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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1 Comment

  1. Gary Netherton

     /  January 26, 2011

    Isn’t it interesting that if one really steps back and looks at problem-solving, there are so many techniques and methodologies out there to help solve the problem. There are, however, few that help prevent the problem to begin with. In my experience, Six Sigma is “brought out” after the proverbial stuff has hit the fan.

    “There’s a problem. We need a Six Sigma project to solve it.”

    In many – if not most – cases, had the team completed the up-front work to truly plan out a process (I am speaking from a manufacturing perspective, but I am certain that it applies to any industry), “needing a Six Sigma Project” would truly be a Six Sigma process… you’d only need to do it 3.4 times out of a million tries. (Only slight hyperbole there.)

    I like your take on looking at things as a process. The first thing that should be done in a manufacturing setting is to map out the process. From there all else flows (PFMEA, control plan, work instructions, etc.). As Mary Poppins says, “Well begun is half done.” (NOTE: Aristotle said that before Poppins, but he didn’t have a cool umbrella.)

    Yes, I am also a certified Black Belt (by two different organizations, no less). And a Project Management Professional, to boot. One thing that I’ve learned throughout all of my training and experience is this — we cannot afford to wait and plan… but there is always money to go back and fix it. Or go out of business.


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