By Mike Loughrin, CEO for Transformance Advisors
What’s Going On?
It’s time for straight talk about the confusion surrounding lean six sigma.
The kind of discussion which will be uncomfortable for some. The kind of discussion which will get some people angry.
I’ll approach Lean Six Sigma as a contrarian! I will be called a fool and told to take a long hike on a short pier.
Regardless, the time has come for understanding what is happening.
Those with weak hearts should not read any further!
Lean and Six Sigma
Lean is defined as the systematic elimination of waste. There are other definitions, but most focus on waste.
Six sigma is defined as a structured approach for improving the quality of products, services, and processes by reducing variation with a goal of reaching less than 3.4 defects per million opportunities to have a defect. There are other definitions, but most focus on variation.
I have been very comfortable knowing lean focuses on eliminating waste and six sigma focuses on reducing variation.
What does lean six sigma focus on?
Is it a jack of all trades and a master of none?
Ouch to that master of none possibility!
Putting lean and six sigma together brings us to the topic of this article:
From here on out, reader beware.
Confusion Reigns – What is Lean Six Sigma?
A posting on LinkedIn, contained a plea from professor Tony Bendell, seeking the definition of lean six sigma. At last count, he had received over 70 responses. Many respondents claimed to have the answer, but the sheer number of different definitions from so-called experts supports my assessment:
There is no common understanding or definition of lean six sigma.
Professor Bendell’s take on the responses is: “My reason for asking the question was a debate we were having at the British Standards Institute. After receiving all that feedback on LinkedIn, it is very apparent that whilst, in general terms, the broad meaning of Lean Six Sigma is reasonably clear, there is, at present, an absence of a clear agreed definition. That is a shame, and adds to the problems caused by lack of adequate international standardization in this field. Not only is what people teach under this heading somewhat variable, but even what Lean Six Sigma is, is in doubt!
In an ideal world, we would blend the key concepts, primary tools, and approaches for lean and six sigma to create a hybrid super improvement program.
Let’s look closer at those three ingredients:
- Key concepts
- Primary Tools
1. Key Concepts
Five Principles of Lean
Identify Value Streams
Five Step Six Sigma Methodology
While each program has 5 key concepts or steps as a foundation, these concepts or steps are not interchangeable. We are comparing apples and oranges. A true blending of lean and six sigma would need to arrive at a different 5 principles, or a different 5 steps, or some other number of items, to form the foundation of a new hybrid super program.
At present, I have not seen any willingness for lean experts to compromise on the 5 principles of lean and for six sigma experts to compromise on the 5 step DMAIC approach.
There has been no compromise and there has been no blending of these two methodologies!
2. Primary Tools
Value Stream Mapping
Types of Waste
Kaizen Blitz Events
The 5S System
Voice of Customer
Critical to Quality
Standard Deviation Analysis
Statistical Process Control
There is considerable overlap and some of the tools are interchangeable. However, there are certain tools used for lean projects and certain tools used for six sigma projects. A true blending of the tools would require slight modifications, better integration, and a comprehensive understanding of using these tools in a new hybrid super program. For example: I can see using “Voice of the Customer” as a required tool for the lean transformation “Specify Value” principle.
The third consideration is the approach used to manage the multiple projects when lean or six sigma is viewed as a strategic initiative.
Lean Transformation Approach
For organizations which view lean as a strategic initiative, one objective is achieving a cultural transformation where everyone in the organization is empowered to participate in continuous improvement efforts.
The goal is to create a sustainable organization.
Six Sigma Approach
For organizations which view six sigma as a strategic initiative, one objective is establishing a structure of yellow, green, black, and master black belts where employees have different levels of training and everyone participates in improvement efforts led by the black belts.
The ultimate goal is to reduce variability and achieve less than 3.4 defects per million opportunities to have a defect.
In my opinion, there has not been a blending of the key concepts, tools, and approaches from lean and six sigma into a hybrid improvement program. I see many things have been done and even more could be done. The bigger issue is how people still follow their personal passions and primarily use knowledge and experience from lean or they use knowledge and experience from six sigma.
What I mean:
- If you have a personal passion for lean, then you tend to view six sigma as one of the tools you can use to reduce waste.
- If you have a personal passion for six sigma, then you view lean as one of the tools used in the pursuit of reduced variation.
This inherent passion for either lean or six sigma doesn’t matter:
It Is What It Is!
Some of you may be exceptions to the rule. But my experience in talking with those who claim to be lean six sigma experts is they are 95% six sigma. I have not found the elusive expert who has blended the two improvement programs into a hybrid super improvement program.
At this time, the most applicable definition for lean six sigma is:
“three words used for marketing purposes by organizations who provide lean or six sigma consulting and training services.”
These three words sound cool and new. Unfortunately, they mean different things to different people and have only succeeded in creating confusion.
At Transformance Advisors, we very seldom use the term lean six sigma. We are in the group focused on lean transformation programs. We leverage six sigma when there is a clear need to reduce variation using the five step DMAIC methodology. That works for us. We have no qualms with someone running a six sigma project and using value stream mapping to find and eliminate waste. However, both methods do not rise to the level of saying you have integrated the two programs.
What This Means
When you see or hear the term lean six sigma, then think:
- It’s lean and six sigma
- It’s lean or six sigma
- It’s marketing collateral
- It’s time to be skeptical
Maybe, one day, you will actually be communicating with that elusive expert who has invested enormous time and effort into blending lean and six sigma into lean six sigma.
Part of me always seeks to focus on the positive. My first thoughts concerning this article, dealt with finding a definition supporting the ideal of a new hybrid super improvement program.
As reality hit home, I found we are nowhere near the ideal of integrating lean and six sigma into lean six sigma.
Regardless of where we are, the future is bright. I expect the message of this article to become obsolete. At some point in time, we will see a blending of lean and six sigma.
The days of 70 LinkedIn postings with 70 different definitions will be a fond memory!
I’ve gotten lots of praise and some grumbling about this article.
Most lean enthusiasts agree 100%. The most common response is agreement on lean and six sigma as two different approaches. One recent article opened with the question “What is Lean Six Sigma?” and proceeded to explain “lean methodology and six sigma are often confused with one another, but they do have clear distinctions”. The balance of the article never attempted to answer the question. The author had no idea what lean six sigma is and had no answers.
Pure six sigma enthusiasts are hard to find. But when found and asked, they agree lean is different than six sigma.
Most lean six sigma enthusiasts are former six sigma folks who have converted in an attempt to extend their skills and stay busy. They often explain how I don’t understand what they are talking about. As you might suspect, I am not a fan of this response. If they can’t explain it well enough for me, then why am I the one who doesn’t understand?
One unfortunate situation appears common and growing. This is a race to the bottom where people do their own thing and call it lean six sigma. They cut corners on the DMAIC steps from six sigma or don’t work the cultural transformation aspect from lean. In essence, they just light their hair on fire and run around creating chaos.
About Mike Loughrin
Mike is passionate about helping people create sustainable organizations. He brings exceptional experience in both industry and consulting services and has helped organizations such as Levi Strauss, Warner Home Video, Lexmark, and Sweetheart Cup improve their performance. Mike is the CEO for Transformance Advisors and teaches for Louisiana State University Shreveport and Loyola University Chicago.
Using a balanced approach to defining strategy, improving processes, and leveraging the appropriate technology, he delivers results by leveraging skills in leadership, knowledge transfer, project management, and the application of best practices. As a frequent speaker at conferences and other educational events, he provides informative and energizing presentations by leveraging his passion for excellence.
Keeping a commitment to a balanced life, Mike loves downhill skiing, bicycle rides, and hiking in the mountains. See one or more of his trails of the month, such as Tomorrow River or Little Switzerland.
See: LinkedIn profile
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