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Incorporating Critical Thinking into Lean Six Sigma

Posted by kyle toppazzini on Tue, Dec 04, 2012
Lean Six Sigma, Sigma, Lean, Assessment, Process

The last value concept of my new Lean Six Sigma model is called “zhi,” a Chinese term, which means to know or understand.  Confucius believed that for most people, learning was ongoing.  One of the philosophies of Confucianism is that everything a person learns is subject to evaluation and reflection, and it is through this iteration process that people move toward righteousness.  Thus Confucius believed that only a "small man" would not try to think without learning or not reflect on what he has learned.

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Critical Reflection and Thinking

In my model, the idea that learning is continuous and is subject to evaluation is not significantly different from other quality management frameworks; however, the concept of reflection is significant.  In particular, I focus on a concept referred to as “critical reflection,” which goes further than the normal definition of reflection. It includes the following four activities as defined by Don Clark (

  1. Assumption analysis – The idea is to think in a way that challenges our own beliefs, values, and social norms;
  2. Contextual analysis – This is a realization that our assumptions are formed based on our personal beliefs and values;
  3. Imaginative speculation – This is conducted by imagining alternative ways of thinking that challenge our beliefs and values;
  4. Reflective Skepticism- The ability to think about a subject in such a way that the evidence is temporarily rejected in order to prove its validity.

In any training or formal education, it is rare that reflection is taught in a sense that instills deeper critical thinking.  In the book that I am currently working on, I will show how the concept of zhi and critical reflection can be utilized throughout an organization. For now, I will demonstrate how to use critical reflection as part of continuous learning, improvement and innovation.  I will demonstrate this concept through the presentation of a fictitious example.


Example of Critical Thinking in Continuous Improvement

Company XYZ has implemented continuous improvement throughout its organization.  It has also implemented the core value of zhi and actively uses critical reflection as a way of conducting assessments and solving problems.  One day, the process owner of the financial management process sees that the order –to-cash process is trending upward beyond the set target of five days.  In fact, the time from order initiation to cash in the bank has been steadily increasing beyond the normal ranges for a few weeks. The process owner determines that this problem can be best resolved by the quality excellence teams.  The quality excellence teams are composed of employees who work on areas throughout the process and are responsible for processing the payments.

The quality excellence team gathers to study the problem.  A facilitator is assigned to the team to assist in critically thinking about the problem.  First, the team brainstorms some possible root causes of the long processing times.  The team may use a technique called the “Five Why” framework in which why is asked up to five times to a problem when stated as a question. By the fifth why, it is expected that the group will have identified a root cause.  An example of the “Five Why” technique is provided below:

  1. Why do we have long processing times?  Because we are making mistakes in processing.
  2. Why are we making mistakes in processing? We are rushed. 
  3. Why are we rushed? We did not anticipate this large number of transactions.
  4. Why did we not anticipate this number of transactions? Because we did not take into account that the company cut its prices by 30%.
  5. Why did we not take into account that the company was cutting prices by 30%?  We never read the memo sent out by communications.

The facilitator then asks probing questions of the quality excellence team to get them to think a little harder about the root cause.  The facilitator asks questions such as, “Have you thought of why you don’t read the company's memos?” “What if you did read the memo? Would you be able to forecast the level of demand accurately?”  The facilitator asks probing questions to encourage critical thinking and reflection.  By doing so, the group realizes that after carefully considering all the options, failing to read the memo was not actually the root cause, it was something else.

The quality excellence team then measures the baseline data to validate its claims or assumptions.  The team continues to ask critical questions to challenge the data and interpretation of the data, such as, “What if we considered X, Y and Z as well?” At the end of collecting the data, the quality excellence team will have critically considered all elements and be able to identify the root cause.  The team, through its assessment, will then consider initiatives or counter measures to eliminate the root causes; again, the team members will use critical thinking to seriously think through their ideas and how to implement them.  They will then implement these ideas and measure the impact of the initiative on processing time, conduct the lessons learned, and report back to the process owner with their evaluation and recommendations.


Concluding Thoughts

As you can see from the example, the critical reflection and thinking enables the team to come up with new, better, and innovative ways to solve a problem.  Critical thinking promotes a deeper learning experience and can dramatically enhance the results of an organization’s continuous improvement strategy.  Do you think incorporating critical reflection and critical thinking into Lean Six Sigma can result in greater results?


By Kyle Toppazzini



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Topics: sigma, lean, Innovation, Lean Six Sigma, Assessment, process, Critical Thinking