Lean and Six Sigma in 5 Minutes or Less

Lean and Six Sigma (sometimes combined to into the term Lean Six Sigma) are two methodologies for identifying and resolving process related inefficiencies.  In this blog post, I would like share with my readers an overview of each and how my book, The Elegant Process ties in.

First, What is Lean? Lean is a series of process flow principles based on the Toyota Production System.  Lean, depending on the application is sometimes referred to generically as Lean Thinking  (in the non-manufacturing environment) or Lean Manufacturing.  Its claim to fame is that by following the [Lean] process principles, the producer can greatly reduce the time it takes to deliver value to the customer.  A by-product of this just-in-time delivery is the elimination of waste — waste which adds significant cost to produce the product or service.   By reducing delivery time and waste, and thus maximizing value, both the consumer and the producer benefit through lower costs (producer wins) and higher quality (consumer wins).

Second, What’s up with the book? I often describe The Elegant Process as a prequel to Lean.  Before we can become fully enlightened in the ways of Lean, we must begin to think in terms of process.  I call it box-and-arrows thinking (ability to see what’s happening and draw a flow chart in your head to describe it).  In order to take full advantage of the Lean concepts, we must be able to describe or map our business as a series of processes, known as the Value Stream.  Lean principles can then be used to make judgments on the value of the individual actions that comprise those processes.  The book explains all of this using real-life examples and practical applications.

Third, Six Sigma – Never heard of it. Six Sigma is a statistics-based, problem-solving methodology.  This disciplined approach traditionally has five phases: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control.  Those certified in Six Sigma generally fall into three categories of increasing skill level:  Green Belt, Black Belt, and Master Black Belt.  There are other “belts” that many training companies sell, but, I, personally think much of the belt terminology should be reserved for the Six Sigma elites to debate in online forums.  (Full disclosure: I am a Black Belt, maybe a Master by some definitions.  However, Dave Bell calls me a Six Sigma Ninja and that sounds much cooler!)  Six Sigma’s usefulness is in its ability to reduce the variation in a process.  Example:  The Wendy’s in Hidenwood should use Six Sigma to figure out how to get my drive through order right, even just once.

Lean and Six Sigma contain a ton of useful and nifty tricks for evaluating and troubleshooting business, operational, or manufacturing processes.  Both sets of tools can be leveraged to lower costs and increase the quality of goods and services.  The down side of both Lean and Six Sigma is that they are full of nuanced terminology, flow charting, and, worst of all, mathematical analysis.  Many savvy and intelligent business people get turned off by all the geekdom and either dump the idea of Lean Six Sigma or hire a Ninja.  As I work with groups to solve their process problems, I take great care not to go Star Trek on them. Ultimately, my goal, both in the book and in life, is to help businesses succeed, not impress them with Minitab.

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Pimp My Pup and Other Important Concepts

My daughter’s “Invention Convention” is this week.  Her assignment – to conceptualize an invention, explain how it might work, and build a prototype.  Being  an inventor myself, I was really excited to watch how her mind works.  She invented the “Paw Wash.”  I encouraged her to name it “Pimp My Pup” and then had to explain to her what a pimp was.  She told me that “Pimp My Pup” was inappropriate.  What could I say to that?  Fast-forwarding to the point I’m trying to make, she (without any input from me) outlined the key elements in successfully developing a product or service.

  1. “A Clean Dog is a Happy Dog” – Who doesn’t want man’s best friend to be happy?  Intuitively she connected with pet owners.  She put forth a solid, concise call to action. Reading between the lines, she said to would-be consumers of the Paw Wash, “If you do not keep your pet clean, it will not be happy and you will not be a responsible pet owner.”  She was able to put herself inside the mind of the consumer, anticipate the need, and draw upon the emotion that often guides our decision-making.
  2. “Before and After” – On the left side of her display, entitled, “Before,” is a photo of a dirty, muddy, and shivering little pooch.  The photo on the right highlights a bright white, poofy fur-ball whose caption is “After.” The before-and-after illustration sets the stage for a clearly defined representation of what the invention is intended to accomplish.  Simply put, it sets a clear, unambiguous standard for success.  Being able to define the meaning of success early on in a project sends a clear message to our team – “This is where we are going. This is our VISION.”
  3. The Process.  In order to create the value outlined in our vision and deliver the promised results, we must have a plan, or process, on how to get there.  My 12 year old protégé created the plan on how to go from “dirty dog with a guilt-ridden owner” to “a happy dog and self-assured owner.” That plan was nothing more than a step-by-step process that any reasonable, competent user could understand and follow.  Having a clearly lit path is mission critical to flawless execution.

Whether the goal is to engineer a new product or re-engineer a new process, certain elements must be in place to ensure a successful implementation.  1) Understand what the customer really wants.  2) Define meaningful success.  3) Execute a plan that will deliver the desired results.  Extracting these simple lessons from a pseudo-science project reminds me why I love what I do and why I am such a such a hit at parties.