The War Rages On
I continue to be amazed, angered, and saddened by this war. I see it fought every day, and I look forward to the day when it will go away. After spending over 27 years in business, with most of them being in the world of continuous improvement, I can see the irony and senselessness of this battle. Are you a lean organization or a six sigma organization? Which philosophy should we use? I have even heard people arguing about which approach is better. What is most amazing however is that each tool set, philosophy package, or improvement methodology has been around for twenty years or more - you know, before computers. The tools aren't new, but the war rages on.
Both approaches represent tool sets for process improvement! Work in its simplest sense is a collection of processes that are performed by people and machines each day. If you look at the application summaries of past Baldrige winners, you will see this definition repeated time and time again. At its core, six sigma is a measure of process quality and a methodology for making process improvements. The essence of lean thinking is grounded in the Toyota Production System, which considers people and processes to be its two main pillars. Both approaches represent tool sets, belief systems, and ways of thinking. Both approaches can help make your organization better, and you need both in order to move closer towards your optimum performance levels and effectively pursue process excellence. This is truly a case where you can take and use the best of both worlds - you can have your six sigma cake and eat your lean cake too.
There are several similarities between these two tool sets. Both approaches require the use of teams, be they kaizen teams or six sigma project teams. Both approaches function best if they have managed by experienced (certified) people, such as black belts, green belts, or lean consultants. Both approaches require behavior change and systems change to occur if you want to see true improvement, and both approaches can save you significant time and money if they are effectively implemented.
Most importantly however, both approaches require supportive work systems in order to have a significant impact and to sustain great results over time. This is perhaps the saddest similarity of all - in most cases, the current applications of these tools that are taking place around the world will either greatly underachieve or they will die within one to two years of attempted implementation, just as quality circles, process reengineering, the learning organization, and systems thinking did. Of course, these tool sets are not really dead - they are just not the program of the month anymore.
Sure there are differences. Is a screwdriver different than a hammer? Is a metric socket set different than a standard socket set? Isn't the content of your tool box different than the contents of your neighbor's tool box? These differences are largely due to the fact that each school of thought has different roots. Lean thinking was born from industrial engineering and Toyota Production System parents. Six sigma has its roots in the philosophies of Shewhart's and Deming's work, as put into practice by General Electric, Allied Signal, and Motorola in the early 1990s. The tools are both different and complimentary. The most important fact however is that one is not better than the other - you need, can benefit from the use of, and should be using both.
Six sigma approaches primarily differ by the way the tools are arranged in the tool box. Are we teaching a team approach to project implementation, or are we showing people how to measure process performance? Lean approaches mainly differ by the number of tools offered in the the tool set - have you bought the new poka yoke and kanban tools yet, or is your collection limited to value stream mapping, 5S, and quick changeover? In the simplest sense, six sigma tools are used to measure process quality, reduce process variation, and improve process performance using a formal problem solving process. Lean tools are used to improve and redesign our processes as well, but but more from the perspective of putting specific work practices in place to reduce process waste and increase customer value. The amount of philosophical overlap that exists however can quickly blur even this most basic distinction.
Why are we fighting this war? I feel that this battle can be attributed to several factors. We could blame it all on naivety - most people simply don't know enough about the two tool sets to effectively compare and contrast them. I am fortunate to have grown up with continuous improvement. I have learned from the successes and failures of improvement approaches over twenty five plus years. I have worked in companies that have experimented with, and learned from, the multitude of improvement angles that have been thrown out there over time. A lot of people are not this fortunate, or they chose not to become self-absorbed with continuous improvement, instead choosing to focus on other things that they considered to be really important in life. Why were the snake oil salesmen successful in the late 1800s? The people on the plains didn't know any better - they actually thought that Professor Black's Magic Elixir would cure all of their ailments.
In a similar sense, we could blame it all on money hungry consultants and other educational providers - people who know (or should know) about these similarities and differences, but choose not to tell you about them in order to make more money off of you. These people actually prey off of the failure of other approaches - that way of thinking did not work, let's try using this 'new' set of tools. The sad part is that many of them are just about as naive as the people they are selling to. In many cases, they only know one approach as it was used in the company that either laid them off or they retired from - the better ones may have read more books or spent more time doing web searches to at least learn the buzzwords.
Finally, we fight this battle because we are trying to make more money and become more competitive. Some of us want to truly improve our organizations, and others want to be the one who dies with the most toys. Our Western culture inspires us to try to keep up with the Jones, to seek the quick fix, and to finish at the top of the leader board. Infomercials condition us to believe that the quick fixes really work. Poor time management forces us to try the tools that the 'experts' say will get us where we want to go the fastest. Unfortunately, these cultural attributes are actually not that attractive or beneficial. They do however help some people make a lot of money. The sad part is that if you used these tools right, and in concert with each other, you would never have to buy another set of tools again.
We need to put an end to this war. If nothing else, we are driving our people crazy by throwing new tool set after new tool set at them. We are hurting our credibility with our employees when we try to sell them the bill of goods that someone sold to us, or attempt to put new ways of doing business in place without addressing the real systemic causes of our poor performance, such as poor leadership, planning, job design, communication, or training. The bottom line is that we are wasting lots of time and money trying to put ways of thinking and improving in place that are designed to save time and money simply by purchasing more tools. We are 'killing people' and doing organizational damage without really gaining anything. Doesn't that sound like a senseless war? I mean come on - lean and six sigma alone wasn't good enough, so we then went and created lean six sigma - the combo tool kit in other words! I hope that you didn't buy all three sets!!
If you want to get more out of the process improvement dollars you spend and increase the likelihood that each of your leaders is positively impacting your company's culture each day, take the time explore this website further. If you like what you see here and want to actually put some of the systems offered on this site in place, send me an e-mail and we can begin to create a plan for making this happen.
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“The only thing I know is that I do not know it all.” -- Socrates