Future Trends for Lean Six Sigma

By Harry Rever, MBA, PMP, CSSMBB, CQM, CQC | Director of Six Sigma, IIL 

If there is one commonality among businesses in virtually every industry, it is the desire to improve results.

Continuous improvement efforts, if successful, result in lower costs, increased sales, and more satisfied customers. Measurable improvement is a ubiquitous goal for any business leader. And there is no better way to improve results than the proper deployment and application of Lean Six Sigma.

The future of Lean Six Sigma is bright and includes the following trends:

Continued Use of Lean Techniques in Conjunction with Six Sigma

Simply stated, there are an endless amount of processes, situations, and process improvement project opportunities facing business leaders. Every situation is different and there is no “one size fits all” approach that will work every time.

A Six Sigma practitioner, such as a Green Belt or Black Belt, needs to use the tools and techniques which are appropriate for that particular situation. Thus, focusing on just Lean concepts or sticking with traditional Six Sigma techniques is a mistake. The Six Sigma project leader should utilize both sets of tools; use the right tool for the job at hand.

Smaller Projects and Daily Usage of Lean Six Sigma Techniques

The cornerstone of improving processes is a solid three to six-month project following the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) road map; this will not change.

However, including smaller “rapid improvement events” into the mix of projects will help Lean Six Sigma and process thinking to become part of daily operations. Not every process improvement effort needs to be a huge project. Making process improvement efforts simple and accessible to everyone will help transform company thinking.

Emphasis on Metrics and Fact Based Decision Making

Claiming “improvement” because a project completed on time or on schedule is not good enough anymore. Substituting “activity” for measurable results is simply not acceptable to business leaders.

Basing decisions on facts and data is now essential; gut feel or anecdotal decision making should be a thing of the past. Businesses will need a more comprehensive set of metrics based on an understanding of processes; inputs, process steps, and outputs.

Large Data Sets, Data Mining, and Comprehensive Data Analysis

There is no question that companies see the potential and power of mining their business and customer data.

The ability to glean interesting facts and trends about your industry or customer base is not only a competitive advantage for a business but provides opportunities for innovation and expansion. Data mining and data collection is great, but having the ability to properly analyze the data is what is key; and that is what a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt brings to the table.

Lean Six Sigma Certification – Beware of Worthless Certifications!

Why is it that so often people want to take the easy way out? To me, you get out of something what you put into it; it’s really that simple.

This is especially true for Lean Six Sigma certification. A good LSS certification should come from a reputable provider, have comprehensive and applicable course content, include exams, require a REAL process improvement project, and be taught by an experienced Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt.

[trx_infobox style=”regular” closeable=”no” icon=”icon-star”]Learn more about IIL’s Lean Six Sigma Certification Programs[/trx_infobox]

The inexpensive “take the exam and you’re certified” type of certification is essentially worthless. Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend towards the availability of those types of certifications. Buyer beware!

Acknowledgement that Powerful Analytical Tools are a Must

I completely agree that making things simple and understandable is the way to go.

Lean concepts and graphical analysis are extremely helpful; however, that does not mean businesses should forfeit the use of powerful analytical techniques, such as regression analysis and design of experiments (DOE) because those tools might be viewed as confusing or not applicable.

Experimental designs, which allow you to test multiple variables simultaneously, is perhaps the most powerful yet underutilized process improvement technique available. When processes are complicated and the simple tools are not giving you the improvement you need, then it is time to break out the more advanced analysis and testing techniques. These tools can lead to breakthrough improvements!

Renewed Focus on Interpersonal and Team Skills

Lean Six Sigma Green Belts and Black Belts are leaders; they are implementing the strategy of the company and are regularly leading process improvement teams.

In addition, they are regularly challenging the norm, pushing for continuous improvement, and helping operations with metrics, data analysis, and root cause analysis. However, to be effective, LSS practitioners need to have skills that go beyond the DMAIC steps, Lean, graphical and statistical analysis.

They need to be competent in interpersonal skills such as negotiations, conflict resolution, and leadership. Effective stakeholder management and communication are essential elements for anyone leading process improvement initiatives. More emphasis on leadership and interpersonal skills is a must.

[trx_infobox style=”regular” closeable=”no” icon=”icon-star”]Learn more about IIL’s Leadership and Interpersonal Skills courses[/trx_infobox]

Lean Six Sigma “Light” – a Trend in the Wrong Direction

Some things never change. The desire for instant results and instant gratification is a trait that many business leaders, unfortunately, still possess.      If it was easy to continuously improve, everyone would.

Of course, that’s not the case. Processes are complex; there are many moving parts and many people and departments involved. So a disciplined approach to process improvement is a must. However, in order to “go faster,” there seems to be a trend to move away from techniques that may take more time. Instead, businesses are wanting to take shortcuts and only utilize some “easier to understand” tools for those quick wins, the “low hanging fruit.”

There is nothing wrong with quick-hit projects, but ultimately, those types of efforts will only go so far. When someone says they want to only use the easier or faster tools, beware. That type of approach is a trend to avoid!

Corporate Operational Excellence Programs Incorporating Lean Six Sigma

Senior leaders recognize that a robust continuous process improvement program is essential to be successful in the marketplace.

Therefore, many companies are establishing an “Operational Excellence” program or department. These departments are tasked with leading quality and process improvement initiatives within the company.

Lean Six Sigma tools and techniques are becoming the common thread and foundation for these internal programs. Business leaders are becoming more familiar with the DMAIC steps as well as the roles and responsibilities of Lean Six Sigma Green Belts and Black Belts.

Process thinking is becoming the norm. Data based decision making, as opposed to reactive decision making, is what business leaders expect from their management team. Lean Six Sigma is on its way to becoming a foundational aspect for company management systems.

It is no longer acceptable to just go through the motions of managing the business; the market is simply too competitive. Senior leaders recognize that they need to be efficient and effective and Lean Six Sigma is one of the best ways to achieve that end goal.



Harry Rever is Director of Six Sigma for International Institute for Learning. He is a dynamic presenter and practitioner of Six Sigma and Project Management with an innate ability to teach the concepts of quality improvement in an understandable and more importantly, applicable manner.  With over twenty years as a project manager, process improvement consultant and trainer, Harry has numerous examples of what works (and what doesn’t) when managing projects and applying statistical process improvement concepts. 

If you have further questions or comments, Harry can be reached at harry.rever@iil.com.

Master Black Belts contributing to the article include: Dale Wilen, John Fraser, Richard Chua, Simo Salminen, and Nosh Kapadia.

The Benefits of Becoming a Six Sigma Black Belt

By Harry Rever, MBA, PMP, CSSMBB, CQM, CQC    |   Director of Six Sigma, IIL 

Is becoming a certified Six Sigma Black Belt something you should consider?

Well, that depends, of course, on what kind of person you are and what you want to do with your career. The SSBB certainly isn’t for everyone. For most people, Project Management Professional (PMP®) and/or Six Sigma Green Belt certification are all they will ever want or need. As a matter of fact, I’d say having both PMP and SSGB certifications is an almost perfect situation for the vast majority of people.

However, for those of you who are interested in taking process improvement to the next level, as well as influencing how decisions are made within a company, there isn’t anything better than becoming a Black Belt.

Why is that? Well, it’s pretty simple really. Black Belts are highly trained in the art of improving results using lean concepts and advanced statistical analysis techniques. They have the added responsibility of influencing day-to-day business decisions. Black Belts are project managers, mentors, coaches, trainers, team leaders and, if utilized effectively, should be put in influential leadership positions reporting directly to the highest levels in an organization.


As a Six Sigma believer, my opinion is that Six Sigma Black Belts should be the “best of the best”; they are the go-to people for the most challenging process improvement efforts a company faces. Competent and experienced Six Sigma Black Belts are pretty hard to find, but a good one is worth his or her weight in gold!

So what is the difference between project managers, Six Sigma Green Belts, and Six Sigma Black Belts?

Well, they all manage projects. Project managers are trained in the art of managing projects. Six Sigma practitioners generally focus on process improvement oriented projects using quantitative tools to help with decision making.

Green Belts are trained on how to use the Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control (DMAIC) improvement steps to manage projects and improve processes. Green Belts learn project management techniques as well as what and how to measure. They are also trained on analysis tools and techniques up to and including graphical analysis.

lssbb-chart-2Black Belts, on the other hand, take it a step further. They not only learn about how to improve processes, they are also trained on many advanced statistical analysis techniques which take root cause analysis and improvement efforts to the next level.

Typical topics covered in Black Belt training, in addition to training in the DMAIC steps, are listed in the diagram on the left. A Six Sigma Black Belt doesn’t need to be a statistician; however, he or she does need to have a comfort level with data collection and analysis and the practical application of statistical tools to a variety of situations.

Ultimately, a Six Sigma Black Belt realizes that to improve results, one must improve the process. They know that opinions matter little in the long run and that quantifiable improvements are what business leaders are looking for from projects.

Black Belts understand the concept of variation; a concept many leaders do not appreciate or simply ignore. They also realize that variation is truly the enemy of quality and is the primary source for knee-jerk reactions and emotional decision making. Reducing variation is the foundation for improvement, thus Black Belts lead the charge in reducing variance in processes so results can more easily be improved.


Black Belts take the lead in teaching and counseling operations personnel and business leaders on how to reduce variation, make better decisions, and ultimately improve results. They are the “voice of reason”, in an otherwise emotional or bureaucratic organization, when it comes to what to measure and how to go about improving results. After all, for any business, it’s all about improving results.

What does “improved results” mean? Simply stated, it means less variation in output and quantifiable, sustained improvement in key metrics of the business. The benefit of being a competent, experienced Six Sigma Black Belt is having the ability to move key measures and to achieve breakthrough performance. It’s not easy to improve results. If it was, everyone would be doing it. Six Sigma Black Belts are trained in the art of process improvement.


What makes a successful Six Sigma Black Belt?

Six Sigma Black Belts must be competent and skilled in many areas including: statistical analysis, project management, leadership, stakeholder relations, communication, and problem solving. They must be able to balance statistical significance with practical application. They need to be able to lead change, stand up to ever-present resistance, and effectively influence decision making. Becoming a certified Six Sigma Black Belt is definitely not for everyone; it requires a high degree of interest and commitment. But for those of us who enjoy the challenge of improving processes and improving results, the benefits are well worth the time and effort.

Learn more about IIL’s Six Sigma training. Register with promo code ‘BLOG’ to receive 10% off virtual and on-demand courses. 

rever-speaker-2016Harry Rever is Director of Six Sigma for International Institute for Learning. He is a dynamic presenter and practitioner of Six Sigma and Project Management with an innate ability to teach the concepts of quality improvement in an understandable and, more importantly, applicable manner. With over twenty years as a project manager, process improvement consultant and trainer, Harry has numerous examples of what works (and what doesn’t) when managing projects and applying statistical process improvement concepts. Harry has trained thousands of employees on Six Sigma, process improvement, and project management, and he frequently presents at conferences and seminars. He is a senior member of ASQ and a member of PMI.  

Have a question for Harry? Leave a comment below!

The Marketability of Lean Six Sigma

By Anne Foley, MBB, CSSBB, PMP
Director of Lean Six Sigma, IIL

I can still remember the first time I heard the term Six Sigma. Our customer invited us to a supplier meeting in the hopes of creating excitement around a new initiative they were implementing. When they announced the name of the initiative, I wasn’t even sure I heard them correctly. I thought they said Zig Zigler…as in the motivational speaker. It took me a few minutes to realize that I had misheard.

During the presentation our customer claimed that this new initiative would improve our quality, satisfy our customers, and save the company millions of dollars! I have to admit that I was skeptical and wondered if this was just the latest flavor of the month in the dramatic improvement game.

That was thirty years ago and I am here to tell you that everything I learned in that first entry level Six Sigma class (now called Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt) is programmed in my problem solving mindset. I can’t honestly recall any class that has added more value to my career than the classes that taught me about Lean Six Sigma.

Lean Six Sigma is a discipline of the mind because it prescribes a structured methodology known as DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) to make improvements and solve problems.

There are a few basic tools and techniques that will change the way you think about problems and potential solutions in the future. For me, it removed the fear of the inevitable problems by giving me confidence in finding solutions.  If you don’t ever have problems, you may not need this knowledge.  As for me and 99.9996% of the population… problems are a frequent part of the landscape and we need a mindset, skillset and toolset for discovering solutions.

Now what if I told you that companies are looking for it in masses.  I have a friend that owns a job placement firm and he told me that Lean Six Sigma knowledge has become a highly sought after requirement. To verify that I went to his online job placement website and searched all jobs that had Lean or Six Sigma in any part of the description.  There were 1242 listings in the United States alone.  Imagine the number of opportunities in a global reach.

If you are looking for a way to keep yourself marketable, I recommend that you add this skillset to your resume. It will not only make you a better manager at work, it will also make you a more confident person in this chaotic world.

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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.

Lean Six Sigma in healthcare

Applying a Lean Six Sigma Concept to Healthcare

By Anne Foley, MBB, CSSBB, PMP
Director of Lean Six Sigma, IIL

Let me begin by saying that if you have started a diet in 2016, this story might help you stick to it.

I had just filled my plate with goodies at a holiday party when my friend Kim decided to tell me what happened to her eighty-two-year-old mother while recovering from abdominal surgery. (Hospital stories are not known to make us hungry and I ended up dumping my plate of cheese and crackers, but this is a story worth sharing because there are valuable lessons for us all.)

After a successful surgery, Kim’s mother was moved into a semi-private room. When she arrived, the second bed was empty but a few hours later another woman was moved into the bed closest to the window. It took about 24 hours for Kim and her mother to realize that the new roommate was admitted to the hospital for a serious stomach flu that was very contagious.

“Do you really think it’s a good idea for someone with a stomach flu to share a room with anyone, let alone someone who has a large and painful incision across her stomach?” Kim asked the head nurse. The color drained out of the nurse’s face as she knew that a mistake had been made, and she immediately called for someone to find another room for Kim’s mother. Unfortunately, it was too late and Kim’s mother ended up catching that stomach flu. It almost killed her. I won’t share all the details but suffice it to say it was very painful for all involved.

Hospitals are no different than any other business. They are staffed with human beings and none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. That being said, the potential consequences of mistakes in hospitals are far greater than most businesses.

That’s why Lean Six Sigma in healthcare is so critical. The processes that healthcare professionals work within should be error proofed. Another word for error proofing that Lean practitioners use is Poka-Yoke. In Japan, that means to avoid inadvertent errors.

There are three techniques to error proofing a process:

  1. The first and most desired technique is to put a control into the process that will completely close the margin for error. In other words, prevent the mistake from ever occurring. What might that look like in a hospital admission process? The admission system recognizes the word “contagious” in the admission code and automatically assigns that person to their own room. Simple, right? But maybe their system doesn’t allow for this type of control.
  2. The second technique is to have some sort of an alarm or signal if a mistake has occurred, allowing the mistake to be self-corrected. If the hospital system did not allow for automated assignment, maybe it has the intelligence to sound an alarm if a human assigns someone with a contagious disease to a shared room. This relies on the admissions personnel to self-correct, so it’s not as effective as the first technique but sometimes there isn’t a choice.
  3. The third technique is to have the flow of the process stop before the undesired consequence. In this example, maybe the contagious patient is assigned to a shared room but the barcode on their patient bracelet sets off an alarm if they are wheeled into a room that has another patient.

The bottom line mindset of Poka-Yoke is that while it is fine to tell your workers not to make mistakes, it is smarter to put a process in place that makes it impossible to make them. Then let hospital personnel focus on helping the patients heal versus reacting to mistakes.

Is it expensive to put controls in place and prevent mistakes? Sometimes. But not nearly as expensive as a loss of life and/or potential lawsuit!


[trx_infobox style=”regular” closeable=”no” icon=”icon-desktop”]Learn more about IIL’s Lean Six Sigma training at www.iil.com/leansixsigma. [/trx_infobox]

anneAnne 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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.

[trx_infobox style=”regular” closeable=”no” icon=”icon-info”]Related Courses from IIL:

Browse the full course catalogue here.  



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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