The Next Next Big Thing

Six Sigma critics are right about one of their chief complaints: the program is a re-packaging of a lot of tools and ideas that have been around for a long time. Personally I don’t think that’s a bad thing, since many of the ideas that have been re-packaged were languishing before. Regardless of where the tools and ideas originally came from, the hype of Six Sigma has driven a lot of useful activity in areas where it wasn’t happening before.

Trouble is, the same thing is happening in a lot of different areas. Six Sigma as a program has several analogs, some competing and some in areas that Six Sigma hasn’t reached yet (like software design). You could argue that each program is different, but I would counter that even if that’s true, all of them have a similar aim. You could also argue about which of them is best; indeed, a great amount of energy seems to go into this argument every day.

But back to the aim. Beyond the specific project-level objectives of each program, what they all seek to provide is a conceptual framework. They collect different tools and ideas and put them together in a way that tries to be easily comprehensible. Lean does this. Six Sigma does this. 5S does this. SMED does this. 23 other continuous improvement programs do this. All of which leads to another question: what do you do in an organization that has Lean, Six Sigma, 5S, SMED, and all 23 of those other programs?

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This is not hyperbole. In more and more organizations with good programs in individual discipline, it is a real problem. Just as Six Sigma provided and organizing framework for of a lot of disparate ideas and tools, we now need something to organize the various organizing frameworks. Failure to do this results in lack of alignment and missed synergies at best, and utterly disconnected silos working in opposition at worst. And it tends to be very difficult to address, because everyone involved is already genuinely working towards continuous improvement to the best of their ability. Change management experts will tell us we need a burning platform to make change happen – that’s unlikely to be the case in this scenario.

So what to do? How do we move up the next level in the hierarchy of organization? Once the Six Sigma program is running on all cylinders, the SMED team is in a groove, and the 5S group is having wild success, how do you tie them all together without killing the individual components? The obvious answer is not to let it happen in the first place. But in organizations of any size, it has almost certainly already happened. And it happens precisely because people on the ground want to do the right thing.

I don’t have the answers yet, but I think I’m coming closer to asking the right questions.

Comments 7

  1. Geoff Elliott

    The Next Next Big Thing!

    This is called TPS, TPM, Operations Management, Industrial Engineering or simply – The way we work around here! In other words, the total System of Operation embracing Tushman/Nadler’s concept of organisational congruence. (been around for 30 years but not yet discovered by the Six Sigma crowd)

    SS and LS are only part of a wider SYSTEM. How about teaching all the 15 day Black Belts systems thinking, viable systems and probelm solving – after all Six Sigma is NOT a problem solving approach or method.


    Geoff Elliott

  2. Richard Thomas

    I’m not sure if its the next big thing, though I have found that it will allow you to tie all of the continuous improvement activities together.
    There are several models Business Excellence Model / Malcolm Baldrige / ISO 9004:2000 that provides guidance on how you can continually improve your business’ and quality management systems so that it benefits not only your customers but also:

    employees, owners, suppliers, society in general

    By measuring these groups’ satisfaction with your business, you’ll be able to assess whether you’re continuing to improve.
    based around eight quality management principles ( Customer focus / Leadership / Involvement of people / Process approach / System approach to management / System approach to management / Factual approach to decision-making / Mutually beneficial supplier relationships) that your senior managers should use as a framework to improve the business.

    Best regards.


  3. Andrew Downard


    Thanks for your comment.

    Just for the record, the title of my blog was intended to be ironic. Ironic because the problem is anything but new. Ironic because it seems there is always another program on the horizon, complete with new terminology and boatloads of training courses. Ironic because we are always chasing the next big thing. I get that, and I think that the "Six Sigma crowd" mostly does as well.

    Nonetheless, some new programs do add vaue to existing concepts and toolsets. Six Sigma and SPC are a good example of this. But once you have a few programs up and running, you encounter the problem I described: the need for higher level framework to organize the programs. And once you have the framework, you’ll probably want to add more programs (and’or get rid of some). I suspect the phenomenon is cyclical and evolutionary, and I don’t think it is equivalent to industrial engineering or TPM.

    As for whether Six Sigma is a problem solving method…well, it depends on how you teach and deploy it. There are many flavors of Six Sigma out there.


  4. Andrew Downard


    I think we are talking about two different – but related – things. What you describe makes perfect sense for senior leadership of a business (CEO or President level, for example). But I think there is a space between that top level of thinking, and the Six Sigma practitioner level of thinking (BBs, line managers, plant managers, operations leaders, for example). It’s that space I am concerned with. In way, what I am seeking is the connective tissue between the two levels.


  5. Sanjay Bhasme

    How did Lean Six Sigma evolve? Because the two complement each other and can be used depending on the needs of the issue being tackled: Six Sigma to reduce variation, lean to reduce waste and improve flow. Thus all the various tools/methodologies can be used under one "Continuous Improvement" umbrella, the choice depending on the objective at that time.

    As far as Six Sigma being a re-packaging of old tools, that is true, but it also gives a rigorous DMAIC framework which increases the chance of success as long as one has the "big picture" (aligning with business needs) in mind instead of getting enamored by powerful statistical tools and getting bogged down in "non-value adding" detail.

  6. Andrew Downard


    Exactly! Both your points are right on. My questions are around how exactly to organize and structure the continuous improvement "umbrella".

    Done correctly, combining Lean and Six Sigma results in a single program more powerful that the two programs running separately, even if they are both run well. So how do we do that for a much larger number of individual programs? And how do we develop a framework that will allow us to efficiently assimilate future toolsets and ideas that we don’t even know about yet?

    As you suggest, one option is to have a variety of programs and make a "choice depending on the objectives at that time." And I think that’s what most people do. But in a perfect world, do we want to make a choice between one methodology versus another, or do we want to intelligently combine them on an ongoing basis? A continuous improvement umbrella will work for the former, but I think the latter requires a more evolved conceptual framework. What I’m asking is: what is the next step after we have the continuous improvement umbrella already established?


  7. Walter Miller, MBA, CLSSMBB

    I like the dialog. The approaches could leverage several different models….PDSA, DMAIC, PMP delivery model. Its dependent on the if the effort is a continuous improvement program or just an improvement initiative.

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