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Six Sigma, Lean Sigma, Seyfarth Lean, Kaizen, and Legal Lean Sigma are all terms that describe an approach to improving efficiency and effectiveness. While a thesaurus may say “efficiency” and “effectiveness” are synonyms, business writers have coined different definitions. “Effective” means doing the right things and “efficiency” means doing them well. Businesses continue to explore continuous improvement projects, as a means to improving efficiency and effectiveness. And, increasingly, general counsels are asking their law firms to provide greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Clifford Chance, a top-ten law firm, has developed its own methodology, called “Continuous Improvement.” Seyfarth Shaw, an AmLaw 100 firm, has developed SeyfarthLean. Many large businesses tout their investments in Six Sigma, Lean thinking, and project management principles of all types. Certification programs, including those specifically targeted at the legal world, are increasing. While conversations around these topics are on the rise, many law firms remain skeptical. They are trying to avoid devoting valuable resources to something which may just turn out to be yet another fad.

Richard Susskind, an independent adviser to national governments and international professional firms, has been writing about the future of law firms and other professions for about 20 years. In his new book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future, he argues that the landscape that lawyers and law firms face is changing rapidly. So, get ready. Change ushers in new languages, new ideas, and many conflicting opinions.

How can law firms understand all of the many buzzwords that continue to be thrown around? And if you are not in the legal profession, are these terms relevant to your work? I would argue that if you are using your brain, rather than some kind of equipment to accomplish your project work, and face rapid change, you should pay attention. In this blog, I will outline some questions that law firms and businesses should be discussing before they take on any kind of continuous improvement project. But first, some definitions.

“Continuous improvement” projects are projects designed to improve a process by doing two things. First, the team reduces waste by carefully identifying and analyzing all of the steps in an existing process, and eliminating any unnecessary steps. Second, they attempt to find ways to do the remaining steps in a more efficient manner.

Organizations, seeking to improve both efficiency and effectiveness, have adopted a variety of tools, some of which are woven into the fabric of a continuous improvement project. In this blog, I’ll discuss two. “Six Sigma” is a set of tools, developed by Motorola in the late 1980’s, to reduce waste, and thus improve efficiencies. Perhaps one of its greatest benefits is the focus on the bottom line and a disciplined approach that provides quantification of the cost savings.

“Lean thinking,” while similar in its overall objective, takes a different approach. Developed by Toyota, its focus is on removing tasks that don’t add value to the process, and introducing a system for managing the flow of work from point to point. The goal is to reduce the number of steps and the time it takes to do those steps.

I am a huge fan of improving effectiveness and efficiency levels, even if the billable hour model does not reward it. I’m also a fan of regularly delivering value to the client. I think some caution is needed before we apply some of these principles to work done by humans.

W. Edwards Deming, the twentieth century statistician was a pioneer in the field of continuous improvement processes. He famously said: “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” It is important to focus on the fact that Deming’s methods were developed in a machine world. Many of the projects being done today, both in businesses and law firms, are being done by humans. Also, Deming’s process improvement studies were largely driven by measurement and statistics.

But, humans are not like machines, and the application of Six Sigma principles to tasks performed by people, rather than machines, doesn’t fit. While two machines with the same specs will perform similarly, humans vary considerably in the way they perform. I’ve written about this in a blog that you can find here. In short, humans vary considerably, from day to day, and from each other. They vary in many ways, including, intellectual capacity, instruction processing, distractibility, curiosity, energy, focus, and processing speed.

Here are some questions that law firms and other organizations should ask before they embark on a continuous improvement project.

Are you talking about a repeatable process or are you talking about a complex project or legal matter?

There may be a number of repeatable processes involved within any complex project or legal matter. Yet, it’s important to understand the difference between a repeatable process and a project. A process is a step-by-step set of actions taken to achieve a result. If you are regularly repeating that process, you likely stand to gain from automation. Continuous improvement projects involve an effort to streamline a repeatable process to reduce the defects (or mistakes) and therefore, improve efficiencies.

It’s important to understand the difference between a repeatable process and a project. Click To Tweet

Before you decide to use the standard process mapping tools, typically used in a continuous improvement project, make sure you are talking about a repeatable process. When you can use automation to improve a repeatable process, you can achieve cost savings. That said, you have to be repeating that process often enough to recoup the cost of your effort to find efficiencies.

In a Clifford Chance white paper on its experiences, it notes that one of its first projects was to streamline the process of producing bound volumes of documents. This is an excellent example of a process that benefits from automation. The firm noted significant cost savings from that project.

Is some level of curiosity and industry knowledge likely to result in an improved outcome for your client?

In the Clifford Chance white paper, the author notes: “Almost any task that has a beginning, a middle and an end can be construed as a process, including the practice of law.” For those who are concerned about artificial intelligence taking over the practice of law, or other highly paid professions, that may seem like a disturbing thought. So, let’s dissect this concern a bit.

I’ve written before on the difference between complicated and complex projects. In essence, complicated projects are typically linear, predictable, and can be modeled with logic. Complex projects have too many factors involved to be predictable and often evolve in response to real-time decision-making. Building a bridge is a complicated project. Designing a bridge is a complex project.

The same idea applies to tasks. And, so I ask: Are the tasks that are being done by your lawyers (or other highly paid workers) dependent on a high level of curiosity and industry knowledge? Or, could a smart computer do these tasks?

In his book The Undoing Project – A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, Michael Lewis explores the work that two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, have done. One result of their work is that we now are getting close to medical diagnostic software that is more reliable than the diagnostics of the most well trained doctors. Humans are prone to a number of biases, not to mention exhaustion and error.

There are similar efforts in the legal world – to develop software that thinks better than a lawyer – as well as many other industries and professions. That may seem scary, as law firms and businesses continue to hustle for work, and as clients continue to expect more for less.

In the foreseeable future, we are likely to get to the point where computers are able to give sound advice, if asked the right question. I don’t believe we are close to the point of computers being able to effectively guide clients through a complex maze of decisions. That requires people with high intelligence and curiosity. But law firms can’t stick their heads in the sand. It may be right around the corner.

Will the data that you accumulate for any Six Sigma efforts add value for your client?

In asking this question, I am referring to a specific kind of data. Lawyers are very familiar with the notion of data collection, particularly the eDiscovery collection of massive numbers of emails and documents that must be reviewed. What they are less familiar with are the kinds of statistical data reports that are routinely generated in a true continuous improvement or Six Sigma project.

Proponents of Six Sigma often have math minds, and tend to get excited about statistical data. They use statistical programs, like MiniTab. They think differently from most of the lawyers I know, who tend to be more language oriented. There are some people who have both strong math and strong language minds, but most people are in one camp or the other.

From my experience, a meeting of more language oriented lawyers, called to review statistical data, or develop a project that will produce the kind of statistical data seen in a Six Sigma project, is likely to result in glazed over looks.

So, I ask again, will this statistical data have value to your client? I have expressed my concerns about the validity of applying a concept that was developed for measuring machine defects to the work done by humans. Perhaps we could just improve the process without spending as much time on the Six Sigma part.

When I built Smart Projex I focused on developing a streamlined approach to the proper management of complex projects to ensure that teams were working on the highest-value tasks and doing them in the most efficient way. You can learn more about it here. If you’d like to talk about continuous improvement projects or legal project management, give me a call.