• How and why Lean is better than Six Sigma

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    IF YOU’RE a corporate manager, you have to think like a child to understand this article. You have to ask a lot of innocent questions like, why water is wet or why the sun is hot. In “Fooling Houdini” (2012), author-magician Alex Stone says it’s difficult to fool a child when you do a magic trick before them. Stone, who has an advanced degree in physics says: “When you really start to look at magic and how it works—the sort of nuts and bolts of how magic fools us—you start to ask some rather profound questions.”

    Now, let me ask one profound question: why do some people consider Six Sigma as a magic potion, when it is not? My answer can be summarized in one word—hype. If you’re not convinced, let us simplify things so that the kid in us can understand what we’re talking about.

    In my research, I came across Mark Deluzio’s newly-minted title, “Turn Waste into Wealth: How to Find Cash in Every Corner of the Company.” What is interesting about this 2016 book, is about its critical view of Six Sigma, which is described as something that has “gained a reputation it doesn’t deserve….

    “In-company practitioners, sometimes called Green Belts and Black Belts, require extensive training in statistics and data analysis.” And when you talk about training that means bringing everyone in the organization to attend expensive workshops. This brings to mind—how many employees in the corporate world are interested in statistics? In reality, how many of us are interested in mathematics, anyway?

    At times, when you’re heavy on statistics, chances are, you may be like a drunkard who uses lamp posts for support rather than for lighting.

    Why make it difficult for everyone to study statistics and data analytics, when it is easy to identify non-value adding steps in work processes and eliminates obstruction to continuous flow of materials and information, which is the essence of “Lean” thinking? That is, of course, if you have open eyes, heart and mind.

    I’m not saying that statistics and data analytics are not important. What I’m saying is why buy an expensive ballpoint pen when a pencil will serve the purpose?

    The truth of the matter about Lean is as simple as engaging everyone, every day and everywhere to be actively conscious of the destructive effects of DOWNTIME (Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, and Non-use of corporate resources, Transportation, Inventory, Motion and Extra-processing).

    You don’t need Six Sigma to understand how DOWNTIME can contribute to corporate losses.

    Six Sigma is too elite for many of us. According to Deluzio, it means requiring “macho titles such as Black Belt (that) breeds elitism, which is antithetical to Lean” that requires an army of problem-solvers to actively seek problems and generate as many low-cost, common-sense solutions. You should know what I mean.

    It’s better for all employees to think of at least 10 percent solutions, rather than wait for a 100-percent solution created by a genius who is difficult to come by in the first place.

    Lean expert Deluzio, who is a pre-eminent thought leader in the Lean industry and is a life member of the Shingo Prize Academy, or the so-called Lean Hall of Fame, points out that “Six Sigma is expensive and requires a lot of problem-solving time, often six to nine months per project” that are managed by “highly paid operatives.”

    Now, how many organizations can afford to pay several millions of pesos or hundreds of dollars before creating a pool of yellow or green belters, if not black belters and wait for nine months to solve a nagging operational issue?
    There’s one best practice on this. Sometime ago, I was a judge of an annual competition of quality circles in one major electronics and semiconductor firm that relied on its factory workers (with only a high school diploma) to save close to $100 million at that time.

    Surely, you can coach high school graduates and many kids in us to solve even invisible wastes that make organizations uncompetitive. One simple approach is to organize a one-week Lean (or kaizen) event to solve operational wastes. Another approach is a 2-3-day Value Stream Mapping workshop, which is very economical.

    Six Sigma can blind us, in the same manner that it destroys our common sense. Therefore, the best approach is Lean thinking of the Western world, a.k.a. the generic kaizen for the Japanese, and the branded Toyota Production System. “Lean, not Six Sigma, is the big picture,” says Deluzio.

    By the way, don’t forget to pass on this article to your elementary grade pupils.

    Rey Elbo is a consultant on human resources and total quality management as fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or twitter for his random management thoughts.


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    1. Merry Christmas, Zorayda! You missed many points in the article. Let me summarize them here. I prefer Lean over Six Sigma for so many reasons. One, Lean is a low-cost approach than SS. Two, Lean is easy to learn than SS because it takes only common sense to do just that. Read my latest article “Why the Urinal Fly in Men’s Public Toilet is a Bright Idea.” Three, Lean is for everyone while SS is for those with elite, macho ninja belts like Black belts. Four, SS prescribes statistics and data analytics even for a simple problem. Five, a training program for Lean is shorter (maximum of one week) than SS’s six to nine months training before a project is realized. Six, Lean problem-solving can be done by anyone, even high school graduates rather than SS that is preferred by engineers. Seven, Toyota’s much vaunted quality and productivity system has practiced Lean since more than 60 years ago, without even knowing what SS was all about. I can list down several reasons more. But I guess these are more than enough for us now. Thanks for the feedback! Happy New Year!

      • Happy New Year, Rey. Thank you for taking the time to reply. I agree with the advantages of Lean over Six Sigma that you have enumerated in your response. What I don’t agree with is that you imply that Lean is ALWAYS better than Six Sigma.

        We have solved a lot of issues using Lean tools. Our line associates, technicians, professionals and sometimes managers complete a lot of waste reduction projects using kaizen blitzes, SGAs and other Lean tools. Sometimes, these are enough to get to 80% or higher yield (or whatever EHS/quality/delivery/cost target).

        I have also found MANY issues in my company that can be solved ONLY by Six Sigma tools. More often, these are projects where our engineers improve yield from 95% to 99%+.

    2. To say that Lean is better than Six Sigma or vice versa is to ignore the specific problem to be solved or the stage in the Continuous Improvement journey the organization is in. Companies need both, but it helps to start with Lean first.

      For example, a newly transferred product with a 40% yield could be improved to 80% or maybe 90% using Lean techniques such as value stream mapping, 6S, flow kaizen, pull kaizen, etc. We usually find it increasingly more difficult to get to the last 10% using traditional Lean techniques alone. We need to use process capability analysis, hypothesis tests, design of experiments, etc. By this time, the company could have freed up a lot of resources or have the resources to train at least 1 Black Belt to lead the team closer to 100% first-time-through yield.

      Six Sigma training is expensive and statistics is considered difficult to learn, but these shouldn’t lead us to ignore the value Six Sigma adds to solving problems.

    3. Cause a pencil can be easily erased and a pen writes permanently.

      As a practitioner of both Lean and Six Sigma, both are effective and both significantly improve operations. Most companies use both statistics and lean methods to improve.

      You cannot improve unless you measure it. When you measure, you must be able to apply statistics and data analysis to those measurements to understand the current situation and to evaluate the improvement. One cannot ignore statistics for process improvement, including lean activities.

      You mention that when investing in Six Sigma the company needs to bring everyone in and the company experiences expenses for all these employees. Yet you also state that when applying lean you must engage everyone everyday. Is this not a training expense as well?

      The Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma certification is not just statistics. These courses teach a broad range of tools useful for problem solving. The truth is you need both types of abilities (statistics and lean tools) at the company. But not everyone needs these skills. You just need experts of the tools to guide the improvement teams.

      Most Six Sigma companies such as Motorola and GE did not ignore Lean when making improvements. They use the Lean concepts such as 5S, StreamLining, Waste walking, and Value Stream Mapping during their process improvement and Six Sigma projects. But if you don’t use tools like Design of Experiments, CpK, SPC, and statistical testing you will be missing out on a broad range of cost reduction, solving difficult process problems and preventing issues.

      • The pencil and ballpoint pen analogy is the simplified version of a story on how NASA scientists spent millions of dollars to discover a writing instrument that can write on space, while their Russian counterparts used pencils. There are many stories to describe this low-cost vs. expensive strategies. Another one is attributed to Prof Jeffrey Liker of The Toyota Way fame about a toothpaste factory that bought several million-dollars worth of weighing scale to prevent them from delivering empty boxes to customers. This was done before an ordinary worker used a $20 electric fan to solve the same problem and made the expensive scale irrelevant. That’s the difference between an expensive Six Sigma training and a low-cost lean workshop done in not more than one week, rather than months. Of course, we need to measure before we can manage things. But we don’t need statistics to do just that. You only have to understand the killer expenses in the organization based on the DOWNTIME approach and you’re on your way to success. You don’t need a flame thrower to kill houseflies.Lean Six Sigma? Well, I would normally advise people not to stay in the middle of the road or you’ll get run over.