Time for a low-carb Lean Six Sigma?


Will Lean Six Sigma survive? In the history books, for sure. In real life practice, in some form, no doubt.

But for all the good Lean Six Sigma provides us, it will eventually be seen as incomplete and either give way or evolve into something else. In other words, a better model will emerge.

This is not to say in lean six Sigma is bad. In fact, for many companies, it's probably the best thing going to increase productivity and profitability. It's just that the model is overlooking the intangibles.

Lean Six Sigma is built around measurements
Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma (the celebrated parents of Lean Six Sigma) are both about making improvements through measurements.

Lean Manufacturing has us analyzing process flow and delay times at each activity within a process. And while Lean Manufacturing principles help speed things up, they don't really focus on quality control. Think of it as "improving process speed."

On the other hand, Six Sigma uses data-driven decisions to achieve a specific quality through statistically tight controls. Its main focus is quality. Six Sigma won't necessarily improve process speed or reduce capital investments. Think of it as "improving quality of the end product."

By marrying the two we get Lean Six Sigma; An effort to improve both process speed and end-product quality at the same time.

Take note: Both concepts are built around measurements.

When companies start paying attention to these things they can realize a huge improvement in productivity and profitability. And recent research tells us that efforts like Lean Six Sigma are certainly needed. For example, in the service industry, slow production and doing work over again accounts for somewhere between 30 percent and 50 percent of the actual cost of producing and delivering a service.

Think of how much better off these companies could be if they paid attention to processes and controls. It may eat up some time in the near term, but it would pay big dividends in the long-term.

What Lean Six Sigma is missing
So first, companies need to make sure their measurement processes are in place. But as I mentioned earlier, Lean Six Sigma by itself is incomplete. How? It doesn't take into account the intangibles.

Much of what makes the workplace of successful has to do with things they can't be measured: Integrity. Team spirit. Dedication. Loyalty. Overlooking these things - or dismissing them - is downright dangerous.

This danger is explained best by looking at what has become known as The McNamara Fallacy.

The McNamara Fallacy is named after the Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense in the 1960's. Believing that if you could measure things you could manage them, McNamara was obsessed with quantifying the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, by focusing solely on measurements, he tended to ignore what was truly going on.

Later, in reflecting on that failed military effort, McNamara arrived at four key conclusions. They are as follows:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is okay as far as it goes.

The second step is to disregard that which can't be measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading.

The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't very important. This is blindness.

The fourth step is to say that that which can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.

McNamara learned that the intangibles matter - a lot.

Going Beyond Measurements
Hopefully companies can implement programs like Lean Six Sigma. But they can't stop there. They'll have to take the human factor into account.

One company implementing Lean Six Sigma ran the risk of blindness and suicide right off the bat. After determining "the most efficient" arrangement of tools and equipment at company workstations, they wanted every workstation arranged that way.

Their thinking was that as people filled in for others at different workstations, everyone would be familiar with the arrangement, and they could quickly locate tools – thus saving time.

What the company didn't take into account was that people are unique and they have unique preferences. And, since 90 percent of the time a person worked at his or her regular workstation, the "most efficient" arrangement actually slowed some people down.

Also, because they couldn't personalize their work area, employees didn't feel as much ownership and they had before. They felt like robots. Their level of caring dropped, and despite all the measurements and effort toward efficiency, productivity was no more efficient.

Thankfully, the company realized its mistake and made changes to its program. This is what I'm talking about -- the need to do more than just measure. The need to account for the intangibles.

Whatever Lean Six Sigma evolves into (Low-Carb Sigma?), we'll just have to wait and see. But it will evolve. It needs to.

more articles

About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.

Older Comments

Great article, Dan. Thank you. I have been waiting for someone to express my views on Six Sigma so succinctly for some time. I agree entirely with your views. My experience also suggests that Six Sigma does not suit all organisations. For example, it may work quite well in an organisation such as GE with a culture that lends itself toward measurement. However, there are very many successful organisations whose culture would not suit Six Sigma. Not only that, but I could imagine many employees in these organisations looking elsewhere for employment with the introduction of Six Sigma. From my own research with focus groups of managers, they tell me that they join an organisation because of the job and the organisation's reputation; they leave because of poor management and leadership; and they stay because their values are in line with the organisation and with their colleagues. The message as you suggest is to also focus on the 'intangibles' ' it’s these intangibles that are the glue that holds the organisation together and build it into a place where everyone wants to work and contribute. Like many other OD interventions, Six Sigma should be seen as a useful tool to be implemented in conjunction with other OD initiatives that will help make the organisation a successful and dynamic culture. Kind regards, Bob Selden, author 'What To Do When You Become The Boss'

Bob Selden Switzerland

I thought your article was interesting but unoriginal. William Glasser stated as much several years ago in his small, but insightful book, Control Theory Management. His book takes into the account those intangibles you brought up but marries them with the process improvement concepts of Deming.

As a Lean Six Sigma practitioner for a number of years, I am aware that it always takes the 'grease' (intangibles) to make the science work. No one who is successful at this work minimizes the subjective side of it. There are two sciences going on in every process improvement: the dynamics of people working together and the analytical study of how to improve processes. Both are necessary.

It is naïve to believe that people who use scientific thought to improve business processes can only think in that one vein. I acknowledge, encourage and explore what is perceived as much as the statistical measures.

I measure the variability of a process. I expect, embrace, and accept the variability of the people I work with.

Paul Kraemer Master Black Belt

Paul Kraemer

Bob, Excellent article and great insight. You are absolutely correct about Lean Six Sigma missing the human element and the need for it to evolve. Our firm has recognized this missing link a few years ago and recently published a book entitled 'TPS-Lean Six Sigma - Linking Human Capital to Lean Six Sigma'. In our book we describe the need to address human capital, and we have developed a concrete program that does just that. I like to use the analogy of a race car engine. The race car engine is like Lean Six Sigma in that it is well designed, precise, and optimized, however, if you put poor fuel into it, the engine will sputter. The fuel for the engine is the humans (the people). Instead, if you put high quality optimized fuel into the engine, it will beat all the competition to the finish line. When you use TPS-Lean Six Sigma, your people are motivated and engaged. This is what we call 'Turbo-Charged Lean Six Sigma'. It is a holistic approach where the individual's goals and ambitions, are directly aligned to the companies goals and ambitions. This, we feel, is the revised Lean Six Sigma that the world has been waiting for, a 'Humanized Lean Six Sigma'.

Chuck Hardy Fairport, NY