From Six Sigma to Lean

Our health system began its Six Sigma journey about three years ago. We started up in Wave I with three Black Belts at the two largest hospitals (myself among them) who had no real idea of what would come. After a successful round of projects in Phase I, we expanded to hire an additional 12 Black Belts to cover the rest of the hospitals, and moved two individuals up to Master Black Belt positions. We had a great Wave II – ok, there were the usual growing pains, but overall we were feeling pretty good about ourselves. Onward to Wave III!

Then we started learning more about lean. Our executives loved the idea that we could move faster; the concepts and tools were simple to understand and easy to learn. We shifted gears to start doing some lean projects (kiazens or Rapid Improvement Events as you prefer).We had very good success; team members were enthusiastic and executives raved.

Some of our Black Belts, myself included, were happy to learn the lean tools but were notas comfortable with the lean projects as with the DMAIC methodology. I was puzzled because I liked everything about lean, except for the kaizen project structure, and I couldn’t figure out why this might be so. After a lot of reflection, I came up witha theory. It’s based onthe Meyers-Briggs personality types – an assessmentbased on individual preferences in four areas: introvert-extrovert, intuitive-sensing, thinking-feeling, judging-perceiving.

The DMAIC methodology is perfect for intuitive-thinking types. These individuals are called “the Rationals” according to Keirsey, and are highly skilled in strategic analysis. You want to go in there, look at a problem, analyze it, and then pick the right solution. You invest a lot of time and effort into making things right, and the payoff is doing it right the first time. Achieving the goal is the thing.

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The lean methodology, on the other hand, is perfect for sensing-feeling types. Keirsey calls these “the Artisans” whose strengths are in tactical variation – that is, trying things out and honing activities until perfection is approached. You want to go in there, look at a problem, and start trying to make things better. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again! You invest a lot of energy into making things get better one step at a time, and the payoff is seeing how far you have come. Making the journey is the thing.

I’m pretty firmly in the intuitive-thinking camp, so that was my “aha” moment of why I didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Lean as I did for DMAIC. Having explained this, at leastfor myself, I started to wonder whether I would have been more comfortable incorporating lean tools if I had approached it from this perspective from the start. Of course, most of us are perfectly capable of using whatever tools are required to achieve process improvements. But I wonder whether knowing our personality preferences is just as useful as knowing the tools of Six Sigma and Lean.

What do you think?

Comments 6

  1. Terryy Gonda

    Have you explored the melding of the two (Lean and Six Sigma?)

    I am working for the Government and we are using a training and application of the blended Lean Six Sigma approach.

    We still think in terms of DMAIC, but bring in value stream mapping, the 5-S (or 6-S) and other lean tools along the way.

    I like your using of the Meyers-Briggs, it makes sense and gives a context from which to base comments. Since there is no governing body to standardize, at least having this context allows people to indicate WHY they may prefer a certain approach to problem solving.

  2. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks for your comment, Terry. Our organization is working to blend the best of both worlds – we’re throwing around new acronyms like "LMAIC" and "DMALC" as a short-hand for our new approach. And we’re also starting to think about how to get more people on board early in the process – to quote my MBB trainer from GE, Chuck DeBusk, "Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance!" So being aware of personality preferences may help us to communicate more effectively in the beginning phases of a project, whether Six Sigma or Lean.

  3. Mahendiran Selvaraj

    Dear Sue Kozlowski
    I agree with you. In addition, Six Sigma takes only a few experts to do the job. But Lean needs involvement from everyone. So naturally when someone has been used to solving problems alone or in a small group, he/she will have problem in dealing with lot of people. In lean, consensus and ownership from the process owners and all parties that are going to be affected is very important. Sometimes it might be difficult to make everyone buy-in to some ideas. But the pay back will be huge. You all have done a great move. I liked your analogy of the problem with Meyers-Briggs approach. That was interesting.
    Mahendiran Selvaraj

  4. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks for adding your wisdom to this topic, Mahendiran. We usually need to be self-aware before we can be effective, either with large or small groups!

  5. Barbara Knoll


    The title of your article really caught my eye.

    I agree that there is a relationship between type of approach (Six Sigma, Lean) and comfort level based on personality.

    My company initially established a Six Sigma Dept and trained seven associates to Black Belt. Recently, we have faced numerous challenges: the “low-hanging fruit” has diminished, functional areas have their own cost savings goals – as well as their own project managers, it’s difficult to identify and obtain “buy-in” for projects, management has not been trained in Six Sigma or Lean, departments are overwhelmed with multiple priorities, etc…

    We’re looking to revitalize our continuous improvement program and learn more about the Lean tools. Do you have any suggestions / contacts of companies that have incorporated Six Sigma and Lean? I would be interested in discussing their programs and gaining insight into their challenges and successes.

    Barbara Knoll

  6. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks Barbara for your comments. I haven’t done a survey of which companies offer what – it’s my impression that most companies will include both Six Sigma and Lean in their marketing presentations, but the depth of content needs to be studied before concluding that you’re getting real value.

    You mention that each department has their own cost-saving goals – that means that the Six Sigma projects may not be viewed as integral to strategic planning, a weakness of many new deployments. If they have their own project managers, that’s another source of conflict (why aren’t they being trained as BBs then?). And, you mentioned managers not being trained – that’s an area that can be handled by mandating education sessions. (We have required courses for each level of leadership.) All this has to come through leadership first – if you don’t have your very own “Jack Welch” driving deployment, it’s very hard to get the results you want.

    After working with a couple of different companies, we are developing our own training materials so we can incorporate the best of both worlds. Feel free to email me at [email protected] if you’d like to follow up on this discussion off-line.

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