My journey towards Lean

When I started in continuous improvement (CI) four years ago it was via the traditional Six Sigma DMAIC route. I was indoctrinated into the Six Sigma world and have earned my ASQ CSSBB and can do impressive stuff with statistics. Lean was not even on the radar for me, it was just another approach that was used to solve the easy stuff. It did not have the rigour to make lasting improvements.

Then Lean appeared through our training material and we merged it to become Lean Six Sigma. But it was an unequal partnership. We had the DMAIC model with Lean as a bolt-on included in the Analyse phase. It focussed on analysing and removing waste in the process. It was a pretty easy concept; by removing waste you become a Lean business. And that’s how it stayed, everyone understood Lean.

Meanwhile I had nagging doubts that pure Six Sigma did not provide a complete package. There are the obvious issues around needing to include project management, stakeholder management, soft-skills training and deployment program management. There was also the concern that it was too generalist as specialist niches become prevalent, e.g. Customer Experience theory now goes way beyond the VoC approach.

It started with The Goal. I really liked the concept of managing your process around exploiting the constraints & bottle-necks. Then I met a few people who had started their CI journey from Lean who talked about different concepts & approaches. Then I met someone who was a Systems Thinker and they thought Six Sigma was just plain wrong. Give these quotes a go, (more in a follow-up blog as I am still reading the book):

  • It starts with ‘define’ so the wrong problems get tackled, not the actual problems, which will only be revealed when you study the organisation as a system.
  • Loads of money is spent on training tools, most of which will never be used; and tools are not the means for changing the system.
  • The reporting systems ensure benefits are ‘realised’ but they are, most often, spurious e.g. claiming productivity improvements through speeding up part of a process with no knowledge of the impact on the end-to-end process
  • It has been used to focus on cost; managers should instead get focused on value as the better way to reduce costs and increasing capacity.
  • In short, Six Sigma is a classic packaged invention aimed at gullible managers. The wrong facts are misleading; we should salute its demise.

All good stuff to challenge the orthodoxy. So I have been studying pure Lean. First problem I had was translating the tools out of manufacturing into a service organisation. With things like SMED you seem to have to abstract the concept and look for applications. Or 5S, it’s not a safety issue having a messy desk and I am doubtful on the benefits (I have a clean desk). But as I got deeper I found this doesn’t do Lean justice, the fundamental principles and practises go way beyond “just eliminate waste”. Lean seems to provide much more in terms of the complete package and inparticular around empowering people.

Handpicked Content:   We're Not in Kansas Anymore!

As ever, I still have my doubts e.g. how does break-though innovation happen in a Lean environment? And whatabout the “Lean is just removal of waste” label? But it has definitely shifted my thinking. Now I am “Learning to See” I wonder if there are any other approaches I should be looking at?

Comments 21

  1. Ann Genova

    It doesn’t matter what tools are used or what acronyms are included, process improvement takes place via these steps:
    * Sponsor support & buy-in
    * What’s the Problem?
    * Team selection & Empowerment
    * Issues
    * Solutions
    * Implementation
    * Commitment & Follow through

    Check out GE’s “Work Out” program for versatility.

  2. cheezer

    Mr. Barnwell,

    Thank you for an excellent article. The timing is very appropriate for me, as I just took over process improvement for a company that’s been doing six sigma for two years without any understanding of lean. The exact transition in philosophy (not tools) you mention is exactly what needs to occur. Your bullet points are dead on. Now, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the six sigma skills will be highly beneficial once we get a better understanding of how we create value, but there needs to be a change on the philosophy side to truly start to reap the potential benefits hiding in waste & flow issues.

    I really appreciated reading this.

  3. Ann Genova

    Actually I rarely use Six Sigma. Most of our PI issues have involved work flow, who-does-what, interdisciplinary communication, etc., just as you mention. For those types of issues we use a version of GE’s Workout program, which we call Rapid Decision Making. With adequate preliminary footwork with the sponsor, and with the issue peeled down to a fairly narrow scope, many of such sessions only last 1.5 – 2 hrs.

  4. Robin Barnwell

    Hi Cheezer, thanks for the feedback, to be sure, the bullets are not mine but quotes from John Seddon. More to follow once I get through the book.

    Hi Ann, yes, Six Sigma is an excellent problem solving tool no question. But how does it inform organisational design, management of work, operation of work, description of value, cross-business cooperation etc..

  5. Robin Barnwell

    Thanks Ann, could you provide a link to the Rapid Decision Making approach?

  6. Sandor

    Hi Robin,
    I know it sounds lame, but the points raised by the system thinkers relate to the most frequent errors done by six sigma projects and not to the six sigma methodology .Of course fouling up the define phase will lead to failure, but there is nothing in LSS that makes this error unavoidable.
    In real life many problems are actually quite simple:I would be very worried if someone told me I could not fix a setup problem before I look at the company as a whole system :)).

    BTW The Goal is one of my favorites too – I am always looking for bottlenecks in the Analyse phase.


  7. Robin Barnwell

    Thanks Sandor, good points and certainly areas I have considered too.

    I like the immediacy/focus of defining and solving a problem AND I also like the idea of really understanding how the whole system operates.

    Interesting idea that the outcome is similar in terms of real issues to be resolved regardless of approach.

    I continue to enjoy learning the new ideas and looking for applications. Anyone got a good simulation to show build-up of WIP?

  8. Sandor

    sure :) in my opinion the best one there is is in The Goal, the one with the matches. It is extremely simple and shows almost all the issues.


  9. Ann Genova

    I’ll be glad to send you some info, if you provide your e-mail address.

  10. Samantha Bureau-Johnson

    I enjoyed the article. I lead the Business Process team at my company and have purposely not used any “Six Sigma” or “Lean” anchors in our program launch.

    We anchor on Business Process Excellence Program, in which my team is skilled in: all process methodologies (Lean, Workout, Six Sigma, old Fashioned Consulting), Change Leadership (ARCI, Crucial Conversations, Leadership Alignment etc..), Winning executive buy-in through “Value is what they say it is” and a consistent messaging PR campaign.

    Since our official launch in Jan this year, we have engaged 59% of our officers (VPs to CEO), completed 25 initiatives (all methods) and have a steady stream of work coming in with varying value propositions.

    I firmly believe that there is not a one size fits all approach and that if you use the same principles of a consulting firm, where you evaluate the opportunity and then align the work to the results, you can gain more momentum quickly with buy -in, trust and true collaboration.

    At the end of the day, executives don’t care about the methodology, they care about the results and if they define the result (with your consult), and you achieve them then it is a win/win. Flexibility I have found is the greatest tool I have in my tool box for truly solving the systemic problems across the company I work in, as we are highly matrixed and somewhat dysfunctional at times.

  11. Robin Barnwell

    Ann, thanks for this, here are my details

    Samantha, you raise some good points. We to have followed the "best tool in the box" approach against defined projects with strong management buy-in.

    But as you say, executives don’t care about methodology, they care about results and that "Value is what they say it is". That sounds a good proposition for management; they get to call-out the issues to resolve and sit back and wait for the benefits?

    What if value was actually defined by the end-customer and that the whole organisation (and your suppliers) were optimised to deliver that value. Hence your management were part of this "ecosystem" and contributed to its success/failure. Rather than optimising target problems, you looked to re-designed your whole organisation from top-to-bottom to achieve value for the customer? That’s the line of thinking I am exploring at the moment, its interesting stuff.

  12. Robin Barnwell

    Steve, imagine you are starting a new business, what would be the main things on your mind? Hoping you have a great idea that customers will love? Hoping you will have enough money to survive a year? Wondering how you are ever going to get hundred things done in the next 4 hours? Focusing on winning business and collecting cash? Making payroll?

    I’m afraid PI is not going to be a priority till you have reached "critical-mass" and are enjoying the issues that arise from growing a business. For all the best will in the world, being PI from the start would be the exception from the norm.

    Absolutely agree on the people-side. All processes and systems are created by people. It really doesn’t work for me to blame the system/process as some created it so someone can fix it.

  13. Steve

    Six Sigma suffers from acronym bias just like any other set of tools unveiled at the problem solving table. It is often repeated that PI initiatives strive to focus on processes, not people. Time to grow up. People define the elements of organizational processes. Add time and growth to the enterprise, and things get bigger and more complicated. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world where businesses were conceived with PI at the outset. People should not be beaten over the head by incompetent management and half hearted training efforts. All people in the new organization should be held accountable to the rigor and self effacing discipline of seeking the truth about what they do and how they do it on a continual basis. Otherwise, the easier, softer ways of "repackaging" an increasingly lower value product leads the organization to a very uncomfortable position with sad consequences for the most valuable of all organizational assets…People.

  14. Once Ol’ Lonely

    The answer to your questions posed in the last paragraph is simple. Lean is not about just eliminating waste, lean focuses on the customer. The largest waste is to provide the customer with what they don’t want. I use what is called the 3P process to develop new designs. There is a book: The Toyota Product Development System by James M. Morgan and Jeffery K. Liker that you might find interesting.

  15. Robin Barnwell

    Thanks for the update, am deep into kaikaku, Lean Enterprises and the like.

    I selected " Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation " by Womak & Jones to get my deep-grounding. Will move on from there. I thought the works of Taiichi Ohno would be good (drink from the source). But the Toyota Product Development System gets good reviews.

    If people sent me books to review I could do reviews as part of the blog?

  16. Robin Barnwell

    Hello T Mitchell. Thanks for the feedback and agree with all the points. Yes, stepping back and asking "what is the purpose" comes across loud & strong, especially from the systems thinking concepts and also through the “value-stream” approach in Lean. The empowerment of people and focussing them on the purpose is equally common. They are good illustrations of the how to design the culture of a business. Both can be projected directly into a services business without modification.

    Hello Mike86. I do like to read & understand my subject and will have to add the other Goldratt books to my wish-list. I hadn’t looked at them before as I find that authors have a tendency to repackage the same ideas in their new books. A classic example being the lateral thinking concepts of Edward de Bono who has written over 80 books on the topic (no offence Edward, love the books and remember the brilliant lateral thinking programs on the BBC a few years ago).

    What I seem to be coming to is an understanding of the concepts that translate directly into a service business and those which only really fit in specific manufacturing environment.

  17. T Mitchell

    Hi Robin, Great article,

    Personally I have been working on Lean for about 5 years in one guise or another and in Six sigma for about 2 years.
    For me reading "the goal" was really good, because it took me right back to the basics of Lean.

    The fundamental question of why an organisation exists.
    What is the purpose and therfore where should the focus be.
    This for me is a key step before getting managers to understand value and then consequently identify waste. However because it is so basic and fundamental (like 5s), it’s almost too simple for a lot of people to spend time on.

    However not doing that well is pure waste. (Defects and rework)

    Lean really is about empowering the people (on the shop floor, or office floor) who know what the problems are to fix them for themselves. And empowering the managers of the organisation to support their people in this endevour.

    Taking the management back to the fundamental of the organisation gives them this clarity of purpose.

    The challenge is them taking apart the system they built (Which will work to protect itself), to allow the improvements to start.

  18. Mike Patterson

    Anne: Can you send me the info on Rapid Decision Making? Thank you.

    [email protected]

  19. Mike86

    You shouldn’t just leave it at "The Goal". That’s just the first book in the series. "It’s Not Luck" and "The Critical Chain" are also important and expand on the original theme. Goldratts true text books are less frequently mentioned, but also important.

    The Systems concepts really do apply to PI. How to you reach a Lean Enterprise without the AhHa moment of needing to carry lean to suppliers and customers? Without a guide, most PI programs are going to be applied to non-critical areas. Local people will fix local problems, while probably causing the global issues to worsen. TOC is the link to system understanding and how to apply limited resources to your most critical problems.

  20. Ann Genova

    Did you get my e-mail of 24 October?

  21. Prashant

    Anne: Can you please send me details on Rapid Decision Making? – Thanks in advance

Leave a Reply