“What is lean six sigma?” is a question Western businesspeople have been asking themselves for decades since the meteoric rise of Japanese industry in the 1980s. Since the term’s introduction, many companies have successfully implemented lean six sigma into their production processes and workflow. It has become, to some, an article of faith. For others, it remains a mysterious concept, hidden behind a vague name and distant origins.
Today, we’re unpacking the six sigma definition to a “T”. We’ll walk you through the lean six sigma process, some of the methodology, and also the lean six sigma principles. Whether you’re looking to optimize production within your own company, or you’re looking to build an arsenal of tools and ideas to help you throughout a business or consulting career, you’ll be glad you took the time to investigate Lean Six Sigma.
What Is Lean Six Sigma?
Okay, so exactly what is Lean Six Sigma? Here is the definition in the simplest terms. It is a “lean” approach to management and business operations that prioritizes the end user’s needs to eliminate waste. Lean Six Sigma is straightforward to learn. It has a fairly low cost of implementation, and many have found that its effects on business operation over time can be powerful. Lean Six Sigma is a combination of what have come to be known as the Six Sigma methods within the philosophy of lean manufacturing/lean enterprise. The result is a form of company-wide culture that seeks to use a team-oriented approach to improve overall performance. It does this by driving out defects and waste at every stage of production. This includes wastes of time, manpower, talent, and physical/material resources.
The history of Lean Six Sigma traces back to an engineer at Motorola, who introduced the Lean Six Sigma concept in 1986. By the 1990s, it had made its way into American managerial discourse. The governing philosophy is that anything that does not ultimately produce value for the final customer is a waste and should be eliminated. A true implementation of Lean Six Sigma involves a cultural shift, with every employee constantly seeking ways to optimize production and eliminate waste.
Lean Six Sigma draws on the Japanese concept of muda—wastefulness, uselessness, futility.
The many possible forms of muda/waste are collected under the acronym DOWNTIME. This refers to Defects, Over-Production, Waiting, Non-Utilized Talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra-Processing.
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Six Sigma Lean Process
Lean Six Sigma encompasses a total shift in company culture. Therefore, it’s difficult to distill the Six Sigma Lean process to a single set of operations. It’s more correct to say that Lean Six Sigma is a collaborative and company-wide orientation. The ways different parts of a company manifest that shared orientation can be broadly encapsulated in the DMAIC phases. DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. This is as close to the core of the Six Sigma methodology as you can get.
The exact tools used will differ according to the situation. Some involve relatively in-depth statistical & empirical analysis, failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA), statistical process control (SPC), process mapping, and more. But the Lean Six Sigma principles and the DMAIC framework are simple enough that just about any employee should be able to implement them.
Six Sigma Examples
The Six Sigma concept refers to a philosophy of process improvement that seeks to eliminate defects from 99.99966% of all opportunities. Therefore, any effort to eliminate defects from production can be understood to be in some way aligned to the Six Sigma principles. Yet, Six Sigma itself implies a systematic and empirical approach to eliminate virtually all defects.
Some Six Sigma examples include:
- A software designer perfecting code so that 99.99966% of all operations are performed without bugs or glitches.
- A matzo manufacturer improving production techniques so that 99.99966% of matzos reach the customer unbroken.
- An auto manufacturer improving assembly line ergonomics so that 99.99966% of welds are performed successfully.
- A “chicken sexer” improving his technique until he successfully differentiates between male and female chicks in 99.99966% of his opportunities.
Sometimes the simplest concepts, carefully applied, can have the most powerful effects. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than Lean Six Sigma. In the past several decades, many of the biggest and most powerful companies on Earth have interiorized the Lean Six Sigma principles. To be sure, the ways they have applied Lean Six Sigma have varied and have involved exceedingly complex analyses & operations. But the basic thrust of Lean Six Sigma as a process orientation couldn’t be simpler: companies will be more successful and efficient if they try to eliminate mistakes and waste from the workflow.
Now, the simplicity of Lean Six Sigma does not necessarily mean it’s easy to implement. It can be straightforward, but difficult. Lean Six Sigma involves getting every level of an organization and every employee on the same frequency, working as a team to consistently iterate and improve operations. There is a kind of idealism, or unreachable perfectionism to Lean Six Sigma. And yet, even if the ideal of absolute efficiency and 100% success can’t be perfectly realized, collectively orienting towards it can have enormous positive impacts on a company.
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