What is Lean Six Sigma?

What is Lean Six Sigma?

By Anne Foley, MBB, CSSBB, PMP
Director of Lean Six Sigma, International Institute for Learning

Back in 1987 when I was a supplier to Motorola, they asked us to provide them with our key performance metrics in something called a sigma. I had no idea what they were talking about but our team said “sure” hoping we could figure it all out. The hindsight of 28 years makes me laugh to think that we thought it was nothing more than converting a few numbers to a different format. It is so much more than numbers.

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Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for process improvement. It was developed by a couple of engineers working at Motorola to help the company win the Malcolm Baldridge National Quality Award in 1987. Today there is significantly more information about Six Sigma, and in many circles something called Lean has been added to the picture – resulting in Lean Six Sigma. I have not read many articles that explain Lean Six Sigma clearly, so let me give it a shot.

Definition of Lean Six Sigma

Lean Six Sigma is a methodology that focuses on improving business performance, reducing costs, and increasing efficiency and productivity. I was fortunate to have been trained on Six Sigma by Motorola University and General Electric many years ago. I can promise you that I have used the mindset, skillset, and toolset framed up in the Lean Six Sigma DMAIC structure to help me solve problems, improve results and meet goals thousands of times in my day to day life. This is knowledge worth having, and I’ll explain why so many companies have jumped onboard.

The Lean Six Sigma DMAIC Structure

In this fast-paced world where the passage of time feels more like running on a hamster wheel than moving towards a goal, workers are exhausted and burnt out. This has resulted in more mistakes, more band aids, higher costs, and increased customer dissatisfaction. Just watch the news for a couple of days and you will see the latest recall or serious effect of this growing trend.

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Investors are pushing executives to do something, and many of them are—they are training managers to use the Lean Six Sigma tools, techniques and concepts to manage processes and improve results. That is the main goal of Lean Six Sigma implementation. In other words, they want to effectively deliver customer products and services (fewer mistakes) as efficiently as possible (lower cost). They want to reduce the margins of error in business processes and make it easier on workers so they don’t make expensive mistakes.

Define

It all starts by clearly defining the problem. A problem is defined as a question or situation that calls for a solution. The first step in defining the problem is to quantify the frequency of occurrence and the impact when it occurs. This is harder than it sounds. Most people want to solve the problem before the problem is even defined. Some even frame the solution in the problem definition.

For example, I once had a colleague tell me that because our website lacked a well-written FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page, our tech support department received more calls than they could handle. He assumed that the solution to the problem (high volume of calls) was a better FAQ page and he stated so in defining the problem. This is not uncommon. We all have our theories of what the solution is, but I have learned that it is best to approach a problem with as little bias as possible and let the DMAIC structure lead you to the best solution.

Measure and Analyze

The Measure and Analyze phases of the DMAIC structure involve baselining a key performance metric of the problem so there is something to measure the improvement against. In the previous example, the key metric might be the number of technical support calls not resolved in 2-4 hours or whatever the customer requires. The goal will be to reduce or eliminate the calls that are not meeting those expectations. Additionally, this is the phase where the focus shifts from the effects of the problem to the possible causes. These are called factors and the best way to find the most likely factors is to facilitate root cause analysis. It is so much easier to fix a problem when you truly know the root cause(s).

So many leaders still opt for the trial and error method of problem solving which often results in fixing a symptom. I once had a leader tell a conference room full of managers that “done is better than right.”  He truly believed that we needed to prioritize speed over accuracy and circle back to fix whatever was broken. This only works if you have lots of time and money to waste.

Improve

When you reach the Improve phase of DMAIC, you are ready to generate solutions to the problem.   Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” This is where critical thinking techniques come in. We need to shift our thinking with variations of brainstorming such as Random Word, Morphological Box or Reverse Thinking—techniques designed to see a problem through a fresh perspective. One of my favorites is Reverse Thinking. This is where a team of individuals spends a set amount of time (usually 10-15 minutes) discussing how the problem could get worse, before allowing their minds to identify solutions. This technique creates a shift in thinking away from those top-of-mind solutions that Einstein speaks about. It never ceases to amaze me how well this works!

Control

The last phase of DMAIC is the Control phase and it primarily deals with change management. As it turns out, we humans aren’t very good with change. We might want it in theory, but our habits get in the way.  This phase deals with some necessary steps to sustain the gains made with solving a problem. Without this phase, many of the problems return, thanks to the tendency of those who need to sustain the solution, returning to what they have done before.

The results of Lean Six Sigma are substantial and proven. Companies keep track of the numbers so they can identify the opportunities for improvement. But Lean Six Sigma goes much deeper than just reporting numbers. I encourage all readers to get your Lean Six Sigma Certification. It will skyrocket your confidence in solving problems and improving results.

anne


Anne F. Foley, PMP, MBB, CSSBB
has been teaching Lean Six Sigma (DMAIC) and Project Management for eighteen years. Anne has served as the Director of Lean Six Sigma at IIL for the past thirteen years. She is also the author of The Passages to Peace (a novel) and a frequent contributor to Project Management, Lean Six Sigma and other various publications. Anne has a Bachelors of Science degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Kansas State University.

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4 Comments

  • Paul Dandurand on November 6, 2015 10:39 pm Reply

    Great post Anne! Now, let’s apply this to projects. It really makes sense. I conducted a survey on IPM Day this week and found that 93% of respondents say they feel end results is more important than time and cost. Lean Six Sigma speaks well to end results, such as how to improve the process so the output is of higher quality. Are project managers ready for lean management practices? In some form, could Lean Six Sigma can be a savior for many types of projects?

    • Anne on November 18, 2015 7:09 pm Reply

      Thanks Paul and I agree. In my mind, Lean Six Sigma teaches good problem solving practices and DMAIC provides a structure and toolbox for that problem solving. Many in project work claim it is overkill but I don’t agree. You use what is needed for the problem or result that needs improvement. There’s a whole tool box that can be adapted to that situation. In my experience, project teams tend to apply the trial and error method of improvement because they think it’s faster. Most of the time it is not and it also costs more money. That being said, we have lots of companies who have recognized the power of training their PM’s on LSS and having a PMP and LSS Certification makes employees SO marketable in the global labor pool. I only say that with complete gratitude for having both.

  • Richard Levine on November 19, 2015 3:53 pm Reply

    What are DMAIC, LSS, IPM , MBB, SO, CSSBB & PMP?

    • admin on November 19, 2015 7:28 pm Reply

      Richard, thanks for your question.
      DMAIC – process improvement structure described in this post
      LSS – Lean Six Sigma
      IPM – International Project Management
      MBB – Master Black Belt
      SO – Unsure. Where did you see this used?
      CSSBB – Certified Six Sigma Black Belt
      PMP – Project Management Professional

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