Lean or Six Sigma?

Peter Matthijssen
Posted by Peter Matthijssen on Jan 9, 2013

Lean Management

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Lean Management (Lean) and Six Sigma are getting more and more popular. These methods were developed in the industry, but have proven to be very powerful for service organizations as well. They use the approaches and instruments to systematically work on process and quality improvement. With the large challenges many service organizations face (cost cuts, quality issues, increasing customer demands) these improvements are more than welcome. But which method is best?

Like always, this depends… Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a look at the methods from an ‘instrumental’ point of view.

Six Sigma is a method for analyzing and resolving complex problems. Based on measured facts a dedicated improvement team will use powerful (statistical) techniques to really understand the specific problems. Symptoms, problems and causes are identified, enabling the team to fundamentally improve processes. An important strength of Lean is the fast implementation.  Lean aims at standard solutions to standard problems. Lean is focused at customer value and waste. By applying Lean best practices organizations can quickly streamline their processes and remove waste. Quick results can work as a catalyst for further Lean implementations and Lean successes.
But what if your problems are no standard problems? In this case Lean won’t (completely) resolve them. You might need ‘something stronger’.

But Six Sigma comes at a cost. Setting up the program and training the team members is expensive. Also, the method achieves improvements by resolving ‘problem by problem’. With a typical Six Sigma project taking about three months, it will take a lot of time (and costs) to come to a big impact for the organization.

So both Lean and Six Sigma are powerful. It all depends on the problems you have and the fit of the techniques with your organization. If we look at service organizations, we usually see lots of opportunities for improvement. They all face challenges like customer focus, quality and processing speed. Lean offers easy to use, common sense techniques to tackle these issues. Six Sigma is powerful as well, but for many organizations a bridge too far. The complexity of the method could draw away the attention from what it should be all about: improving processes and achieving results. Many organizations that experimented with Lean and Sigma also came to this conclusion: initially remove waste and streamline processes with lean; secondly use Six Sigma for specific complex problems.

Besides the instrumental viewpoint on Lean (and Six Sigma) there is also a cultural viewpoint that might be even more important. Organizations that are successful in systematically improving processes don’t only use the techniques, but they ‘live them’. There is a drive to ‘do the work every day a little bit better’. Lean becomes part of the culture.

Good luck with Lean and Six Sigma in your organization!

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