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To Lean or Six Sigma – That is the Question …

October 9th, 2012

Lean or Six SigmaWe can’t decide whether to do Lean or Six Sigma …”.  I’m still surprised how many times I hear this, much in the same context of whether to get a Camaro or a Mustang.   There is still this misconception that Lean and Six Sigma are competing methodologies, and that you have to opt for one camp or the other based on some arbitrary preferences.

The CI consulting industry is partly responsible for this, no doubt.  Lean shops push Lean  — Six Sigma shops have all kinds of reasons why Six Sigma is the be-all end-all.   Then the waters were muddied further with the introduction of this thing called Lean Six Sigma, which weaves the lean tools through DMAIC methodology.

So, if you’re a business leader with real problems and real opportunities, how do you make a smart decision, one that has a good chance to deliver a solid ROI and bottom line results?

The simple answer is Let your business tell you what makes sense.   We did a  post that touched on the concept of letting the business pull your CI approach vs. pushing a one size fits all approach, a good example of Lean thinking itself.  We have a very structured assessment model we use when we help our customers design CI programs, but the waters can start to clear with some simple questions …

  1. What kinds of business problems do I need to solve?  Do I have clear quality and defect issues that are hurting the business?  Are they complicated problems, where you really don’t know what’s happening?    Or, am I really trying to increase efficiency, make things run faster, and at a lower cost?   Quality and defect issues may tilt the scales toward Six Sigma.  Efficiency, cycle time, flow almost always point to lean.
  2. When it comes to process maturity and availability of data, where is my organization, really?  Six Sigma is heavily dependent on measurement and analysis of detailed data to get to root cause. What happens if you really don’t have a lot of data, and have a lot of processes that are messy and unstable?  Projects that take a VERY long time to complete, if they ever complete, is a likely scenario.  In this case, then maybe you should look to lean to clean up and stabilize processes, establish some measurement systems, and get some quick results before moving into Six Sigma.
  3. Am I under major budget and time constraints?  Six Sigma can yield some incredible breakthrough results when done correctly, but it takes some upfront investment, in money, resources, and time.   Lean is typically simpler, projects tend to be more incremental, upfront costs are less, and results (albeit in smaller bites) come quicker.
  4. Do I have leadership buyin and active participation?  Getting Six Sigma off the ground really requires some support and infrastructure.  If you have that buyin, there are typically some major gains to be had.   If you don’t, and need to do things more from a grass roots perspective, then lean might be a better answer.
  5. Am I under pressure to show real operational improvements, NOW?  If so, then I’d take a hard look at lean as a starting point.

Download our Lean Quickstart Presentation

our Lean Quickstart .ppt.  There is a short section that provides a high level overview of the differences between Lean and Six Sigma.

Now, before all you purists get mad at me, I know this is overly simplistic.  Did you see all the “may” and “maybes”?   But, you have to admit it is very practical and does provide some realistic guidance, a starting point at least.

Of course, no single one of these questions should be looked at in a vacuum, but I think if you look at all of them in total, you can get some clarity on what might be the best place to start, whether it be Lean, Six Sigma, or a blended Lean Six Sigma approach.  And, remember, different organizations within the company will likely be in different places.  That’s OK.   Remember, be flexible, and let the business pull the CI approach/tools that make sense. Good results will follow ….

As always, I welcome your feedback and thoughts.   Email me if you’d like to discuss in more detail.

  1. September 23rd, 2010 at 15:22 | #1

    Eric,

    Thank you for sharing this article. There is certainly a lot of confusion about Lean, Six Sigma, and even TPM. The closer one looks the more overlap is seen between each of these Continuous Improvement methodologies.

    Thanks,
    Chris

  2. September 24th, 2010 at 09:42 | #2

    Yes, there is Chris. I think too many people look at the methodologies more like “religions” instead of the business tools that they are. All I was saying in the article is that they ARE business tools, plain and simple, and that a good craftsman always picks the right tool for the job.

    Eric

  3. September 24th, 2010 at 12:00 | #3

    It is not a matter of Lean OR Six sigma, it is a matter of lean AND six sigma AND TOC and, and, and. . . Neither or even both together are necessary but not sufficient for a truly lean (and green) business.

    In fact, polishing existing processes wthout first determining if they are actually still appropriate is waste in and of itself. We spend too much time saying, “We’ve always done it that way.” Read Donnella Meadows paper on leverage. The greatest benefit (and most expense) is in paradigm shifting.

    We should first examine our paradigms, gather the VOC/VOB/VOE (etc.) and apply systems thinking to insure we are doing the right, necessary and sufficient thing. Then and only then is lean and six sigma applied.

  4. September 25th, 2010 at 13:42 | #4

    Totally agree. Both of the Lean and six sigma or Lean six sigma is a concepts, it is to helps the company to achieve better goal. No matter what kind of concepts, if it is applicable and able to give better result or benefit the company, just go ahead and doesnt really matter whether it is six sigma, lean or other concepts

  5. Edward Peterson
    October 9th, 2012 at 16:26 | #5

    Lean & Six Sigma create technical experts. If you think about it long enough, you will find that these folks become a constraint to improvement. With any constraint, you need to exploit, subordinate, and elevate it…minimize the time requirement of this constraint.

    Think about developing skills with in-line management to create improvements based on data (lean & six sigma types of basic improvements). Keep the ‘experts’ (constraints) as consultants or dealing with the really tough stuff.

    KTS: There is a book by Mike Rother you might want to read…Toyota Kata.

  6. October 12th, 2012 at 09:19 | #6

    Thanks for the insightful comment. I think this ties in pretty well with what we call our “pull” approach to CI. There is a foundation set of process improvement skills and tools that EVERYONE in an enterprise can use to make improvements. This foundation capability I argue can probably address 85+% of the issues. Of course, as you suggest, there will be the really tough stuff where Lean and/or Six Sigma technical experts are needed. But, clearly, not everyone (or even a small %) need to be experts. The business and the problems being solved will “pull” that expertise when needed.nn1nn1

  7. September 10th, 2013 at 08:03 | #7

    Thanks for sharing this Information.but in reality the Lean and Six Sigma are equally effective.
    So there must be no confusion for Lean Implementation and Six Sigma.

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