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Lean Paves the Road for Six Sigma…especially in Service Organizations

November 27th, 2012

It was more than 15 years ago that our firm was first engaged to help a client implement Six Sigma. Along the way, Lean was integrated and the term of art became Lean Six Sigma.  Yet even today, we still begin many conversations with prospective clients who say “we want to do Six Sigma?”   We try to determine what Six Sigma means to them and why they want to do Six Sigma.  Definitions and motivations vary.  None are wrong.  They are individual to the person, the company and the situation.

But to determine the appropriateness of their conclusion, we ask about the nature of their business challenges and the state of their management system.  And at the end of that portion of the conversation we invariably begin to wonder whether the prospective client can benefit greatly by first paving the way with Lean.  And that is really most apparent in Service Organizations where so much of the waste is invisible and Lean’s visual tools brings the waste to light before introducing Six Sigma.

Lean Six Sigma for Services

our latest whitepaper, which discusses how Lean Six Sigma is different in a services environment, as compared to a traditional manufacturing environment.

Lean can be of great benefit before introducing Six Sigma for the following reasons:

  1. Lean makes the implementation of Six Sigma easier by eliminating non-value added activities.  Six Sigma, while robust, like any program that aims to drive change can be a challenge to implement.  You can make Six Sigma’s implementation simpler and more cost effective by first applying Lean.  This is for two reasons. First, you will enhance the effectiveness of the Six sigma tools by enhancing the rate at which information is fed into the Six Sigma problem solving exercises.  Secondly, you may discover after applying Lean, there is insufficient improvement available to merit a Six Sigma project.
  2. Lean develops a culture of improvement which makes implementing Six Sigma easier.  Lean can be implemented more quickly and easily than Six Sigma.  We facilitate workshops that by the end of a week introduce improvements.  People come out energized and feeling they made an impact.  Managers see an ROI on the improvement investment.  The result is a willingness by all levels of the organization to increase their commitment.
  3. Sometimes the problem isn’t going to be solved with Six Sigma tools…or at least not quickly.  When you prioritize problems, you try to separate them into buckets by their fundamental nature so as to gain some economies and structure to any allocation of resources.  Part of the reason is that Six Sigma efforts require more time and effort.  Failing optimize the problem to the applied tools, you may end up trying to apply Six Sigma to problems that can be easily addressed with a Lean exercise.  Even worse, you can work at reducing variation when all you need is to reduce your cycle time to capture the available gain.

We have written a great deal about both Lean and Six Sigma.  We don’t favor one methodology over the other nor do we see them as an “either or” decision.  In the long run, we encourage all our clients to gain proficiency and apply both Lean and Six Sigma.  However, to help our clients succeed in driving ROI and organizational change, we believe that there are advantages to Lean paving the way for Six Sigma, especially in companies just starting out as well as Service Organizations.

Now there is always an exception to a rule such as when prioritized projects clearly require Six Sigma tools.  The business should always “pull” the improvement efforts as outlined in “Let Your Business Define Your Improvement Program”.  But in the case of launching or re-launching a general program, allowing Lean to pave the way for Six Sigma increases the ROI of the continuous improvement effort by using the simplest and most applicable tools first while increasing the effectiveness of subsequent Six Sigma activities.

If you wish to discuss these points, contact me.

  1. October 11th, 2010 at 19:20 | #1

    G’day John
    Nice to finally see the introduction of simplification into the improvement discussions. I’m an ex-manufacturer who learned in the 80’s that picking the low-hanging fruit of improvement got people enthused and motivated to learn the tools most appropriate for the current state of the business. I’ve watched the debate between Lean and Six Sigma for nearly 2 decades and have been alarmed at the territorial issues that have been raised about which is best. Anyone who has been around business for a while knows that the 80/20 Rule applies to improvement programs as well – 20% of a program (eg Lean or Six Sigma or anything else) will deliver 80% of the benefits at the time, so it’s vital to understand all the programs to be able to pick what’s going to be best for the business. Cheers, Ian

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