and with no formal authority over teams, the product manager in many cases is a glorified, and frustrated, project manager (PM). PMs are critical to ensure consumer-focused products are developed, clear market strategy is created and shared within the organization, and a well-planned and executed roll-out is achieved. This should not be the roles of different groups or an outside agency. This must be an internal team activity, led by the PM.

The true importance of product management is shown when looking at top salaries within some of the largest, most successful firms. Google and Facebook PMs are right below the leading software engineers in terms of overall compensation. This alone should demonstrate how these organizations view product management in terms of market success. Software firms get it, and most of the new theories and techniques for product management are developed in Silicon Valley. Unfortunately, for hardware and service firms, product management is still a confusing role. Product management is hardly taught in a formal setting within business and engineering schools.

The majority of schools do not formally teach product management. Usually product management is lumped under an innovation or entrepreneurship course that does not dive deep enough into what is required to be an effective PM. It is time that schools begin dedicated product management programs to raise the level of importance within the business community. PMs need a broad and deep toolbox of skills.

Most PMs become PMs from a technical background. They know the technology or products, have some marketing experience, so get dropped into the role. Unfairly, these individuals scramble to understand what is expected of this new role within the organization, try and gain new skills as needed, but often never have the chance or space to truly understand foundational PM skills. They do the best they can while internal politics and silos pigeon-hole the overall role and create scattered product direction and strategies.

PMs need a deep understanding of technology and a broad range of skills to effectively perform their jobs. Strong new product development (NPD), research, marketing, strategy, and analytical skills are critical, yet most often obtained ad hoc. Worse, if the PM does not reach out to a community of other PMs or dive deeper into the PM world, they will only continue the limited PM role within that the organization defines. This role was usually created years ago when it was realized a PM was needed and someone in marketing was tasked to develop it. Rarely does the role evolve or a professional (i.e., experienced) PM is brought-in to raise the game. Most often, PMs get burned out from being spread too thin, and working on irrelevant tasks that do not focus on value drivers. Turning product management into a profession, like accounting, legal, and finance is critical to gain the credibility the role necessitates.

Product management is a great career. You get to be involved in the most exciting parts of the business and most often are involved in key decisions and direction setting for the firm. You receive a good salary and many times get to travel and learn more about the business than any other role. In addition, every day is a new experience and rarely is a PM bored. On the flip side, product management requires strong commitment and dedication, an open and creative mindset, and the ability to understand the broad business outside of “just the product” – while balancing stress and ongoing frustration. To improve the overall business community it is critical to start training professional PMs to increase their skills and ability to successfully perform the role, while also ensuring the success of new products and drive differentiation for strong competitive advantages.

Leadership & the Product Manager


We all have the capacity to inspire and empower others. But we must first be willing to devote ourselves to our personal growth and development as leaders.

Leadership is a critical skill that Product Managers must learn and grow through their careers. These skills can be cultivated through a hunger for knowledge, ongoing learning and the exponential effect of increasing business experience. Product leaders are able to transform ideas, facilitate debate, and process market signals into actionable vision for a product or segment. Some key areas to focus on:

  1. You are always on stage
  2. Stay calm, even when your hair’s on fire
  3. Transformation
  • Learn and grow
  • Employ integrity in everything you do
  • Engender trust
  • Stand for something important
  • Meet your commitments
  • Help others
  • Include others

Below are some leadership behaviors and mindset every Product Manager should constantly improve upon:

  1. Continuous learning
  2. Strategic thinking
  3. Vision
  4. Networking and bridge building
  5. Be human
  6. Serve customers
  7. Facilitate and collaborate on scientific problem solving (root cause analysis, not assumptions)
  8. Empower others
  9. Lead organizational change
  10. Have strong integrity – do what you say

How do you improve your skills and experience to become a strong leader?

  • Exude Trust
  • Be a student
  • Be a teacher
  • Be a facilitator – encourage discussion about the business
  • Be a supporter – help or coach others
  • Be a recognizer – recognize people’s efforts by reinforcing positive contributions and provide feedback
  • Be a thinker – create your own “you” as you form opinions, gain wisdom, and become a sought after adviser
  • Be a product therapist – listen clearly and help others help themselves through questioning, guiding and suggesting

Be sure to always look, listen and ask plenty of questions. What is most critical is to ensure everyone knows where they are going, when they need to arrive, and what they must achieve. This is very evident while managing the Product Launch Process.

As long as the Product Manager clearly understands the direction KMC needs to move towards, and explains it simply to everyone, the chances of success are greatly improved. Remember, everyone has to be focused on the “same sheet of music”.

The best leaders are storytellers, cheerleaders and facilitators. They reinforce their sense of direction or vision with words and actions. They also must have the ability to make decisions and have the courage to act upon them.

And above all leaders must be positive to encourage and convince stakeholders the direction is the best way to achieve success. As General Colin Powell once said, “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

And as classic strategist Clausewitz said, “Once it has been decided … what the war is about, and what it can do, the way to do it is easily found. But to follow the way unerringly, to carry a plan through, not to be distracted a thousand times by a thousand inducements – that calls for strength of character, assurance, and clearness of mind.”

Famed GE CEO Jack Welch felt the following were guidelines for good leadership:

  • Integrity – do not have two agendas, there is only one way, the straight way
  • Setting a tone – the leader’s intensity determines the organization’s intensity
  • Maximizing the organization’s intellect – be open and spread good
  • People first, strategy second – great strategies need great leaders
  • Informality – make sure everybody counts. Titles do not matter
  • Self-confidence – have the courage to be open. Be comfortable in your own skin
  • Passion – intensity covers sins. Leaders care.
  • Stretch – Reach for more than you thought possible
  • Celebrations – energize your organization. Make sure teams have fun accomplishing their objectives.

Above all else, do not be reckless, do not act cowardly, do not be quick tempered, have a sense of humor and be compassionate. Remember your position and how critical it is to the success of your organization. In addition, always work to create a culture of learning & trust, not one of blame.