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Lean Without Six Sigma May Be a Failing Proposition

Posted by kyle toppazzini on Wed, Sep 19, 2012

lean six sigma, sigma, lean, assessment,leanIn a Harvard Business Review article Tom Davenport writes, “I hope that when companies start getting excited again about process improvement, they resist one method for doing so. A hybrid, combined approach is really the only approach that makes any sense. In religion many people worship only one god, but in process management we should all be pantheists.”

Recognizing that a single approach to process reform is unwise, selected U.S. government departments have implemented Lean Six Sigma with great success. (Lean Six Sigma is a combination of two process improvement frameworks, Lean and Six Sigma, aimed at improving time, quality and cost of delivering products and services). In an article posted in Forbes called, “Lean Government Six Sigma? Why Do Politicians Ignore It?” the author, Kellen Giuda states, “The Department of Defense is trying to duplicate the outstanding results seen by the U.S. Army and Navy implementations of Lean Six Sigma in 2005 and 2006 when they saved a combined $2.45 billion as of 2008.” 

The private sector has also recognized that the blend of Lean and Six Sigma has significant benefits. The same Forbes article that cited benefits to the U.S. government from the implementation of Lean Six Sigma also states that 3M, ACME, Sears, Dell, DuPont Whirlpool, and Xerox have all benefited from implementing this methodology.


So Why Do Some Lean Advocates Feel Compelled to Consider One Process Improvement Framework Only?

The short answer is that Lean can result in improved quality and costs, not just optimization of business process flow.

Lean advocates are likely to tell you that continuous incremental improvements to your process will result in greater and more sustainable improvements to your organization as compared to a one-time process transformation—or at least they should. Lean advocates may also tell you that Lean does address quality through methods such as mistake-proofing the process or root cause assessment. I would not disagree with these arguments.

Lean, however, can use techniques such as Kaizen events which is a planned process improvement effort that enables a small group of people to improve some aspect of their process quickly. The Kaizen event may then be repeated throughout the organization. To ensure an organization continues to improve, a continuous improvement process may be put in place. Unfortunately, an enterprise is more complex, consisting of interrelated processes, systems, and people, etc. For example, a Lean intervention may be designed to lower wait times in a hospital emergency room; however, without conducting an assessment of the complete patient flow, it is possible that once the patient has moved from the ER, the patient may spend up to six or seven hours waiting to see an emergency doctor. This is clearly not a holistic solution that results in a positive hospital experience.

There are other reasons why Lean, in isolation, may not be the best remedy for your organization. Those reasons follow.


Other Reasons Lean In Isolation May Not Be Optimal

1.  A Lean Intervention does not always eradicate the root cause of your problems: Lean is a great tool for addressing the root cause of a known process problem. Generally speaking, the source of the problem is localized and contained within one part of the process.

    In a Lean intervention, the tools at your disposal will enable you to design or redesign a process that is streamlined, simplified, has mechanisms in place to prevent errors, and is supported by a culture of learning and continuous improvement. This is great, but what happens if the source of the problem is more complex and is unknown? What happens if the problem you identify in the Lean engagement is temporary?

    To better answer these questions, a more statistical asessment must be undertaken; this is where Six Sigma tools come into play. Failing to address the root cause of the problem properly with the right tools may result in the problem manifesting itself in other parts of the process.

    2. Lean does not equate to process stability and predictability: Implementing Lean will not ensure your process becomes more stable and predictable. Although a skilled Lean consultant will ensure that the new process is standardized, this does not result in a stable process. You can have a standardized process with a great amount variation in results. I remember one organization that aimed to serve 95% of its clients within forty-five minutes. The problem with this target is that 5% of the clients can be served within five hours and the organization would still consider itself successful. Imagine if that 5% of clients who were served within five hours told twenty other people, or if that information was released by the media; the effects on the organization could be devastating.

    Six Sigma techniques are capable of designing processes that are free of such variation. In the previous example, a more appropriate target might be that 95% of the clients will be served in forty-five minutes, and no customer will wait longer than sixty-five minutes. By having tightly defined parameters, it will also be easier for an organization to anticipate what is required to meet customer expectations.


    Other Considerations Beyond Lean Six Sigma

    Even Lean Six Sigma has its limitations, limitations that could be better addressed in combination with other management frameworks. In large organizations like governments, it is likely that you will need to consider additional factors not necessarily considered in a Lean Six Sigma engagement.  These factors may include, 1) the ability for the organization to absorb change, 2) strategic alignment,  3) organizational structure, 4) leadership, 5) culture, 6) political risk, 7) supply chain optimization etc.

    For example, an organization may design an optimal process that gets bogged down in the decision-making process that is a result of how the organization is structured. The organization may fail to consider the current and past resource depletion, which may result in a failed transformation exercise. If the process improvement initiatives do not contribute to the organization’s strategy, it will likely not get the senior management support needed to move forward.

    For this reason we must consider all elements that impact a process.


    Closing Thoughts

    In a recent article in the Ottawa Citizen, a columnist talks about all the benefits of going Lean for Canadian government departments. This article fails to consider all the risks of considering one—and only one—methodology to create sustainable efficiencies within the government or any organization. As Davenport points out, “A hybrid, combined approach is really the only approach that makes any sense.”

    Unlike my Lean counterparts, who will tell you that Lean is an after-thought in the Lean Six Sigma engagement, I adopt a customized approach that best fits the organization’s challenges. What do you think? Does it make sense to put all your eggs in one basket, or does it make sense to look at hybrid approaches to process improvement?


    By Kyle Toppazzini

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    Topics: process improvement, sigma, lean, Lean Six Sigma, Assessment, process