Lean Six Sigma: Red Hot Relevance

June 2, 2010
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Surveys, interviews, and focus groups are useful in turning that dialogue into formal feedback that can be collected and analyzed based on what the customers say and value. Source: Xerox


Process improvement methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma have gone through several boom and bust cycles since their introduction in the mid-80s. Despite moving in and out of favor, the longevity of Lean and Six Sigma can be attributed to the flexibility and applicability to companies of all sizes in all industries.

As organizations work to capitalize on the rebounding economy, many are finding that optimizing processes creates a competitive advantage, providing critical differentiation from competitors by driving strategic planning and decision making, and delivering value to customers. Thinking in terms of Lean and Six Sigma has never been more important, and all industries are saying goodbye to the days when process improvement methodologies were secret weapons reserved for manufacturing companies and big players.

Lean Six Sigma harnesses the speed of Lean and the quality of Six Sigma to create one powerful tool with the potential to achieve more together than either could separately. It is a tried and true methodology that continually evolves to become more relevant to companies looking to deploy new efficiencies and streamline processes.

A Kano analysis helps to understand the relationship between needs and customer satisfaction, dissatisfaction and delight. It helps a provider to focus on solutions that will achieve maximum satisfaction for customers based on spoken and unspoken needs. Source: Xerox

Deliver Value to Customers

As driving value for customers is a significant focus of Lean Six Sigma, collecting the voice of the customer (VOC), or data that describes customers’ needs and perceptions, is a simple way to begin establishing relevance. There is no better way to understand how to better serve customers than by gathering their direct feedback. Developing lasting customer relationships requires an intimate understanding of the customers’ needs, a tremendous amount of listening and a lot of dialogue. Surveys, interviews and focus groups are useful in turning that dialogue into formal feedback that can be collected and analyzed based on what the customers say and value.

The next step is to prioritize the VOC and translate it into requirements that are critical to quality. Simple tools such as a Kano analysis can be used to help shape the approach to developing solutions that address those customers’ needs. A Kano analysis helps to understand the relationship between needs and customer satisfaction, dissatisfaction and delight. It helps a provider to focus on solutions that will achieve maximum satisfaction for customers based on spoken and unspoken needs.

Use a Fast and Agile Approach

Progress is being made in the battle against the train of thought that Lean Six Sigma is cumbersome, time intensive and bureaucratic. It is possible to embed Lean Six Sigma into the business culture by improving cycle time and reducing complexity.

Beginning with a small, minimal commitment project can give an organization the opportunity to examine firsthand the value Lean Six Sigma can deliver. One way to kick the tire is to leverage a Kaizen event. A Japanese word meaning change for the better, a Kaizen is a type of blitz project-Lean Six Sigma tools and methodologies are used in a condensed time period. The event typically ranges from a few days to one week and aims to increase efficiency and eliminate waste in a focused area of the process.

A Kaizen starts with the selection of a team of individuals who have the right skills, process knowledge and authority or empowerment from management to make the changes agreed upon at the end of the event. The team is then trained on the area of focus, key metrics that can be improved and Lean Six Sigma tools that will be applicable. Resources required for the Kaizen are gathered, and team roles and responsibilities are clearly defined. A successful event is dependent on this planning and preparation, especially for the Kaizen leader. Once started, the team uses the appropriate Lean Six Sigma thinking to address workflow problems and identify non-value added steps. Solutions are typically implemented immediately following the event, allowing for dramatically improved productivity on day one.

Make Smart Decisions Every Day

Facts, data and the methodology inherent in Lean Six Sigma can support better decision making. However, not all business issues require the rigor of a full project and tool set. Companies are now starting to extend the application of this strong, informed decision making into more simple, daily problem solving.

Using Lean Six Sigma tools and thought processes, along with intuitive thinking, helps employees tackle core assignments with greater efficiency. The target problems and decisions are typically of lower complexity and size, and can be made in real time with the available data and information on hand. This mindset provides agility while maintaining the discipline of sound decision making.

Utilizing Lean Six Sigma thinking in everyday work can return immediate and tangible results. These quick wins can reduce errors and improve productivity with minimal effort and time. The concept takes Lean Six Sigma’s power and applies it to relevant situations.

Boost Innovation

The idea of Lean Six Sigma and innovation being used in the same process, or even the same sentence, is considered by many to be an oxymoron. However, companies have recently begun using Lean Six Sigma to aid their innovation processes with significant success. Innovation-creativity at its best-fuels growth and drives business results. Lean Six Sigma is shaking off its longtime criticism as a creativity suppressor as it helps get new solutions into the hands of customers faster.

Research and development labs traditionally work on products and services that help customers improve productivity and grow business. Moving an idea from inception to a tangible solution requires not just one well-designed method, but many well-designed processes that are continuously evaluated for improvements. This is where Lean Six Sigma methodology plays an integral role-a process improvement team working alongside engineers to deliver a product that not only meets the needs of the customer, but does so in the most efficient and economical way possible.

Design for Lean Six Sigma is a technique that specifically focuses on supporting the design and delivery of new technology. Leveraging the methodology throughout the development process facilitates the ability of the product to go to market on time, hit customer quality metrics and improve customer productivity.

Innovation is known to take unpredictable twists and turns, but there are processes that guide it. Processes have characteristics that can be measured, analyzed and controlled. Use this knowledge to set reasonable goals-identify what is possible in the short-term and what the ideal long-term is. After the project is under way, monitor progress against goals and make adjustments as necessary.

Using the Belbin Team Role system when selecting project participants can help develop a group that will work at its highest potential. The system is meant to identify a person’s strengths, weaknesses, roles and skills. Source: Xerox

Leverage People

People are the most critical change agents and the key to innovation and implementation. The team members are the most important part of any project, and empowering them to identify ways to streamline operations is a significant way to maximize their talent.

Using the Belbin Team Role system when selecting project participants can help develop a group that will work at the highest potential. Developed in the 1970s by Meredith Belbin, a researcher in the United Kingdom, the system is meant to identify a person’s strengths, weaknesses, roles and skills. The system operates on the basis that a mix of roles proves to be more effective than a group of like-minded members. An optimal group size is five to seven people with a variety of the nine set behaviors. When participants know everyone’s strengths, weaknesses and comfort zones, they develop a better understanding of the group dynamics and are able to communicate more effectively to avoid problems.

Senior leaders are critical to the long-term success and adoption of Lean Six Sigma in any organization. Demonstrated commitment from the top can champion the changes and motivate groups to work together. Leadership also must sign off on the education and training of the workforce. Employees are more willing to participate in new ways of working if they understand the value of the changes.

Move Forward

Most companies have been forced to take a hard look at operations and ways in which to improve business processes. Lean Six Sigma has never been more applicable for companies regardless of industry or business size to enable high performance processes. Properly used over time, Lean Six Sigma is a source of sustainable competitive advantage. Q

Tech Tips

  • Lean Six Sigma harnesses the speed of Lean and the quality of Six Sigma to create one powerful tool.

  • As driving value for customers is a significant focus of Lean Six Sigma, collecting the voice of the customer is a simple way to begin establishing relevance.

  • Facts, data and the methodology inherent in Lean Six Sigma can support better decision making.

  • People are the most critical change agents and the key to innovation and implementation.


  • Quality Online

    For more information on Lean Six Sigma, click on the following articles:

    “Leading the Way”
    “Lean Defense”
    “The Inside Track on Six Sigma Training”

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