Buy-in is much easier to achieve when both management and the team understand the importance of identifying and fixing the problem. But management does not dictate a problem and solution. Rather the analysis by the team determines the true root cause. A Lean Six Sigma project is normally staffed by a cross-functional team that is involved with different aspects of the process being analyzed. Many business processes are cross-functional and a cross-functional analysis is needed to prevent sub-optimization of the process.
Improving one step at the expense of another step does not eliminate waste or variation, it just moves it to a different step in the process. A problem I have seen in several Lean Six Sigma implementations was that the Green Belt and Black Belt project leaders worked on their own to find and fix the problem without the help of a cross-functional team. If the process and problem were small and the project leader understood the process, this would prove effective. However, with large cross-functional processes and projects, or in some cases when the project leader had no background in the type of process or problem being analyzed, the projects would become stalled and delayed.
By including a cross-functional team, all the perspectives of the organizations that are involved and impacted by the project are included in the problem analysis, and even more importantly in the development of the solution. The in-depth knowledge of the different team members is helpful for understanding the problem and the implications of the data.
These different perspectives are crucial to help the team create a solution that addresses the immediate problem and often will help to eliminate waste and variation in other aspects of the process. Lean Six Sigma is best used for analyzing processes. Even when the problem under investigation is an obvious product problem, Lean Six Sigma will be much more effective when it is applied to the process that designs or builds the product, rather than looking at just the product itself.
That is because the analysis is meant to investigate and improve actions, and actions are the steps of processes. Actions seldom happen in a vacuum with no impact from preceding or succeeding actions. Instead they must be considered in the context of the process in which they are occurring. The Lean value stream map or Six Sigma process map provide a picture of that process. On numerous occasions, I have found that the creation of a map of the process immediately led to an understanding of what was happening, and recognition of some of the underlying problems that are hidden when an individual is only aware of their step in the process.
On a few occasions I have encountered a project team that focused solely on a product defect without considering the process that created or used the product. While they could identify the defect, they could not determine the actual cause and create a solution until a process map was created.
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Lean Six Sigma relies on data, not guesses. The Lean value stream map is verified with a walk-through of the process, and then data is collected at each step. The current condition of the process, product or service is measured in the Measure phase. This includes measuring the problem or defect and measuring anything that is done correctly. The data that is captured is used for analysis to determine the actual state of what is happening, not an assumed state. This analysis verifies the underlying causes so that the correct problem is fixed.
But the reliance on data does not stop there. When a solution has been created, data is collected to determine if the solution has truly fixed the problem. And then data is used to ensure the solution stays in place and the problem does not return. One of the challenges that continuous improvement and problem-solving initiatives have had over the years is a difficulty accepting the reality of the current conditions.
Businesses are often in denial about problems and issues. I recently worked with a company that was implementing Lean Six Sigma. One of the initial project teams was tasked with resolving a product issue that created large levels of rework in their operation and was the source of numerous customer complaints. The problem had been "solved" on numerous occasions by putting tighter controls on the process step that "caused" the problem. Except when we actually measured what was happening in each step, we found the problem was really due to several other factors.
Because of "politics" and paradigms, the management at first rejected the analysis. But when presented with the data, they eventually recognized where the problems were originating and an effective solution was implemented. It was the data that finally broke through the paradigms about the problem. This next principle is focused on the Six Sigma analysis.
The practical impact of sigma is that it represents the amount of normal variation that occurs. It is always tied to a specific parameter or characteristic that is being measured. Same attributes of a product or process will have virtually no variation.
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That attribute never changes, no matter how often the product or process occurs. Other attributes do have variation. There is an average value, but there is uncertainty about any specific instance. Sigma is the statistical measurement of that uncertainty. Sigma represents variation, it says nothing about acceptability.
Notice that I haven't yet mentioned whether the attribute being measured is acceptable from a customer or standards viewpoint. An attribute could have a very small sigma, essentially no variation. But if the average value of that attribute is outside the bounds of what the customer finds acceptable, it just means that it is always defective. By the same token, an attribute could have a very large sigma, there is a high level of uncertainty. But if the customer has no expectations concerning that attribute, it will always be acceptable regardless of the variation. The reason the Lean Six Sigma methodology is concerned about sigma is not for the purpose of customer acceptance.
Rather when high variation and uncertainty exists within key attributes or parameters, it causes the expense of extra time and money, and it will often lead to the creation of defects. Remember, we are in a process and the outputs of one step become the inputs of another step. When the inputs have a great deal of uncertainty, which is indicated by a high sigma, the succeeding steps should be able to accommodate the full range of possibilities for the value of that attribute. That will often add cost and complexity. Lowering sigma can simplify and streamline the entire process. Lean Six Sigma is one of the most powerful problem-solving and continuous improvement methodologies because it identifies the characteristics of the real problem.
Some methodologies start with the assumption that every problem has a unique or special cause, and if that cause can be identified and eliminated or controlled, the problem goes away. Other methodologies start with the assumption that the problem is a common occurrence within the process. The process is fundamentally flawed or inadequate and if the process were changed to avoid this flaw or correct this inadequacy, the problem goes away. Both goals are admirable and in fact are actually quite similar.
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But the way to fix the first problem is to put in a place a "spot correction" to control the unique cause, and the fix for the second approach is to re-engineer the process. Unfortunately, selecting the wrong solution strategy does not improve the situation and can often make things worse. Lean Six Sigma employs the tools to differentiate between whether the problem is a special cause or a common cause. By making this differentiation, the project team can go on to find the true root cause or causes.
Also, the team can create a solution strategy that will appropriately address the problem. If it is a special cause, they can implement a special solution. If it is a common cause, they can redesign the process. Lean Six Sigma does not end with identifying the problem or even with implementing a solution. The final phase of Lean Six Sigma is the Control phase. There is a natural resistance to change in most organizations.
For many people and systems, change is hard. Habits must be broken, new methods learned, new information is required. In the Lean Six Sigma Control phase, the solution is implemented and the organization begins to use it. While this is happening, the project team is ensuring all of the supporting systems are also updated to reflect any changes and they provide training and coaching for process operators and managers on the use of the solution. This even includes ensuring the control systems that monitor the process are in place to identify if the process begins to revert back to the previous behavior.
The project team does not declare victory and disband just because they have successfully demonstrated their solution once. Rather they stick with it through a statistically significant number of occurrences. This both demonstrates the solution really solved the problem and that the operators and managers are equipped and able to manage the improved process. I worked with a company in Chicago at one point to address a recurring problem in their purchasing department.
The solution was a straightforward process change to eliminate a common cause problem. As I looked over the historical documents associated with this problem, I found that the previous solutions were similar to the one we had developed. They had been put it place and used for a year or two, and then slowly modified until the problem returned. The reason for the modifications was based upon how the senior management measured the effectiveness of the purchasing department.
Rather than measuring the entire purchasing process, the measurements were tied to one step in the process. Optimizing that step led to sub-optimization in several other steps which created the problem. This time when a solution was implemented, I made sure the corporate measurement system was modified to measure the entire purchasing operation and not just one step. These are the types of issues often addressed in the Lean Six Sigma Control phase. Lean Six Sigma is a continuous improvement methodology.
However, a legitimate question is, what does it improve? Does it increase sales or profits?
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Does it improve customer satisfaction and lower complaints? Does it lower costs, improve incoming quality, outgoing quality or the cost of quality? Does it improve employee morale? Does it increase your pay and benefits, or improve your promotability? Does it create world peace and solve world hunger? Let's look at benefits for the business and then benefits for the individuals who attain a level of certification in Lean Six Sigma. Lean Six Sigma is a continuous improvement methodology for an organization. So, we would expect organizational benefits. Let's consider the nature of the benefits and their implication.
Lean Six Sigma will simplify the business processes. The cross-functional value stream maps will identify areas of waste and inefficiency. Many of the processes have embedded rework and work-arounds for persistent problems. When the wasted effort is removed and the rework and workarounds are no longer needed, the remaining processes are simple and often much easier to manage and control. This results in a faster process, which leads to better customer service and higher customer satisfaction. Both of those will normally lead to greater sales. In addition, the simpler, faster process will lower overhead costs which will increase profits.
Finally, simpler processes have fewer opportunities for errors. Therefore, they normally are characterized by higher quality and fewer defects. Let's dig deeper into that benefit of fewer errors and mistakes. Lean Six Sigma starts with a definition of acceptable quality based upon what the customers value. This external focus on quality prioritizes the continuous improvement efforts to address the problems that have the most impact on business success. In addition, the reliance on data to define problems rather than gut feel or anecdotes further prioritizes the improvement effort on the real problems in the organization.
The result is that the improvements fix real problems and bring them to a level that is acceptable to the real customers. So, it is not just that Lean Six Sigma addresses errors and mistakes in the business, but rather that Lean Six Sigma addresses the errors and mistakes that matter the most. Simple processes are easier to control and manage than complex processes, especially those processes with fewer errors and mistakes. But added to these benefits, Lean Six Sigma has a focus on reducing variation within a process.
With less variation, processes become more predictable. That means predictable cycle time, predictable quality output, and predictable costs. And these can lead to better customer service, fewer complaints, and higher profits. This predictability becomes a tremendous advantage for an organization when operating in an environment of fast moving changes.
Changing technology and customer expectations are already creating an unstable business environment. Without predictable processes it is almost impossible to create and implement an appropriate reaction to this instability. Which brings me to the final organizational benefit I want to discuss and that is an improved ability to actively control processes. The Lean Six Sigma methodology shortens cycle times and puts in place real-time data based control plans and systems.
With short cycle times and data-based control systems, the operators and process managers can make decisions that immediately impact process performance. This improves performance, improves employee morale, and improves agility. The operators understand how their work impacts the process performance and they get rapid feedback. The operators are less likely to feel that they are victims of the process since they are now involved in directly managing the process and improving it.
With short cycles and active control, the organization can quickly respond to opportunities in the changing marketplace. And short efficient processes that are documented with value stream maps and control charts are easier to update than complex undocumented processes. Lean Six Sigma provides benefits for individuals within the organization who become Lean Six Sigma leaders.
We will discuss the various leadership roles in more detail in a later section. First let's identify some of the personal benefits you can expect when participating in Lean Six Sigma.
Lean Six Sigma provides a structured problem-solving methodology that can be used to address any type of problem. Being able to find and fix problems will improve your ability to perform in any position and industry. The Lean Six Sigma methodology steers you through an organized process of inquiry, analysis, problem identification and solution creation. Many of the tools and techniques can be applied to everyday problems and issues.
But even if you don't use all the tools, the organized problem-solving approach will put you in control of finding and fixing your problems. I have used this approach when fixing problems at my house, with local charities I support, and of course in many different business settings. Lean Six Sigma is implemented through projects and projects have leaders. Leading a Lean Six Sigma project will often provide an opportunity for exposure to other functions and senior management.
This exposure is in the context of someone who can find and fix a problem. Interacting with team members and managers will likely improve your communication and decision-making skills. The structure of Lean Six Sigma can help you to develop your project management skills. And of course being able to put on your resume that you led a project team that achieved cost savings, quality improvement, and cycle time reduction will only help you as you seek that next promotion or new opportunity. Which brings us to the pay and promotability of Lean Six Sigma practitioners.
Attaining belt certification is a valuable credential on your resume. Many job postings require that an applicant have a Lean Six Sigma credential. So, this will open the door for some promotions. In addition, within an organization, promotions are often based upon how you have demonstrated your leadership skills.
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