Three well-known company improvement initiatives are, in my opinion, very badly named. It's almost as if the developers of each of these initiatives sat down and asked, "What can we call this that will cause the most confusion about the method, not to say, animosity toward it?" The three initiatives are Self-Directed Work Teams, Six Sigma, and Lean Manufacturing.

No one in any organization is truly self-directed, so why do we think that teams of operators suddenly will be? It can lead to the idea that teams can do whatever they want because theyre self-directed.

Even worse, I've seen it lead to managers and supervisors saying things like, "They want me to help them? Let them get that information themselves. After all, they're self directed, aren't they?"

If there were ever a label designed to convey little information, it's Six Sigma. What the heck is a sigma? And why are there six of them instead of three? Or 10?

You know full well the answers to these questions and are able to convey them to everyone in the organization. But doesn't it strike you as odd that we have to explain and, often, defend the very name of the initiative before we even get started on the methods and concepts themselves? (Three parts per million? Are you crazy? Even our customers dont require that.)

The term Six Sigma conveys the wrong idea that the tools and methods it comprises are mysterious, arcane and can only be understood by a highly educated elite. (Of course, we then reinforce this wrong thinking by creating... Black Belts.)

What Were They Thinking?

Finally, we come to the most egregious example of all: lean manufacturing. You know... Less Employees Are Needed. Lean and mean. Doing more with less. All the sorts of things managers, supervisors and operators are eager to have inflicted upon them by their senior leadership and some know-it-all consultant, right?

What could the developers of lean concepts possibly have been thinking? It's difficult to say, but they certainly weren't thinking anything like, "The culture change necessary for a truly effective implementation of these concepts and tools will be difficult enough, so we need to pay close attention to how we label this thing weve created."

Again, you're probably thinking: Oh, relax. We know that lean refers to something other than getting rid of employees. Besides, if the label is so bad, why are so many companies implementing the tools and concepts? And besides that, does it really matter what we call it? Isnt it just a matter of semantics, after all?

I think the label is not just inconvenient but actually harmful for two reasons:

  1. It's inaccurate.
  2. It creates misconceptions about the nature of the tools and concepts that it comprises. These misconceptions lead to company leaders implementing it for the wrong reasons and shop-floor operators resisting it for the wrong reasons.

Let's look at each of these more closely.