Lean Six Sigma Applies Not Only to Manufacturing

I am happy to report that I can now call myself a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.  While I consider this a worthwhile achievement, some friends and colleagues have questioned why I was spending time, effort and money on “just getting a piece of paper” that doesn’t mean much in the world of sales and marketing.  True enough, we usually associate the words “Lean” and “Six Sigma” with manufacturing and service optimization, but in reality the tools and principles associated with Lean Six Sigma can be applied to a host of business issues.  Let me explain.

Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control

Whether we are aware of it or not, we employ these five steps all the time.  In order to solve a problem we first have to understand it (“Define” and “Measure”), then we have to choose a solution (“Analyze” and “Improve”) and to make sure the solution sticks, we have to put some “Controls” in place.   Lean Six Sigma shortens these five steps to form the acronym DMAIC and organizes projects into five phases called Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control.   Each phase deserves careful attention.   Faults in any of them will create problems down the road, either by solving the “wrong” problem, by implementing the “wrong” solution or by creating an atmosphere where the habits that created the problem can re-emerge.   Whether we have to manage a project or try to solve a less complex problem, DMAIC is a good place to start.

Lean Six Sigma Provides Tools and Techniques to Ensure Success

Good business decisions require relevant information and the ability to get it. Elsewhere in this blog I have discussed some of the finer points of relevant information.  Let me focus here on “… the ability to get it” because that often depends on the skills, knowledge and motivation of the humans who provide the information.

Throughout our certification course we spent considerable time sharing real life stories and discussing what it takes to build team consensus, to make team decisions and to prioritize solutions.  Lean Six Sigma provides a toolbox of methodologies from which the adept practitioner can choose the ones that fit the team dynamics and the problem at hand.  The mechanics of these tools are easily learned – the human element can be more difficult to manage.

It takes human judgment and input from people to determine which factors are relevant, to discover where the problems are and to identify which solutions are feasible and should be pursued.  Motivations such as job protection, maintaining a good reputation, demonstrating leadership and controlling one’s destiny are powerful factors that affect not only team dynamics but also what information people are willing to share.   Lean Six Sigma calls itself a “data driven” methodology, but that doesn’t mean it ignores human input.  When used appropriately and with skill, Lean Six Sigma tools help to transcend these human factors by approaching the problem from many different angles and by placing the emphasis on processes and problem solving rather than blaming people.

Lean Six Sigma Is Data Driven

Data and statistical analysis play a central role in Lean Six Sigma and go far beyond the measurement of technical specifications.   Our “gut” will often point us in a good direction, but to get funding and to understand whether and where we are making progress, we need some numbers.  That reliance on “numbers” is explicitly built into the Lean Six Sigma process by requiring us to “Define” our problem, to “Measure” the current state and then to “Analyze” it to determine the best solution.   Hypothesis testing, Chi Square tests, ANOVA, regression analysis, t-tests and a host of other statistical tools used in Lean Six Sigma also work away from the factory floor: they enable us to understand patient motivation, provider opinions, sales rep performance and driving forces in the market place – to name just a few.

Subject Matter Expertise Still Matters

Being able to use Lean Six Sigma jargon like “Cause & Effect Matrix”, “Design of Experiment” or “Value Stream Mapping” doesn’t mean much unless we provide the necessary context.  Usually this means dropping the jargon and applying relevant subject matter expertise.   A “Cause and Effect Matrix” may provide the foundation for translating business priorities into a bonus plan – complete with performance goals and payout curve.  Concepts from “Design of Experiment” apply to “Survey Design” in Marketing Research as well as to “Conjoint Analysis” when we are trying to understand the impact of various market forces.   Creating a “Value Stream Map” may help with restructuring departments and job descriptions to support growth for a provider of healthcare or other services.  It’s not the tool that matters, it’s how we use it.

The Take-Away

Whenever conversations with friends and colleagues turned from abstract to more details about Lean Six Sigma, I started to hear comments like “oh, you’re doing a mini-MBA” or “that’s what I learned as part of my PMP certification” or “hey, this is an idea I can use.”   The discussion above illustrates how these comments came about.  When choosing among consultants, shouldn’t we give priority to someone who has demonstrated their ability to solve problems effectively and efficiently?  I am banking on it, and together with some new insights from class, I now have more than a “piece of paper” to demonstrate that ability to anyone who needs to know 🙂

2 comments to Lean Six Sigma Applies Not Only to Manufacturing

  • Dan,

    Thank you for your thoughts and reading recommendation – Senger’s book looks very interesting and I can see why you recommend it in this context. Defining a problem goes far beyond technical specifications and process steps – it also has to address the “human factor” and it appears that Senger’s book addresses that quite nicely.

    As I have since learned, L6S synthesizes ideas from many quality models and it appears that quite a few concepts derive from Deming’s PDCA model. One nice thing about PDCA is the fact that iteration is more obviously built into the model and doesn’t have to be implied like in Six Sigma’s DMAIC approach. Maybe some folks would argue with me about this, but I think with Six Sigma there is a temptation to approach everything as a straight-line project with a clear beginning and end. At least that is my impression after hearing people’s stories in class.

  • Christine;

    I agree process improvement techniques like Six Sigma have direct application for improving data collection, analysis and distribution processes. In addition, quaity improvement techniques provide a useful tool set for improving data quality.

    I use the PLAN-DO-CHECK-ACT model. In addition, I recommend The 5th Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge & others. Senge’s book dives deeply into mental models, systems thinking, team learning,and the balancing of advocacy and inquiry. Highly recommended.

    Every hierarchy (business, government, for profit, non-profit) exists as system for delivering value to customers. Systems are made up of processes – processes are composed of tasks.

    Gut-feeling and experienced insight can sometimes be exactly wrong. Tools like Six Sigma provide fact-based insight.

    I look forward to future posts on this blog regarding how you have employed the six sigma toolset on your own projects. Please share those.