Category Archives: Lean Six Sigma

When Lean and Six Sigma Don’t Work

Someone on LinkedIn recently asked “Are there examples of processes where the concept of Lean, the philosophy of Six Sigma, or other quality tools don’t work?

Fortunately, there have been plenty of researchers who have asked this question already. A persistent in theme in the management and quality management academic literature over the past several years has been to study the conditions under which quality practices “work”. To me, “working” means that the return on investment (ROI) has been worthwhile – doing the project yielded more benefits than not doing the project.

For all the bottom-line success stories from TQM implementations in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, and Six Sigma from the 1990’s until now, there are lots of “failed projects” that didn’t deliver on their promises.

My favorite overview is a meta-analysis from Benner & Tushman (2003) in the Academy of Management Review. Summarizing several other research studies, they found that “in stable, technologically certain settings [quality management] practices may be productive, [but] in uncertain or technically complex contexts these practices may be quite counterproductive.” The more rapidly the competitive environment is changing, the less likely quality management or process improvement will “work”.

  • Slowly changing competitive environment = Better success with quality initiatives
  • Rapidly changing competitive environment = Less success with quality initiatives

Granted, this isn’t a complete conclusion, because the skill and style of the process improvement team can impact its potential for success. But it does suggest that a company should consider the competitive environment as it sets its own expectations for what a process management initiative can deliver.


Benner, M.J. & Tushman, M.L. (2003). Exploitation, exploration, and process management: the productivity dilemma revisited. Academy of Management Review, 28(2), 238-256.

What is Green Six Sigma?

Green Six Sigma, also called “Green Sigma” by IBM, refers to a Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma (LSS) project in which the tangible benefits are also environmentally conscious – such as reducing landfill waste, reducing energy requirements, reducing variation in energy usage, and systematically conserving energy or other natural resources (e.g. water). In addition to the environmental benefits, there are also often cost reductions – trash service can be expensive, especially if the refuse needs to be hauled or special pick-ups must be arranged.

Although the term may be new, the practice is not! One of the pillars of the Toyota Production System, which developed in the early days after World War II, was its aggressive attitude towards waste – Toyota was the first company to achieve zero landfill waste in all of its operations. The tools and techniques of Green Six Sigma are identical to those used in any other LSS project.

In its 18 August 2008 press release “A Measured Approach to Going Green“, IBM describes the “Green Sigma” consulting offering. It’s nice that the company is calling attention to the fact that established methodologies can be used to promote sustainability, but don’t be confused – it’s not a novel approach.

What is Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma (LSS) is a structured problem-solving approach for improving quality and productivity. Lean approaches focus on improving speed and flow in business processes, which leads to the outcome of reducing waste. Tools such as value stream mapping (VSM), flow diagrams, 8D, FMEA, and OPCP are typically used. Six Sigma methods seek to reduce variation and/or defects in either processes or products. In these cases, methods such as statistical process control, design of experiments, and “Design for X” are often employed. The target metric is typically “Six Sigma”, which represents no more than 3.4 defects for every million opportunities you have to generate a defect. This means that how you define a defect is pretty important!

But what about if you want to take an integrated approach to problem solving, where you think about how reducing waste, reducing variation, and reducing defects are all inter-related? It is in precisely these cases that Lean Six Sigma is so valuable. Pundits advocating Lean will rightly note that Six Sigma methods don’t reduce waste; Six Sigma enthusiasts will point out that Lean can’t help you remove defects or manage variation. But what if the special cause that’s confounding your process is also generating tons of waste? Makes sense to look at the problem holistically, which is what LSS helps you do.

Both Lean and Six Sigma help us identify forces that make our processes unnecessarily complex. It is by rooting out these causes that we achieve the primary goals of LSS: reducing waste, reducing variation, and reducing defects. Using a framework like DMAIC helps us pose the following questions:

  • What’s your quality goal? (Hint: choose the most important from the three above)
  • How do you define a defect? (Note: this often changes for each new LSS project)
  • What tools can you use to achieve that quality goal, given a broad selection of Lean and Six Sigma methods to choose from?

(Specific examples illustrating how to ask and interpret these questions using DMAIC will be presented in future articles, along with a description of how to use the Lean Six Sigma Quality Transformation Toolkit – LSSQTT – to execute your project.)

A successfully completed Lean Six Sigma project will generate a clear tangible value. This could include financial savings, savings in time and effort, reduced costs of materials, improved cash flow, cycle time reduction, or improved (measurable) customer satisfaction. Typically, a single Lean Six Sigma project will improve only one or two of these variables. Don’t try to improve all at once, which could get you bogged down in details. Iteration is the key!

RIP Six Sigma: Management Fads and the Apocalypse

The End of Six Sigma?

The End of Six Sigma?

On December 21, 2012, the Sun aligns with the Galactic Center precisely – for the first time in 26,000 years. At the same time, the 5,000 year Mayan calendar resets to the year zero. Apocalyptic fears are running higher as a result (those Mayans must have known *something*, right?), and internet bulletin boards are swimming with speculation: “Is it the end of the world?”

As a scholar of quality management, I can’t help but notice a correlation between this prediction and one offered by Goeke & Offodile in a 2005 edition of the Quality Management Journal. By studying the frequency of articles tagged with “Six Sigma” in the ABI-Inform catalog over time, and comparing the results with quality circles and TQM (which they considered to be earlier fads) using a technique called “analogy forecasting,” they observed that a “fad” pattern seems to be apparent.

What is a fad? According to Abrahamson (1996), it’s a “relatively transitory collective belief… that a management technique leads rational management process.” In their pursuit of rationality, a mass of people tries out a particular management approach, and time ultimately leads them in another direction (hence the transitory part). Thus we shouldn’t look at a fad as something bad, necessarily – it might just reflect a normal collective learning process. Fads help us learn and develop tacit knowledge, regardless of whether they are perceived to “work out”.

If time confirms the forecast provided by analogy forecasting, Six Sigma will last about another 7 years. Hmmm… article published in 2005, add to that 7 years… and you get… 2012! Based on the faith that so many have placed in Six Sigma, it would not be surprising that a transition to a new management paradigm – for them – would feel like an apocalypse of sorts.

I am a proponent of applying Six Sigma analytical methods for improving performance in many situations, especially those that call for the systematic removal of defects and reducing variation. But it’s important to remember that underlying so many of these management methodologies is a foundational layer of common sense: your people must be aligned according to the values they share with one another, those values have to be aligned with the organization’s values, and the people have to know what to do day by day to keep things running, improve on them, and innovate for the future.

Some of the conclusions that Goeke & Offodile offer are excellent as well as fundamental:

“Management fads, when successful, disappear from view because they have become part of good, mainstream management practice.”

“Even when management fads don’t work out as planned, they still benefit by adding to the firm’s collective knowledge.”

I’d like to second this latter quote, and toss in two more benefits: a) attention to a new management approach, even if it turns out to be a fad, can stimulate collective awareness of a company’s current and desired core values, and b) the common language that is often provided can help rally people around a common vision – one step towards achieving real results.

Six Sigma, whether it is a management fad or just solid management practice “in transition” to something that becomes more invisible, will not change the underlying strategy of a business. Managers should always seek to establish solid, sustainable foundations – and continually improve upon them to achieve ever-increasing standards for excellence – regardless of whether they call it Six Sigma, or something else.


Abrahamson, E. (1996). Management fashion. Academy of Management Review, 21(1), 254-285.

Goeke, R.J. & Offodile, O.F. (2005). Forecasting management philosophy life cycles: a comparative study of Six Sigma and TQM. Quality Management Journal, 12(2), 34-36.

How do I do a Lean Six Sigma (LSS) Project?

First, you should familiarize yourself with what a Lean Six Sigma project is all about.

The Lean Six Sigma (LSS) projects I’ve done in the past have all used the Lean Six Sigma Quality Transformation Toolkit (LSSQTT), a structured problem-solving system that’s currently packaged as an Excel workbook (but has evolved in the past, and can be expected to evolve in the future to adapt to new software technologies). The LSSQTT was developed by John W. Sinn of Bowling Green State University.

  1. Define your problem in terms of quality goals
  2. Set up your team’s quality management system, which often involves applying the DMAIC methodology
  3. Apply a lean tool (e.g. VSM, SIPOC) or a Six Sigma tool (e.g. SPC) to your problem
  4. Evaluate the results
  5. Evaluate how everyone on your team performed during this phase of the project
  6. Review results, identify ways to apply the results to further analysis of the problem, and identify ways to improve personal performance through the next phase of the project
  7. Apply those findings to your problem and your quality management system; introduce a new lean or Six Sigma tool, and do Steps 4-7 again
  8. Every so often, “lean out” your project findings and boil the portfolio down to its most important elements
  9. Formulate conclusions

Here are some examples of completed project portfolios using the LSSQTT. Only the second could be considered a “classical” LSS project; the first is a creative example of how to structure any project the same way you would reduce waste or reduce variation.

One of the things I worried about when I first started using the LSSQTT was: Is this right? Is this “the correct way” to do a Lean Six Sigma project? What I discovered as a result of going through the process was that two things make a LSS project: a) using any structured problem-solving approach, usually based on DMAIC, and b) achieving tangible results that might include reducing costs, improving customer satisfaction, improving cycle time or efficiency, or reducing time and effort (labor). You don’t have to worry about finding the “right” approach – but you do have to find an approach that helps you and your team take an ambiguous, unconstrained problem and generate real business value.

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