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Lean Sigma’s Lesson Number One: Be Receptive to Respond Effectively

December 2, 2019

Innovative law schools no longer just offer a basic menu of traditional courses.  As the legal profession changes, so too must legal education.  Suffolk student Radhika Akhil introduces readers to how the business concepts of process improvement and project management are slowly, but surely, making their way into the legal profession and (at least at Suffolk!) law school.  During her 2L year, Radhika earned a certified Yellow Belt as part of the Legal Lean Sigma Institute and is taking the lead among the next generation of law students with her new and improved way of thinking through complex legal and business problems. 

 

Any avid fan of Mulan 2 knows that the first lesson in mastering the martial arts is not simply about learning the stances and moves.  It is just as important to learn to be receptive to one’s environment. [1] After all, the first step in responding effectively to the environment is to be receptive to it.  Similar to mastering the martial arts, lawyers must also be receptive to the environment around them in order to respond effectively.  Stereotypically speaking, the legal tradition is infamous for being reluctant – if not averse – to shifting tides due to our inherently cautious nature. Adopting Legal Lean Sigma philosophy, however, provides a simple but elegant solution to combining our guarded nature as well as responding to changing tides.

 

 

To provide some background, Lean Sigma philosophy is actually a coming-together of two separately developed methodologies.  First, “Lean” refers to the various techniques by which we eliminate waste.  For clarity, waste is anything superfluous to the bare minimum required in creating value to the product that the client is seeking.  Lean can be traced back to the automobile factory floor; it was arguably most popularized by Toyota’s Just In Time manufacturing process with its focus on eliminating waste. [2] Toyota’s philosophy to eliminate waste clearly proved to be a strong strategy as they became, and still remain, one of the most well-known automobile manufacturers internationally.  Second, “Six Sigma” refers to various techniques by which we reduce variation in manufacturing products.  Its main goal is to achieve consistency and reduce if not eliminate undesirable variation, which translates to satisfying clients’ expectations.  [3] Without delving too deeply into actual calculations, the term itself comes from mathematical formulas that deal with determining the number of products that fail to meet specifications.  “Six Sigma” specifically translates to a maximum of 3.4 defects per 1 million products; this is the ideal that we strive toward when applying this methodology.  The framework used to achieve this ideal is succinctly organized in the acronym “DMAIC” (which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control).  DMAIC is the order of operations we follow when tackling issues regarding less-than-ideal client deliverables that stem from bad processes.  Through DMAIC, we come to fully understand the current process in question, brainstorm various possible fixes, and ultimately end up with a newly improved process that we ensure achieves the goals we want it to.  If it is for implementing a completely new process flow, “DMADV” (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify) provides a similar step-by-step plan in establishing the new process.  In short, Lean Sigma aims to remove waste and reduce errors, thereby achieving the right results the first time around. [4]  

 

I was first introduced to the Lean Sigma methodology and how it applies to the law through a course offered during the 2019 Spring semester at Suffolk University Law School. The course essentially familiarized us with the foundational principles of Lean Sigma through real-world examples and in-class exercises. In class, we examined various common legal processes (such as time-keeping, closing a real estate deal, e-discovery, etc.) and identified various common process flow issues and the resultant failures for each legal process.

 

We applied the DMAIC technique in order to systematically understand and improve each process, i.e. we defined the problem, measured data points, analyzed the data, brainstormed and analyzed the strengths/shortfalls of various possible improvements, and finally, implemented a system of checks to ensure control.  To be concise, the methodology was teaching us to be receptive to the (simulated) environment around us in order to respond effectively – and do so in a systematic, disciplined way.  At the heart of this methodology, as I gathered, was the subconscious understanding that we were trying to respond to the often-repeated infomercial complaint, “There must be a better way!” [5] 

 

To drive this philosophy further home, we also looked at various real-life examples of Lean Sigma being implemented in action. [6] The fruits of our labor culminated in us attaining Yellow Belt certifications in Legal Lean Sigma® Process Improvement and Project Management, identifying (and distinguishing) us as those who understood and could employ Legal Lean Sigma methodologies and tools.  As a quick explanation of the certification framework, there are four belts (White, Yellow, Green and Black), each signifying a higher level of mastery of Legal Lean Sigma principles.  The belts are achieved via various certification and training programs, such as the course I took, and projects. [7] 

 

Though nowhere near mastering Lean Sigma principles, I quickly realized the true power of such simple ideas, as especially relating to the legal world.  Even in my initial experience as a law clerk, how many times had I spent frantically scribbling down vague notes of tasks I had completed in order to submit my timesheet for billing?  How many follow-up phone calls and emails had I sent back and forth chasing after documents I needed for different cases?  Through my experience, I saw where along my daily processes there were process flow obstacles that led to errors, wasted time, etc. and how DMAIC could contribute toward better outcomes.  In fact, coming from a Lean Sigma perspective, I wondered:  if I am experiencing these frustrations and seeing opportunities for improvement as a temporary law clerk, imagine how much more complicated it is – and how much room for improvement there is – for full-time, busy lawyers! 

 

Living in our technology-dependent present, perhaps the first question that comes to mind is, “Isn’t technology the answer to human errors and inefficiencies? Why not just automate everything?”  There is some validity to that contention.  For instance, we can make sure we do not miss an important deadline by putting reminders or alarms in our phones.  As another example, we can set up an alert system to warn us if we are about to email the wrong recipient.  Technology certainly has evolved in our minds to be the ultimate panacea to modern day problems, but there are a few issues with that.  First, a quick glance at how many IT help desk tickets are still created at any given time at any organization reveals that our technology is still imperfect. Sometimes, we have no control over faulty technology, for example, if there is a power outage following a storm.  Other times, human error is the cause of faulty technology – ever been locked out of an account by repeatedly typing the wrong password, for instance?  At the end of the day, technology is a tool just like any other; it is only as good as the user and only serves certain functions well. 

 

To be clear, Lean Sigma does recognize the potential that technology has in process improvement but does not automatically defer to its implementation as a means of doing so.  Further, Lean Sigma does not necessarily advocate for implementing the most efficient route. The goal is to implement a process that is the best way to complete a task with as few errors as possible the first time around, even if that means choosing a process that requires additional steps.  We are striving toward a maximum of 3.4 defects out of 1 million products after all. 

 

This practice, and more broadly, these concepts have a place in the law.  Some firms are already leading the charge on implementing this methodology in their own practices.  For instance, Baker McKenzie proudly advertises its recently developed Legal Project Management process. [8] As another example, Hunoval Law Firm has utilized the methodology in their services as well in order to achieve high quality services at a faster rate. [9] We are now at the phase where Lean Sigma is no longer just a business buzzword but a methodology requiring adherence to/implementation of, as more clients are looking for cost-savings and efficiency when they seek out legal services.  At the end of the day, we are client-driven; our world heavily revolves around client delivery and satisfying client expectations.  We must be receptive to our environments in order to respond in the most effective way.  As a future lawyer, I am preparing myself by learning to follow the first lesson of Lean Sigma methodology:  be receptive to respond effectively. 

 

Notes  

[1] For a better explanation, see the master at work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3lvmq-iG4c

[2] Toyota explains the Just In Time (JIT) process here: https://blog.toyota.co.uk/just-in-time

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Sigma (detailed explanation of history and methodology).  

[4] For more explanation on how these two methods work together, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lean_Six_Sigma. 

[5] The course I took was taught by Adjunct Professor Catherine Alman MacDonagh. She developed Legal Lean Sigma® and is the Founder & CEO of Legal Lean Sigma Institute LLC, which provides consulting expertise as well as Lean Sigma certification courses and workshops for legal and business professionals. Legal Lean Sigma programs are the first to be designed exclusively for the legal profession.  See http://legalleansigma.com  

[6] For an example of the philosophy in action, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izjhx17NuSE.  Who knew shopping carts could be revamped?

[7] For a more detailed explanation of what the four belts signify and how to achieve them, see http://legalleansigma.com/certifications-and-programs/#private.  

[8] See Baker McKenzie’s video below or here, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4WbhQwHtTY. [9] A report on Hunoval’s process improvement is available at http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/foreclosure_firm_goes_statistical_to_improve_speed_and_quality/

 

About the Author 

Radhika Akhil is SJC Rule 3:03 Certified Student Attorney at Suffolk University Law School Health Law Clinic

 

 

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