LEAN Six Sigma | Process Improvement

LEAN/Six Sigma… LEAN Six Sigma… What happened to our Continuous Improvement?

I see a lot of mid-sized companies that have a LEAN Manufacturing team, and/or old vestiges of Lean Six Sigma. There are several problems that I observe:

  • Lean is poorly implemented or not understood
  • Six Sigma was abandoned for lack of time to commit to projects or inability to understand the application of statistics and creating sustainable processes
  • LEAN and Six Sigma are treated separately as competing improvement initiatives

Let’s look at these briefly, one at a time.

Number 1: Lean is poorly implemented or not understood.

While reduction in Time is the primary driver for LEAN initiatives, companies do not seem to understand that LEAN should also be focused on the reduction of WIP inventory, a leading indicator of process inefficiency. Practitioners have the uncanny ability to color and label everything from staplers to the various types of inventory, but the concept of minimizing inventory through optimized processes gets lost in the tactical application of visual workspace cues.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a HUGE proponent of visual workspace tools, but there needs to be a strategic goal and that comes from the Voice of the Consumer (VOC) and financial analytics. It just amazes me when I find well organized, labeled and colored inventory that is not the focus of minimization efforts by one piece flow design, level loading, demand and production planning and other techniques. Reorganizing your inventory isn’t helping. Remember inventory is the physical manifestation of process inefficiencies, period. Use Six Sigma to get to the root cause if you can’t do it with LEAN alone.

Number 2: Six Sigma was abandoned for lack of time to commit to projects or inability to understand the application of statistics and creating sustainable processes.

“We used to do that” – Six Sigma is like looking on the ruins of a once great Greek Empire with all of the potential in the world. A missing piece is sustainability. Companies fail by not creating sustainable solutions. Many do a great job of finding the root causation of business and manufacturing issues, but they fall down at implementing sustainable process solutions.

Another main reason for the continuation of Six Sigma initiatives is the desire to jump to the improve phase of the DMAIC process. Many feel that once they define the problem, that the answer is already understood. They are almost right. Defining a problem is 80% of the solution. It must be vetted. Companies and individuals lack the patience and discipline to work through the entire DMAIC process and jump to solutioning too fast. This may be driven by multiple factors: my “real” job needs attention, targets to meet, no time, etc… Six Sigma is about creating a high statistical probability that the problem and solution are within the problem parameters and resulting solution set.

To bypass the math is to bypass the DMAIC process, and then you never had a Six Sigma program anyway. “The math is hard” – True.. and it must be understood, or it can be easily misapplied. That’s why you need a seasoned MBB consultant (internal or external). Sorry, but most statisticians do not have the business acumen to fill this role. Try it and watch your program dissolve.

Number 3: LEAN and Six Sigma are treated separately as competing improvement initiatives.

LEAN and Six Sigma belong together, along with Strategic Perspective. Tactical applications are indeed where the rubber meets the road, but without a strategic vision and design, they are not optimized. LEAN and Six Sigma have been merged in recent years into LEAN Six Sigma. This allows for the use of DMAIC as a methodology and importing the tools of the LEAN toolkit under one umbrella methodology.

The learning curve is less steep with LEAN and the project duration is generally shorter. The tools are easier and more digestible for the masses. That’s why the maturity model starts with LEAN. When the business problems become more intense and require deep dives, then pull out the Six Sigma. Train your staff accordingly.

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