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Six Sigma problem solving is alive, but is Lean Six Sigma dead?

Six Sigma problem solving has been used by quality improvement professionals across the manufacturing industry for several decades. But the Lean Six Sigma variation has polarized opinion, with several groups speaking for and against its feasibility and return on investment (ROI).

This methodology combines Lean manufacturing concepts with the data-centric approach to problem solving that is the cornerstone of good Six Sigma. But there are some who think its effectiveness is in dispute or in decline.

Before we plunge headlong into the question of whether Lean Six Sigma is ‘dead’ or not, let us consider these situations:

  • A large European investment bank must decide about the continuation of a Lean and Six Sigma program that costs about $4.5 million a year and yields benefits of about $1.8 million a year.
  • A medium-sized outsourcing firm from India has practiced Lean Six Sigma for nearly a decade and spends about half a million dollars every year on quality improvement while delivering benefits of nearly $14 million during the same period.
  • A large manufacturing firm shut down its Lean Six Sigma program on the grounds that it generated ‘too much paperwork’ and conflicted with its existing quality improvement methods.

So why is there such a vastly polarized opinion about a methodology that has been around for over a half a century now? What is it that makes writers, management gurus and practitioners around the world celebrate or eulogize it?

Understanding the Back Story

The truth is that corporations around the world have been practising Six Sigma problem solving under another name – reliability engineering – for over half a century. Since the late years of the Second World War, the ideas of Kaizen and the elimination of waste have found their way into the finance and service industries too.

When Motorola announced their multi-million dollar method that would transform their business, they were in fact stating and documenting a systematic methodology to problem-solving that had been in existence for several decades. GE and Lockheed soon followed suit. Over a span of nearly three decades and millions of dollars invested in Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma was the next logical step to address the problem of eliminating waste in products and processes as well as reducing the cost and time required to complete projects.

Why the obituary for Six Sigma problem solving?

  • Over time, as Six Sigma problem solving gained acceptance and the long-terms benefits began to prove the efficacy of the approach, there arose a growing number of companies who had tried it with little or mixed success. Therefore, the addition of Lean principles offered little attraction.
  • Some of the larger firms abandoned the initiative because of the immense (and sometimes frustrating) training required and the cost of deployment.
  • Others had already adopted the principles of Lean into their quality improvement program and saw no need to adopt the ‘fad’.
  • Unlike Six Sigma, being trained and certified in Lean Six Sigma did not add enough to a practitioner’s résumé justifying the cost of training and certification.
  • The senior management teams of certain industries did not see the benefits of Lean in an already Six Sigma-rich environment.

Of course, these are just some of the general factors that have contributed to the less than ready acceptance of Lean Six Sigma. This by no means indicates that Lean Six Sigma as a discipline is dead.

More often than not, ‘Lean’ may be found hiding behind a host of organizational names for Lean Six Sigma under the umbrella of the organization’s existing Six Sigma culture. Whatever the case, Lean concepts are practiced and are alive and well today.

If Lean Six Sigma is alive, where can it be found? For every manufacturing company that seems to have set aside Lean principles for their own in-house improvement methodology, you will find banks, retail, and pharmaceutical industries using Six Sigma problem solving to optimize processes and eliminate waste. They do so without announcing it to the world. Outsourcing firms around the world invest millions of dollars in Lean Six Sigma to be able to deliver quick, sustainable productivity gains to their clients – many of whom are manufacturing companies.

The Verdict? Lean Six Sigma is alive, well and growing in emerging markets like never before. Don’t write it off just yet.


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