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July 07, 20224 min read

I was recently reading through the Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) forum and came across a thread titled “What is Lean Six Sigma?” The person who started the thread posted the question with what they have come to understand to be the meaning of Lean Six Sigma. They started with a few definitions of lean straight from both the Urban dictionary (which is way out of context to this discussion, but still funny to read), and the free dictionary version of Lean. This person took the traditional version of lean, which is basically “less fatty” and tied it to Lean Six Sigma. They defined Lean Six Sigma as “Six Sigma without the fat”. To be honest, I love this definition, but I want to take it a bit further and give my spin on what Lean Six Sigma means.

When I hear the term Lean, I immediately think of the Toyota Production System. The TPS is a proven system for identifying and eliminating waste. In fact, it was so successful for Toyota, that many other companies adopted it and re-named it (Company Name) Production System. I use the generic because I have seen many different companies with their own Production System that is a clone of the original TPS. So, what is it and what makes it so good? A friend of mine defined Lean in a way that is simple yet spot on. He said, “True Lean simply makes your problems visible”. He is exactly right. When we use the basic tools of Lean, (5S, Standard Work, Kanban, Total Productive Maintenance, etc.) our problems stick out like a sore thumb. When every tool has a designated place, it becomes obvious when a tool is missing. When every job has a defined sequence, it becomes easier to train and maintain quality. One of my favorite parts of what I do is when Lean finally “clicks” with a person I am working with. When they can truly see the waste and they have that Ah-Ha moment, I feel that I have accomplished something. My belief is that once you can see it, you can’t un-see it. It then becomes a conscious decision to ignore the problems, and that is a much bigger issue.

Anyone who has been involved with Six Sigma understands how deep into the rabbit hole you can get when collecting data. Data is key with Six Sigma. My time in the Automotive Industry exposed me to levels of detail and data collection that I had never experienced before and have rarely come across since. I held my supply chain to extremely high expectations and ensured that Statistical Process Control was implemented at every location to ensure that the critical characteristics of their products were maintained within specification. I see Six Sigma as the ideal state for quality control. I say this with the knowledge that most companies are not even close to being able to implement Six Sigma, and in some cases, Six Sigma wouldn’t make sense. My basis for this statement is that many companies don’t collect data, or don’t know what data to collect in order to understand their processes statistically. I do understand that most Six Sigma training courses guide companies through a basic DMAIC cycle to solve a problem and I think this is great, but I do struggle when I hear companies or individuals tout that they are Six Sigma, but they don’t have any data to back it up.

Where does Lean Six Sigma fit in? Although I love the definition from the AME forum, I believe that Lean Six Sigma is the blending of the two methodologies. I also believe that it is called Lean Six Sigma for a reason. Lean must come first. I believe that implementing a Lean system will allow you to clean up the mess that you are currently buried in. Put your processes in order and stabilize them. Once this is complete, you can begin diving deeper into your efficiencies through Six Sigma methodologies. What methodology is right for your situation? It all depends on where you are in your journey and what you are looking to improve. Most people and companies need to start with Lean and begin the transformation there. Other companies have a good Lean system in place and can start diving into the data for Six Sigma projects. It all depends on the vision of the company and the long-term goals. Where are you heading? Do you know where to start? Maybe you need some training on Lean Six Sigma, we offer accredited training programs that fit your individual needs. Understand that you are not alone in the struggle to improve, and we would love to help steer you in the right direction. Check out some of our testimonials and case studies on our website. Follow us on social media, and by all means reach out to us, we are here to help.

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