Lean or Six Sigma: Which Goes First?

Guest Blog from Mike Carnell, CS International

June 26, 2014

Note: This essay was first published by ASQ in Six Sigma Forum Magazine in May of 2014

Situation: A facilitator is addressing a room full of C‐suite executives and asks, "What were you hired to do?" Their answers may vary based on their interest, for example, strategy, operations or financial analysis. The facilitator then agrees that their answers may be true, but there is one key thing that they were all hired to do, and asks what that is. The room is silent. The facilitator answers: "Thinking. Wern't they all hired to think?" Everybody agrees.

The facilitator then asks the group to define thinking, since it was agreed that it is what they were hired to do. The room goes silent again. The facilitator proceeds to tell them: "Let's say you are driving down the road and ahead of you on the right (they are all located in the United States) there is a large red octagonal sign. You slowly move your right foot from the accelerator to the brake as you approach the sign. You lower it again to begin applying pressure to the brake. Eventually, the car stops slightly ahead of the sign and to its left."

Now the facilitator proceeds to ask the class: "Has everyone done this?" Their answer is yes, unanimously. The facilitator adds: "Do you have to think about it each time you do that?" The class answers: "No, this is a pattern we recognize." The facilitator adds: "So the people with the most patterns would be the quickest to stop thinking?" The room is silent.

Pattern Traps

Why is it so often asked: "What do I do first — Lean or Six Sigma?" As long as you believe there is a lean bucket for waste reduction and a Six Sigma bucket for defect reduction, it no longer requires thought. You just follow the pattern. Once you answer that question, it invokes patterns. Once it is a pattern, it no longer requires thought. You are then free to automatically execute steps because that is our pattern. Have you really thought about the problem?

Suppose someone decides that lean should always be used first. That is a pattern, so no thought is required. What comes next? Everybody knows the answer to that. You implement the lean pattern: workplace organization first, standardized work second, continuous improvement third, then just‐in‐time and kanban. That is the lean pattern. When you implement workplace organization, 5S is the first step, because that is how you are taught. What is the 5S pattern? It's been covered in every 5S class: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain. There is no need to think about the problem because regardless of it, you will begin to sort because that is where 5S begins.

These are such standardized patterns, and as such, they could never be wrong. But what if it is wrong? It certainly isn't your fault, you are just following the patterns you were taught. Without having to spend any energy or time on thought, you have now gone from deciding if you should implement lean or Six Sigma to sorting, and at no point thought about the actual problem that needed to be solved. As long as we know the patterns, then the assumption is that we cannot be wrong in our process.

So what if it is not an issue using lean? Let's test Six Sigma. Imagine in your organization, projects are always accomplished using Six Sigma first. We understand the Six Sigma method is define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC). There is the pattern, so projects begin with define. Is there an order for the define tool? Of course there is. This is the 21st century version of Hammurabi's Code of Laws so everyone else can follow what's "written in stone." We even have software these days that allows you to program the order of the tools into the software. Once the information is entered into a computer, it is true and correct by definition. However, should you choose to violate the Six Sigma's Hammurabi's Code of Laws, there are established toll gates. These toll gates are not there to check whether you are using a thought process for each step in the DMAIC process, it is just a checklist designed to ensure you have used all your tools. Should you not execute all your tools, you will be firmly admonished, regardless of whether you have made substantial progress toward a problem resolution. The admonishment could be for something as simple as the project has not been confined to an A3 size sheet of paper.

It doesn't matter which direction you choose, you can follow the patterns, from beginning steps right down to the end, and at no point is the actual problem ever thought about. Training stresses that developing patterns is what is important — that they are even written in stone — and that gives you the liberty to execute the entire process without further thought. The point of the process is lost — the point was to solve a problem, not execute a process.

Saving Innovation

Has Six Sigma killed innovation? Probably not, unless your projects are only delivering known solutions. That would also mean your project selection process is broken. Given that projects come up with original solutions, innovation is not dead by definition. What may be considered dead is the innovation in problem solving. These methods are taught in patterns because it is easier than teaching people to understand the thought process. The patterns are institutionalized with tollgates because it is easier to review a project rather than understand the thought process. People are more concerned about successfully executing patterns.

The point of the entire initiative is to resolve a problem, not to execute a pattern. It is the bureaucracy that is wrapped around processes that kill innovation in continuous improvement. This is similar to the way people are taught to dance. Footprints are placed on the floor, and step patterns are taught. What is not taught is how to listen to the music or the rhythm. It is about stepping onto the next footprint and getting the steps correct and in the right order. Welcome to the Arthur Murray School of Problem Solving.

MIKE CARNELL is president and CEO of CS International in New Braunfels, TX. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Arizona State University in Tempe. Carnell is a member of ASQ.