There’s a growing list of consulting firms and organizations marketing themselves as Lean Six Sigma (LSS) shops aimed at improving legal business operations, such as managing matters and time and billing, and offering law firms and corporate legal departments options to improve business processes. (And law firm Seyfarth Shaw has long made Six Sigma regimen part of its business plan.) With Big Law stressed to stay big, grow and remain relevant to its existing clients, can LSS put large law firms back on track as a trusted corporate advisor and preeminent legal consul?
Lean Six Sigma (LSS) is a method to improve business process. It was developed by Motorola in 1986 and applied to manufacturing processes. It was rekindled in the 1990s by Jack Welch, who adopted it as a business strategy at General Electric. The “lean” descriptor focuses on improving the speed of business processes. Six Sigma focuses on the quality of process outputs. Lean Six Sigma aims to make workflows more efficient, less costly and with higher quality.
LSS is not project management. Project management comprises numerous processes that include defining project scope, planning and executing tasks, controlling output, and closing the project or matter. Project managers must know what needs to be done, when, and by whom. But it is within a project or matter that LSS can deliver value to the firm.
The Lean Six Sigma Solution
LSS has two goals: reduce variation, which reduces defects; and maintain consistency, which delivers expected results. It is rooted in identifying and completing five phases:
- Define the problem.
- Map or measure the current process.
- Identify the cause of the problem.
- Implement a resolution to the problem.
- Verify a correct result to Step 4 and maintain it.
As a process, LSS appears to have promise. But remember it was designed as a corrective action to improve process quality and efficiency and eliminate waste, such as defects in producing output, under-utilized talent, wait-time between dependent processes, and unplanned extra processing. Before LSS can deliver, law firm management must acknowledge that a project or process is broken and needs fixing. That acknowledgement must transcend down through the firm’s ranks to the process level where non-equity partners perform business operations.
In non-legal industries, LSS involves employees in the improvement process. Employees who actively participate in the improvement process understand their role and importance to the processes and matters, which increases their effectiveness to deliver optimal results. Big Law, however, is reluctant to lend ownership principles to staff so they can manage matters and control business processes.
Big Law has a culture centered on equity partners, who keep decision-making close to the vest rather than trusting others to decide. This is largely an outgrowth of ethical requirements that demand no third parties control lawyers’ decisions and direction in their practice of law. Not distinguishing the business and practice of law makes Big Law slower to respond to business issues and unable to make timely data-driven decisions.
Until Big Law can trust its employees and understand their roles and importance to legal business processes, LSS will not become the über business strategy for law firms that Welch envisioned for GE. Still, LSS can shore up errant processes and bring them in line with law firm business goals in order to better a firm’s chances to retain clients and grow the business.
LSS will not save Big Law. But perhaps it can help — one process at a time.