Six Sigma: Misunderstood

I recently read a blog on GE Healthcare’s website.

Although the general idea of needing better ways to improve healthcare systems is valid, I cannot agree with the underlying interpretation of what Lean and Six Sigma are.

It seems to me many people view Lean and Six Sigma as

1. tools for solving specific problems
2. static
3. exclusive or territorial
4. methods that can be taught by experts

To me, Lean and Six Sigma are:

1. a philosophy of scientific problem solving
2. a mindset of relentless learning and self-improvement
3. continued adoption, integration and application of all existing concepts, tools, and practices
4. specific behaviors and skills that have to be developed throughout life

As defined above, Lean Six Sigmais dynamic. Period. Scientific thinking and PDCA cycle are fundamental to its continued learning and evolution. The right behaviors and thinking process cannot be taught. They have to be learned through life-long experiences. And Lean Six Sigma concepts, just as those we learned in our education, only create the initial framework for us to begin our learning process.

With the 4 points in mind, there is no concept of a “hybrid” methodology or boundaries to delineate different methodologies. There is no “not invented here” or “my tool is better than yours” kind of idea. Saying “Lean and Six Sigma do not work for some industries or organizations” is like saying “Scientific thinking does not apply in what we do.”

I always become very skeptical when someone tells me something “doesn’t work for you” or “is out of date” without understanding the root cause of the problem. Typically, they are preparing me for what they are going to sell me, “the Next New Thing.” Buyer be aware.

Misunderstanding of Lean Six Sigma can be a serious roadblock to its adoption and application. In my opinion, many of the problems raised in the above blog have nothing to do with the methodology itself, but rather the lack of understanding of what Lean Six Sigma truly is.

I contrasted my view of Lean Six Sigma to some people’s perception. So what does Lean Six Sigma really mean to you? What do you know about others, Lean Six Sigma professionals or not? How are you communicating its real meaning?

Comments 8

  1. michael cardus

    This mis-understanding comes from an immediate reaction to ideas. Organizations have a slow adoption process and following the status quo is safe.
    I enjoy how you explained lean 6S as a continued development process.
    For leaders to continue to develop the ability for learning agility is an indicator for success.

  2. ivra ihaleleri

    it is great article thanks for sharing

  3. david

    Sometimes the best way to improve a process isn’t to change the process – it’s to change the organization’s culture.
    -Dan Chauncey,Grant Thornton LLP

    The worker is not the problem. The problem is at the top! Management !
    -W. Edwards Deming

  4. Fang Zhou

    Thanks for the great comments.

    Lean or Six Sigma we all love is really a philosophy. I like the definition of Philosophy by New World Encyclopedia.

    Changing culture starts from ourselves and one person at a time. However, it’s unrealistic to change how everyone (including management) thinks. So we have to help those who want to change and manage those who don’t.

  5. Paul Jass

    After implementing several Lean initiatifves, I have come to learn that Lean is a way of thinking; the tools required to in the new Lean way of thinking might be Agile, XP, RUP, Six Sigma and these tools are independent on the Lean thinking.

  6. Narayan

    I have often been surprised with the periodic debates on which is the better tool. I have seen more of this between lean and six sigma. Some arguing they are same and some suggesting one is superior to the other. In this post the author seems to suggest six sigma to be the most global all encompassing approach that grows and adopts every other tool. He also has taken exception to the use of the phrase ’things that work’ by suggesting every thing works every where.

    I learnt TQM before six sigma. When I got trained in six sigma, Lean was introduced to me as a further branch of six sigma. Initially I used to find so many of the TQM tools being used in six sigma and wondered why they want to call them as part of six sigma when they did not involve statistics.

    I agree with a philosophy that the pursuit of quality has many tools, and debates on what is superior or inferior are meaningless. There can be no boundary to which tool a person should use in any program. Different tool sets are part of different programs based on the historical evolution. It is certainly nice to have a system of growing the quality system tool kit without a not invented here attitude. If modern practitioners want to include all known tools as six sigma tools, that is fine.

    My own personal preference is to see six sigma defined more narrowly with emphasis on statistics. This may bring focus to development of further refinement in core techniques. I feel the core techniques in six sigma should be statistics. I am still uncomfortable with many real life data distributions that are non normal, and the practice of ignoring kurtosis and skew to the extent we do. Often I feel we linearize too much of non linearity. The inclusion of every tool around as a part of six sigma seems to dilute the attention the statistical techniques should get for further development.

    Its use along with other techniques can be based on the context. To find a wholistic solution multiple tool sets will be required. The tools are different just as set of spanners, set of screw drivers and types of hammers are.

  7. Stephen C. Crate

    Your interpretation of sixsigma is exceptional. The work we do is continuous and when done correctly improves process, product and employee morale. Labels then become political tools or even weapons to gain influence, authority and effectiveness in the policy development of the organization. It is critical to maintain the big picture of continuous improvement or the "labels" wil become devisive in the successful development of the organization.

  8. Fang Zhou

    Narayan, thanks for your comments.

    I think we are in agreement that continuous improvement should embrace all appropriate techniques, not limited by their origins.

    I used "Six Sigma" as a generic term for continuous improvement, and don’t want to imply that Six Sigma is better or broader. As Stephen commented above, it’s just a label. I could have made the title "Continuous Improvement: misunderstood" without any change in content. Similarly, this iSixSigma’s blog site is called "Six Sigma Blog." we discuss Lean, Six Sigma, Leadership, and management in general.

    I also agree on the need to emphasize statistical techniques in Six Sigma. It’s not uncommon that a so called "Six Sigma" project lacks the critical thinking that differentiates it from a "non-Six Sigma" project. I think there are at least a couple of reasons for this.

    1. Statistics is very foreign to most people, even technical staff (scientists and engineers). It’s extremely hard to learn and apply in the real world in a typical deployment timeframe (1-3 years). That’s why I think a continuous improvement culture has to be established before Six Sigma can really start to make a large impact.

    2. Six Sigma (as narrowly defined/focused on statistics and understanding of variation) does not solve many common problems in a typical organization new to Lean/Six Sigma. It’s almost required that Six Sigma practitioners incorporate, or in some cases replace, Six Sigma tools with other techniques in order to achieve results.

    Without the organizational structure to support, and the discipline (or personal leadership) to apply, Six Sigma (or other techniques), the methodology is destined to fade as time goes. People often do what they can, the easy way out.

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