Lean and Six Sigma is a combination of two powerful process improvement strategies.
Using a combined Lean and Six Sigma approach, manufacturing companies can:
Lean is a philosophy, a theory that acts as a guiding principle for the behaviour of people for improving processes. Adopting a lean methodology involves a cultural commitment of continuous improvement and customer focus through the optimisation of information flow.
Lean seeks to achieve small, incremental changes in processes to impact speed, efficiency and quality. It focuses on eliminating ‘waste’ - tasks that absorb time and resources but add no value to the customer or business.
Lean was first pioneered by Ford in the early 1900’s, but more famously it can be attributed to Taiichi Ohno’s articulation of the Toyota Production System (TPS).
This is where he first identified the seven types of waste (“muda” in Japanese):
Taiichi Ohno’s mantra was “Waste is worse than theft”. Think about this in the context of your business. If you know about waste and carry on with no actions to reduce it, it could be argued that you are stealing time and money from your company and your customers.
There are five key principles behind lean thinking. These were born out of the management principles developed by Taiichi Ohno at Toyota.
The table below shows some common lean tools and techniques:
While Lean focuses on identifying ways to streamline processes and reduce waste, Six Sigma aims to make processes more precise through the application of statistical methods to reduce variation. It is a methodology, a defined system, providing organisations with a structured method for fixing complex and chronic problems.
The roots of Sigma date back to the 18th century, and Carl Frederik Gauss, who introduced it as a statistic to describe the standard deviation. However, the term Six Sigma was coined in 1980 by Motorola engineer Bill Smith who used it for his quality management process, where he introduced it as an approach to improve the quality and capability of processes, and products.
The Six Sigma method of problem-solving; Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, and Control (DMAIC), specifies a sequence of phases to drill-down to the problem root cause, eliminating or reducing the impact and making sure the improvement is sustained:
Define the problem, goals, customer requirements and the business case for change;
Measure the process accurately to determine current, baseline performance;
Analyse and determine the root cause(s) of the problem;
Improve the process by eliminating or reducing the probability of root cause recurrence;
Control and sustain the improved performance by monitoring the process.
The table below shows some common six sigma tools and techniques used at each of the DMAIC phases:
Organisations benefit from combining the differences of Lean and Six Sigma: the customer-orientation and focus on eliminating waste inherent in Lean, and the statistical tools and systemic root cause analysis, defect reduction, and capability improvement strategies of Six Sigma.
A Lean and Six Sigma approach uses the Six Sigma DMAIC phases, but the toolkit comprises both Lean and Six Sigma tools. And like Lean, there is a focus on a collaborative team effort and embedding a continuous improvement culture.
Lean and Six Sigma offers a number of substantial benefits to organisations.
Most importantly, Lean and Six Sigma:
Creates efficient processes so you can deliver more products to customers, meaning your customers will be more satisfied than ever before.
Increases revenue by streamlining processes so they can be completed faster and more efficiently at no cost to quality, so you can provide more products or services using less resources.
Reduces costs by eliminating waste activities that add no value to the customer or your business, and by equipping you with the right tools to solve problems that cost your business money.
Develops effective teams by empowering employees to own process improvement, leading to improved staff morale and increased job satisfaction.
Lean and Six Sigma is not just for manufacturing.
It can benefit organisations of any size, in any industry.
Why? Because all organisations have problems to solve, all organisations have waste, and all organisations want to grow profits and reduce costs.
Healthcare - Lean and Six Sigma can vastly improve service delivery. In the Healthcare industry for example, it can increase the amount of time caregivers are able to spend with patients, reduce time spent on paperwork, and reduce patient waiting times.
Financial services - As a process-driven service industry, financial services companies are well placed to leverage the benefits of Lean and Six Sigma. It enables them to meet customer requirements faster and more accurately.
Retail and hospitality - Areas that can be improved by Lean and Six Sigma include facilities management, stock and inventory management, streamlining order processes and reducing customer wait times.
Education - Many of the activities that go into providing an education are repeatable processes, and with an increasing demand for schools to be more efficient and drive more resource to the classroom, Lean and Six Sigma is becoming more and more recognised in the sector.
Office-based businesses - Lean can easily be applied to office environments where lots of non-value adding tasks are being carried out, such as insufficient equipment or duplicating processes.
Lean and Six Sigma can also benefit organisations in:
A Lean and Six Sigma approach focuses on five, all-encompassing areas:
Manufacturing Processes -
Use Lean to eliminate waste activities and streamline and error-proof remaining processes to ensure they are as efficient and effective as possible. Use Six Sigma to solve chronic problems, ensure measurement systems are accurate, identify root cause of problems, and improve process capability scores.
Invest in managers so they have the time and the tools to support teams effectively. Solving problems and delivering positive outcomes should be the responsibility of employees at every level. Managers therefore need to build time into daily workloads for people to apply process improvement measures.
You want to create a culture where everyone in the organisation feels comfortable to put their hand up and say ‘I’ve got an idea for a process improvement’. Conduct a mindsets and behaviours survey so that you understand the current culture, and analyse the results to determine the steps and actions to take to drive a lean culture.
Build capabilities with Lean and Six Sigma training and mentoring.
Central to all areas of your business should be the outcome for the customer. Refine the processes, management, culture and organisation so you can deliver what customers need, when they need it, and to the required standard.
A Lean and Six Sigma implementation plan will typically follow these five steps:
Having a strategy and vision in place is key to the success of any improvement initiative. You need clear objectives and goals based on the strategic focus of the business. All stakeholders and everyone in the C-suite should be on board and aligned to the same goals.
Senior leaders need training in the fundamentals of Lean and Six Sigma and how to apply the tools and techniques.
VSM enables teams to visualise how the end-to-end process works, evidence actual performance, and identify waste. The key people, resources, activities and information flows involved in operations are depicted graphically, providing a snapshot of performance. Gemba involves direct observation of a current process; taking photos and videos, sampling parts, copying documents, and speaking to staff responsible for the running of it.
Applying these tools should illuminate a number of opportunities for improvement.
Piloting Lean and Six Sigma projects gives you the opportunity to assess the impact of change initiatives before you roll it out to all areas of the business. And seeing the impact of small changes will help build momentum and positivity amongst staff.
Project teams will need to be trained in Lean and Six Sigma tools and techniques.
Implementing Lean and Six Sigma practices across your organisation isn’t a quick solution. It can take place over a number of months and years, depending on the size of your organisation, how much capacity you have for change and the resources you have available.
Choosing which projects to rollout first should be based on a trade-off between speed and sustainability.
Improvements you make to your processes need to be sustainable. Document best practice, update standard procedures and provide comprehensive training so teams are clear on the new processes. Provide opportunities for staff to give feedback on new processes, and share ‘before and after’ metrics so everyone in the business can see the results of change.
One of the main reasons improvement initiatives fail is because not enough focus is given to the cultural side; changing habits, ways of working and belief systems.
You need to create a culture where everyone in the business can see and embrace process improvement; to see waste and remove it, to question everything they do and to work together efficiently and effectively.
But getting anyone to change their mindset and behaviours is hard. Changing the culture of a whole organisation is even harder.
The Four Levers of Influence Model has been used by business leaders for over a decade to inspire change. It claims that four things need to happen to make change happen, and they need to happen in relative symmetry:
Employees need to understand what you need them to do differently. They need to understand why. They need to be equipped with the skills and the capacity to behave in the new way. And they need to see senior leaders role modelling the new behaviours.
A Lean and Six Sigma practitioner’s ‘belt’ refers to their level of experience. They may be a white, yellow, green, black, or master black belt. These roughly correspond to their hierarchy in martial arts.
Lean and Six Sigma Master Black Belt - A highly experienced black belt.
Lean and Six Sigma Black Belt - Has expert knowledge of the DMAIC methodology, Lean methods and team leadership.
Lean and Six Sigma Green Belt - Has strong knowledge of the DMAIC methodology and Lean methods, but does not have experience with advanced statistical tools.
Lean and Six Sigma Yellow Belt - Has completed training in the fundamental concepts and tools of Lean and Six Sigma.
Lean and Six Sigma White Belt - Has completed a small amount of Lean and Six Sigma awareness training.
In building a Lean and Six Sigma team, ‘belts’ are only part of the picture. You also need organisational support and leadership.
So what does a typical Lean and Six Sigma team look like?
Training for Lean and Six Sigma certifications can take many forms, and may be classroom or online based.
Training usually takes between 40 and 60 hours of guided learning for belts. Certification exams are multiple choice and can be taken in the classroom or online.
Organisations who want to establish Lean and Six Sigma programs may also take a ‘train the trainer’ approach, where those leading the initiative train fully in Lean and Six Sigma and then provide in-house training to wider team members.
Beyond being able to apply Lean and Six Sigma tools and techniques, there are many advantages of becoming certified: