by John L. Ware - January 8th, 2013

In Part One of my series on Lean and Six Sigma, I discussed primarily why small businesses should consider utilizing them in practice, if not making them a core segment of their culture. In Part Two, I want to talk about how Lean and Six Sigma work from the perspective of a certified Master Black Belt practitioner. Prior to me earning any of my Six Sigma belts and my Lean Practitioner certification, I (like many) considered these disciplines to be nothing more than just another, albeit significant, quality assurance tool. How wrong I was.

Lean and Six Sigma are, by design, well-suited to be the core segment of any company’s culture because of the following reasons. One, anyone can learn how to use and incorporate them, irrespective of experience, rank within the company, or what department they work in. I’ve seen young people become Master Black Belts six months into their business career. I’ve seen meek accountants (with apologies to finance people) become Master Black Belts. Heck, even salespeople can get certified! Can you imagine a salesperson who can sell AS WELL AS find problems and do paperwork? SIGN THEM UP! (Just kidding, sales and marketing!) And, in my particular case, I was a Senior Director in Operations with well over 20 years’ experience with Sun Microsystems back in the late 1990’s when I got Lean certified and Master Black Belt certified. It’s not just for QA or engineer-types anymore!

Secondly, the Lean and Six Sigma disciplines are made to perpetuate. Once you think you have “solved” a problem or an issue, think again. No problem or issue is ever TOTALLY solved or resolved, essentially. But you have improved a situation that you will re-address at some time interval in the future, in order to improve it. And a few months later, yet again. This is called the “DMAIC” cycle – Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control.

And here is where I want to discuss some of the techniques Lean Practitioner candidates and Green Belts should be using. The first and, ironically the most important Lean tool, is Process Value Mapping. It is brilliant in its simplicity, and I wonder why only 15% of all businesses in the U.S. have implemented it. How it works is, you pick any process within your company – one production line, or new product introduction, or the purchase order process…really, ANYTHING you do to get a job done – and you pick it apart by taking each minute step and that step’s owner and mapping it with Post-It Notes on a flow chart on a wall. In a nutshell, you break a process down to build it back up again, improving it in the process – all the while keeping the initial process going until you are ready to incorporate the changes.

Many of you have probably done this, or have been a part of a team which has utilized this method. For instance, a top-notch integrator of a new IT or enterprise software system has used this method to improve your information technology network. Running the new system in parallel with the “old” analog system is an excellent example of this. In another example, building a new production line in your company was (hopefully) accomplished by laying out the process on paper BEFOREHAND! So, really all I’m talking about here is formalizing this process to EVERY department within your company for new process introduction or improving existing processes. Because of it’s importance, I will discuss more about Process Value Mapping in a later post.

The core metric of Six Sigma is DPMO – Defects Per Million Opportunities. When you lower your defects, the change – Sigma – can be plotted utilizing Statistical Deviation mathematics, and everything that entails. Essentially, every company I’ve seen prior to incorporating Lean, Six Sigma or a combination has been somewhere around Three Sigma. What does that mean? Well, in the world of statistical deviation, probability and statistics, Three Sigma is “average.” Think of a large bell curve – using the concept of the Pareto or “80:20” Rule, most of the companies will be somewhere on the loop part of the curve. Conversely, you will have a smaller percentage “above average,” that is, with a higher sigma rating and you’ll have a few with a lower sigma rating.

Obviously, everyone understands why they should lower the errors and mistakes within their company, because these lead to lost revenue or cost overruns, correct? But many companies don’t have a system to make this happen. At best, they tend to fix something “over here,” and lose the thread of something “over there.” Not unlike the Whack-a-Mole game. With Lean and Six Sigma, a company can now have a discipline to keep all the “moles” underground.

Other very simple techniques and methods include Histograms, Scatter Plots, Fishbone Diagrams, Fault Trees, FMEA and many, many others put you on the track of reducing the number of errors in your company. I won’t go into great detail on what these techniques and methods are and how they work as they are fairly documented in many places. Just know that a good Green Belt can implement the lower third tier of these methods simply and effectively with less than 90 days’ worth of training. A Black Belt can essentially do the next third up, as well as becoming a de facto change agent within your company. And a Master Black Belt worth his or her salt can accomplish more than a well-meaning QA Director at any company.

Bottom line: data and numbers don’t lie. Incorporating a combination of Lean and Six Sigma tools will get you fast results. In Part Three, I will review how you can get a Lean and Six Sigma sustainable culture started within your company.

John L. Ware
Lean Practitioner/Master Black Belt

John has accumulated over 35 years of experience and expertise within all types of business operations management – including manufacturing, supply chain, distribution, engineering and quality/compliance operations. Companies he has worked for include U.S. Surgical Corporation, Sun Microsystems, nVidia Corporation and Domino Lasers, Inc.

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