(Note: this is an occasional series in which I review a question posed in a LinkedIn group I belong to. In the group, I provide a brief answer and I expand upon it here. This question was posed in the Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma and Lean group.)
Recently, in the Continuous Improvement, Lean and Six Sigma group, Dr. Mikel Harry (co-developer of Six Sigma) asked the group, “Setting aside tools and methods, what constitutes the Six Sigma way of thinking?” This question elicited a lot of good comments. I offered a lengthy description of my concept, using a mythical hair stylist, and concluded with the following declaration:
“Six Sigma Thinking is about being able to step into your customers’ shoes and understand their needs, and then consistently meeting them.”
I was pleased to have a contributor to the discussion ask if he could quote me. Not that a quote from me will necessarily sway any boardroom discussion, but I was happy to grant permission. He then asked an interesting question:
Remembering a previous discussion on LinkedIn, what would you say is the difference between Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma?
A question like this is an excellent opportunity to “set aside tools and methods” and give serious thought to what we really believe our continuous improvement mission is. I was brought up on the classical definitions of Six Sigma being a focused approach to identifying and eliminating variation and Lean being a focused approach to identifying and eliminating waste. Both are necessary to understand because variation feeds waste and both represent dead weight losses to the bottom line.
Adding the “Lean” to “Six Sigma” may suggest a “new” strategy or a new opportunity for practitioners to enhance their resumes. To me, the combination suggests a focused approach to analyzing processes in light of what the customer needs that process to achieve for their benefit. Within any process, some (hopefully most) actions or conditions contribute to the customer’s desires (i.e., they add value), some actions or conditions have no effect either way (and are wastes of resources) and some actions or conditions limit or prevent the process from contributing to the customer’s desires.
Once I understand the nature of the loss or process inadequacy (variation or waste), I can take appropriate action (using appropriate tools) to address it (that includes ensuring the right steps are consistently performed every time, not just addressing the wastes).
The commonality between “classic” Lean and Six Sigma is the first step, the careful and thorough defining and analysis of what the customer needs (critical to quality) and how my process either enables or hinders meeting those needs. This ability is as crucial as is the ability to implement a tool.
I have often said that if you are thorough in your defining and committed to the improvement process, the tools will work themselves out. That may be a little simplistic, as there is much benefit in learning and practicing both Lean and Six Sigma tools. But the condition Dr. Harry placed on his original question is really excellent advice. When approaching a process issue, set aside tools and methods and look to understand what is happening. You will find that the best improvement strategy usually makes itself apparent.
A wise but anonymous person once said, “a problem well defined is already half-solved.” Defining what is going on in relation to what should be going on is the core of continuous improvement.
Please share your thoughts below! Mr. Procedure