Lean Six Sigma is commonly viewed as a continuous improvement method to enhance quality and reduce costs. It’s better known for its tools than for its philosophy or underlying principles. With only superficial use of the tools, we risk missing the true power and opportunity of Lean Six Sigma as a management method to strategically transform an organization.
Many of the management innovations, such as business reengineering and systems thinking, share many of the same fundamental principles as Lean Six Sigma. By understanding these shared principles, we will be less attached to one method or another and become better innovators. One recent example of management innovation appeared on the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX) this year as the winner of the “Reinventing Leadership” contest.
The story “Forget your people – real leaders act on the system“, by John Seddon, is about a public sector leader, Owen Buckwell, transforming the repair services to the 17,000 council houses of Portsmouth City in England. From 2006 to 2010, the improved results were miraculous.
It wasn’t a Lean Six Sigma project. But the methodology used (the Vanguard method: Check-Plan-Do) shares many concepts with Lean and Six Sigma. For example:
Customer focus: “The new purpose of the system is no longer to get glowing reports from Government. It is now ‘to carry out the right repair at the right time’ for the tenant. … Measures are now linked directly to this purpose instead of to performance against arbitrary targets.”
Value: “He learnt that his service, like many others, was stuffed to the gills with preventable or ‘Failure Demand’ – calls that keep coming back because the service hasn’t done something, or has done it wrong. … Value Demand is a name for the calls and visits from customers that are necessary – this is the demand that service organizations want and exist to meet. “
Understanding Variation: “As soon as you hit variation, as you always will, these ‘work management’ systems don’t work; they send the system out of control. … Staff now understand variation including how to differentiate between ‘noise’ and ‘signals’ in the data.”
Flow: “The system works as single-piece flow; the tradesman gets one job at a time, they have a visual system showing the jobs with when the customers want them done; and another visual system showing when the tradesmen will come free from their current job. “
Regardless of the methodologies used, a common challenge in management innovation is “to change management thinking” and the definition of leadership. In Out of the Crisis (1982), Edwards Deming described his management philosophy in 14 points in chapter 2, “Principles for Transformation of Western Management.” Almost 3 decades has passed, but the same problems he described in chapter 3, “Diseases and Obstacles” persist to date. Systems Thinking, advocated by John Seddon, is consistent with Deming’s points and provides a much needed reinforcement.
As Lean Six Sigma practitioners, we want to welcome management innovation as well as understand what exists so we can compare and contrast them. There is no one best methodology. Only by embracing and integrating new and existing ideas and practices can we continue to improve what we do – including continuous improvement.