Use the right tool for the situation.

There are some who debate whether Six Sigma Black Belts or Lean Six Sigma Black Belts are the modern replacements for the quality engineer. From a review of the ASQ body of knowledge reveals some overlap in the desired skills but the quality engineer is broader and deeper. There are advantages to each, but one thing is for certain: the quality professional, regardless of the person’s certifications or standing in the organization, has to be conversant in the language of Six Sigma to help guide his organization.

The difference between organizations that succeed at sustained lean implementation and those that don’t may be the level of thinking driven by lean rules and principles. How we think determines our behaviors and no tool, regardless of its intended outcome, can remedy that.

As an example, let’s consider 5S. I asked a quality engineering student the other day for a definition of 5S. The answer was “to clean things up, organize and keep it tidy.” That definition wasn’t completely wrong, but it was an example of how a tool can be misused without the right thought process. If 5S is implemented in a factory to “clean it up” without understanding that the principle behind it is to identify problems quickly, it becomes nothing more than a housekeeping exercise and will likely fail as a sustainable tool. For 5S to be of real value, we must internalize the ability to very quickly detect problems and enable immediate resolution.

To further illustrate the point, let’s consider kanban. Kanban, which means signboard or billboard in Japanese, has been a major tool in the Toyota Production System since the mid 1950s. It is a concept related to lean and just in time (JIT) production. According to Taiichi Ohno, the man credited with developing JIT, kanban is one means through which JIT is achieved.

A simplistic description: A downstream process uses parts from an upstream process. As those parts are consumed, a kanban card is removed and sent to the upstream process. When a predetermined number of cards are accumulated by the upstream process, production may begin to replenish the stock used by the downstream process. Sounds simple doesn’t it?

The kanban card is the method by which parts are requested. However, it doesn’t mean just to “send us more parts.” It means to send exactly the number of parts on the card or what has been otherwise documented. It also means to send them right away.

In companies where kanban is used successfully, there is an understanding that the cards (or other forms of notification) are a customer request (order) and not just a card. It represents a clear customer-supplier connection.

In just about every quality management book, we can read about the lean tools. Managers can delegate the application and implementation to just about anyone in their organization. However, management and the organization won’t be successful without internalizing the principles of lean throughout the workforce. The principles will guide thinking and understanding which will lead to not just implementation, but daily decision-making, problem-solving and managing.

Many organizations are trying to copy the Toyota Production System (TPS), from which many of the lean tools were generated, without fully understanding the concepts and principles. The TPS grew out of the workings of the company throughout a period of 50 to 60 years and it has never really been fully documented. The principles and commitment have been ingrained in their organization.

A few years ago, a large manufacturing company visited several plants utilizing the lean tools. A delegate of managers easily noticed several things they could implement at their facilities. They mistakenly thought the difference in both operations was what they could visibly see. What they failed to ask was why all those ideas were created in the first place. This is where lean thinking comes into play. Lean is not so much about what you see but it is more about how you think.

As quality professionals we must fully understand the lean tools and help their organizations implement the right tools for the right situation in order to get the right results. We must become multilingual and completely understand all the tools if we are to guide our organizations to succeed in this challenging environment. If we don’t, who will?