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New to Six Sigma How Is Six Sigma Different? Is This a Six Sigma, Lean or Kaizen Project?

Is This a Six Sigma, Lean or Kaizen Project?

This is a familiar question that is often addressed by organizations. In fact, it is the wrong question. These concepts are nothing more than tools in your management toolbox. You don’t fix a watch with a hammer, and you get the same results when you deploy Six Sigma, Lean and Kaizen incorrectly. The fact is, a business problem is a business problem, and it needs to be fixed. Understanding the application of these tools to various improvement opportunities is the key to success. The figure below provides a perspective on how to integrate Six Sigma, Lean, and Kaizen into a total business improvement strategy.

Integrate Six Sigma, Lean and Kaizen

Integrate Six Sigma, Lean and Kaizen

People spend months drilling the Six Sigma process and statistical tools into their heads until they look at every situation as a Six Sigma problem. Why not? It was a very successful and rewarding experience for these individuals. But it is also easy to make mountains out of molehills. You don’t want the organization running around performing DOEs on the internal mail system or the quality of cafeteria food. On the other extreme, some high anxiety managers tend to look at very complex process variation or larger scale strategic problems as a Kaizen blitz that can be fixed by tomorrow. They are looking for instantaneous improvements in more complex areas such as variance reduction, customer returns, or forecast accuracy. For these situations, one question to reflect upon is “How long did it take us to get into this situation?”

The most important drivers of breakthrough improvement are leadership, creativity and innovation. Executives must lead and mentor their people in the right directions and assure that their actions are linked to strategic performance. They need to deploy limited resources to the highest impact areas and not try to solve every problem in the company. To accomplish this, they need to understand Six Sigma, Lean, Kaizen and other improvement methodologies, and how to integrate these tools into an overall business improvement strategy.

Refer to the framework in the figure above: Every strategic improvement initiative requires the following infrastructure shell:

Leadership, Creativity and Innovation
This element aligns strategy and deployment, mentors the organization through the right execution path, and drives cultural change. When the leadership team understands Six Sigma, Lean and Kaizen they can provide clearer focus on what needs to be done to improve profitability and competitiveness.

Teaming and Employee Involvement
This element provides the connection between concept and reality. People understand the need to change, they are equipped with the right tools and they are empowered to take action.

Closed-Loop Performance
This element pegs accountability and process ownership. Real-time performance measurement also allows people to better understand the cause-and-effect relationship between their actions and the improvement goals.

Some improvement opportunities are fruit on the ground or low hanging fruit, and can be harvested through several quick-strike Kaizen blitz efforts. These are the obvious localized no-brainers that we trip over everyday. The solution is not rocket science. It is simplicity, action and common sense.

As you move from left to right in the figure above, the scope and complexity of the improvement opportunity increases, but so do the potential benefits. Lean manufacturing typically focuses on speed, elimination of waste, standardization, and flexibility/responsiveness. Most Lean efforts begin on the production floor, however, the philosophy and tools are equally applicable in soft process areas such as new product development, distribution/logistics, supply chain management, accounting/finance and customer service.

On the right side of the above figure is Six Sigma. These are the highest impact opportunities because we are deep core drilling into the hidden cost of poor quality (COPQ). Making a dent in these areas often results in cost reductions of 2 percent-7 percent of annual revenues for successful organizations. Six Sigma is a data-driven methodology that strives for perfection in the organization’s entire value chain. Six Sigma examines variation and root causes of current performance, with a focus not only on the production floor, but on all key business processes. With Six Sigma, the entire organization is placed under the microscope. The methodology and statistical tools provide structure, discipline and a logical progression for achieving breakthrough improvements.

For more than a decade, publications such as Fortune, Business Week and hundreds of books have stressed the human side of change, infrastructure, customer focus, boundaryless and learning organizations, innovation and out-of-box thinking, and cultural transformation. Executives continue to send their employees off to Six Sigma, Lean or Kaizen boot camps to learn the tools, but they are often disappointed with the lack of results. Executives who develop a working knowledge of Six Sigma, Lean and Kaizen are much better prepared to build the right infrastructure and lead their organizations to both financial and human success.

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Leave a Comment



Explantation are really good

Terry Moran

I looked up some info on 6 sigma to understand some verbage on a technical contract I will be starting at MGH. Thank you for making this easy to understand, Mr. Burton.


Six Sigma in it’s purest form is a fantastic program. However, having lives through the training and implementation for more that 10 years in a multi national company, our govt. should save our money. It has to be the equivalent to the worst program in the world and is like putting money through a food processor. Why, because managers don’t want to run it as designed and workers can’t find time to do the annual projects required. They will wind up doing them on govt time when they should be working at their specific jobs.
The training classes will most likely be administrated by a contractor at a very high cost to the tax payer and the people won’t remember what the program is about by the time they get back to their office. This is not a one day class….it’s continues for the life of the program, or until management figures out they are not getting much bang for their buck.
Several of the Republican candidate have brought up as one of their items to improve productivity is six sigma. It was bad enough in the private sector, but once the govt. bureaucrats get hold of this, it will very soon turn into SICK SIGMA.


To understand Kaizen you need to understand Japanese Philosophy.
Kaizen is quick, simple and pure. Not sure why Occident has changed this into a group of processes impossible to follow up. The more complex the process the more waste you produce.
Regarding QA well let me tell you that there should be someone that makes QA of QA and this is and endless loop.
A last advice listen to your employees they know better than you in which areas there are problems.
Maybe you are a Pharaoh… but the the guy who cuts the rocks knows better which one will work for your pyramid… ; )

utkarsh sharma

what do we mean by containment in lean?


Hi Terrance, Thank you for the nice summary & explanation. I agree too many people do get stuck in the hammer – nail trap, and we need to look at the problem first, and then use the appropriate method to resolve it. I’ve seen this graphic before and it kind of distorts Kaizen, which are really continuous minor changes. The bulleted descriptors should really have a title like Kaizen Blitz (as you list in your post) or Kaikaku. What do you think?


Hi Fred, I’ve seen 6S fail & succeed in the private sector, but the US Gov’t has had great success. The outstanding results seen by the U.S. Army and Navy implementations of Lean Six Sigma in 2005 and 2006 when they saved a combined $2.45 billion as of 2008 (Forbes 9/12,2012). I do not know if they would ever achieve a sustainable enterprise transformation, like Toyota or Danaher, but few have.


love to further study


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