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deming, improvement, leadership, lean, management, transformation

6-Sigma – A Common Cause of Failure

Building on the previous post regarding the differences between lean and 6-sigma, I have recently come to the conclusion that failure to understand the differences between the two is often the cause of frustration and disappointment with the results in a lean deployment.

Conceptually, 6-sigma is easier for people to comprehend than lean. Implementing a problem-solving methodology aimed at attacking the issues with the largest financial impact makes immediate sense to most people. Developing a few experts in the problem-solving process and sending them around to attack the big issues and help improve company performance requires a relatively small investment and does not necessitate a major shift in the way the organization operates.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that this is not lean. It is fairly common for an organization attempting to adopt lean to have one or more people involved in the process who drive the change with a 6-sigma mindset. This can create a significant amount of friction and frustration between the “lean thinkers” and the “6-sigma thinkers.” And if this gap is not effectively addressed, teamwork will break down and the initiative will fail.

Among other issues, a gap in improvement philosophy will lead to disagreement in the types of problems to attack. 6-sigma thinkers will want to address only the big problems while lean thinkers will focus on creating a system where all problems, regardless of size, can be addressed.

The Signs of a Gap

Signs that a lean deployment is being driven by a 6-sigma focus include the following:

Pareto Prevalence: The use of Pareto charts or effort-benefit formulas to select the problems to address is a sure sign of 6-sigma influence. Creating an improvement-focused culture will not happen if you tell people to ignore the problems that a chart or formula considers small. Also, telling a person who faces a problem everyday that it is too small to warrant attention can be extremely demotivating.

An objective of lean thinking is to attack problems as they happen. This requires turning everybody into problem-solvers and unleashing them on the issues that prevent them from meeting target conditions. Besides the fact that small problems, when left unchecked, often turn into large ones, continually addressing issues allows people to get better and better at problem-solving.

Lack of Leader Involvement: When trying to create a lean culture, leaders must be actively involved in kaizen efforts. Assigning black belts to facilitate the process enables leaders to opt-out of, rather than participate in the process. Within a true lean environment, the higher the position is within the organization, the more adept the person is at problem-solving. Getting to this point will not happen when leaders are allowed to delegate improvement responsibilities.

Celebrating the Big Gains: Creating awards or financial incentives to solve the big issues is a clear message to people that the small problems are not worth the effort. There are areas within the company that, because of the nature of the work they do, spend significantly more than other areas. Inconsistent behavior between areas will never result in the desired shift in culture, and since the areas with lower costs will not see participation in improvement worth the effort, transformation will not occur.

Understand What You Want

The point of this and the last post is to create awareness that, despite what many people believe, lean and 6-sigma are not the same, and confusing the two will lead to disappointment with an improvement effort. It is not easy – and it is definitely not common sense – but being clear with the vision and objectives, studying the results, and adjusting the effort is important to assure the desired transformation occurs.


About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.


4 thoughts on “6-Sigma – A Common Cause of Failure

  1. Greg, good article, overall makes sense to me, actually I have seen a lot of debate about if we should apply lean or six sigma to solve any given problem, many times preventing us to actually act and solve it, everything becomes about the debate, with that in mind, aren’t both part of a continuous improvement philosophy anyway?
    I still struggle on debating about which one to use, I would say to everyone, seek to continuously improve and you may find some great set of tools, one taught on six sigma and others taught on lean.

    Posted by Javier Rios | February 3, 2014, 9:28 am
    • Javier – In the end, it’s about applying the PDSA cycle whether it’s a “big” problem or a small one. Everybody needs to do kaizen, regardless of position and generally, the higher the position in the organization, the larger the scope and longer the timeframe to see results. Confusion results and culture change slows, however, when the focus becomes only the big stuff. It’s human nature to want to tackle the big problems, and we’ve got to fight to make sure this doesn’t take the focus away from transformation. Creating an army of problem-solvers requires repetition to make PDSA a habit and, if we’re only looking at the big problems, this won’t happen. Debate regarding 6-sigma or lean should go back to what you’re trying to do. If the organization wants lean, I see 6-sigma as getting in the way of the type of transformation that’s needed.

      Re the tools, the ones that I believe are effective have been around a lot longer than 6-sigma and were part of the lean toolbox for decades. With that said, there tends to be so much low-hanging fruit that simple methods can deal with it. The more sophisticated tools (e.g., regression, DOE, etc.) can be handled by the specialists, when needed but I’ve found that their use is fairly limited.

      As always, thanks for the comment!

      Posted by Gregg Stocker | February 3, 2014, 10:42 am
  2. I like and can identify with the “Lack of Leader Involvement”. Lean is being confounded with 6-sigma in the manner you describe. Leaders don’t know that they are actually doing this though–they don’t know enough to make this assessment. They are unaware. Even leaders who enthusiastically buy in to lean will end up using delegation as an easy out for getting involved. The result–perhaps even symptom–is you get a “Lean dept.”

    How do we make this problem visible?


    Posted by Kyle | February 5, 2014, 8:37 am
    • Good point, Kyle. Leaders who delegate lean don’t recognize that this is a problem. To quote Deming, “how could they?” It’s up to us to educate those who don’t understand . . . although in the same vein, we must continue to learn and find ways to teach, coach, and demonstrate to others that there is always a better way.

      Posted by Gregg Stocker | February 5, 2014, 9:16 am

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