Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement

What is Lean?

Lean (also known as Lean Production, Lean Enterprise, and Lean Thinking) involves a set of principles, practices and methods for designing, improving and managing processes. The development of Lean is attributed to Taiichi Ohno’s articulation of the Toyota Production System. Ohno aimed to improve efficiency by eliminating particular kinds of waste (called MUDA, in Japanese) which absorb time and resources but do not add value. Examples include mistakes which need rectification, unneeded process steps, movement of materials or people without a purpose, unnecessary waiting because upstream activity was not delivered on time, and the creation of goods or services that are not really needed by end users.

A Lean process reflects the goal of continually reducing waste and improving work flow to efficiently produce a product or service that is perceived to be of high value to those who use it. Implementation of Lean involves systematic process assessment and analysis. The preliminary stages of Lean assessment include “value stream mapping” in which key people, resources, activities and information flows required to deliver a product or service are made explicit and depicted graphically. The value stream map is a key tool for identifying opportunities to reduce waste and more tightly integrate process steps, thus improving process efficiency.

Improvement approaches such as Lean and Six Sigma grow out of a long tradition of quality and process improvement efforts in manufacturing. For example, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management and Frank Gilbreth’s “time and motion” studies were among the earliest prescriptions for improving the quality and efficiency of production processes. Current thinking about process improvement draws heavily on the ideas of W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran and other statisticians whose data analysis tools and management philosophies were initially adopted by Japanese manufacturers, and have come to be known as Total Quality Management (TQM) or Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI).

What is Six Sigma?

Six Sigma, like Lean, is a business management strategy used to improve the quality and efficiency of operational processes. While Lean focuses on identifying ways to streamline processes and reduce waste, Six Sigma aims predominantly to make processes more uniform and precise through the application of statistical methods to reduce variation.

Six Sigma was originally developed by Bill Smith of Motorola in 1986 as a way of eliminating defects in manufacturing, where a defect is understood to be a product or process that fails to meet customers’ expectations and requirements.

The name Six Sigma refers to a quality level defined as the near-perfect defect rate of 3.4 defects per million opportunities. As a process improvement strategy, Six Sigma gained much attention through its association with General Electric and its former CEO Jack Welsh.

A variety of systematic methodologies for identifying, assessing and improving processes have been developed as part of the Six Sigma approach. The Six Sigma improvement model, Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, and Control (DMAIC) specifies the following sequence of steps for understanding and improving a process:

  1. Defining the project goals and customer (internal and external) requirements;
  2. Measuring the process to determine current performance;
  3. Analysing and determining the root cause(s) of relevant defects;
  4. Improving the process by eliminating defect root causes, and
  5. Controlling future process performance.

Another Six Sigma methodology, Design for Six Sigma (DFSS), is used to systematically design new products and services that meet customer expectations and can be produced at Six Sigma quality levels.

Six Sigma also involves the training and certification of designated process specialists called yellow belts, green belts, black belts and master black belts. The ‘belts’ work within organisations to help guide Six Sigma improvement efforts.

Six Sigma project and program outcomes include; the expectation that process quality improvements be translated into financial metrics, customer centric enhanced or new process performance, people development through capability upskill, cross functional teamwork and improved organisation communication. Value is critically assessed where the active involvement of top management is expected in all Six Sigma initiatives.

Various combinations of Lean and Six Sigma techniques have been developed, which frequently are described as Lean Six Sigma approaches. The blended approach points to the common process-centered and data-driven foundations of both Lean and Six-Sigma. The combined approach sees organisations benefiting from utilising both the customer-orientation and focus on eliminating waste inherent in Lean along with the statistical tools and systematic defect reduction strategies featured in Six Sigma.

Lean Six Sigma

Lean (also known as Lean Production and Lean Thinking) . . .
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People Development

Less experienced Lean Six Sigma project . . .
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Project Management

Organisational change is generated through projects . . .
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