In any given year, I attend a lot of project management conferences. There are always common themes that come up at these conferences, but these days it seems that you can’t turn around without getting smacked in the face by Lean Six Sigma. It’s everywhere, and it’s not a fad. Lean Six Sigma has been growing up for quite a while now. It’s no longer the new kid on the block. It’s more like the youth who went away to school and returned as a ripped 26-year-old athlete. It has matured in all the right ways, and right now it is entering a golden age.
Before we go any further, allow me to make a confession: I believe that Lean Six Sigma is the dharma path for much of manufacturing. That is true, at least, until someone discovers a better way, which they eventually will. It’s true for manufacturing projects, but innovators are also extending it to projects trying to create a standardized outcome for their service delivery. Quality is quality, and Lean Six Sigma can push yours higher.
Why Lean Six Sigma Now?
Manufacturing had a long, slow progression up until the industrial revolution when the shift from the craftsman to the assembly line changed everything. Despite the fact that we lost some of the handmade beauty, we gained two really powerful things: predictability and repeatability. The trouble is, just because something is predictable and repeatable doesn’t necessarily make it good or high quality. When I was growing up, my friend had a 1971 Pinto. It was very predictable, and we spent a lot of time on the side of the road as a consequence.
This is where Lean Six Sigma enters into the equation. It basically looks at the process, the design, and the outcome and makes data-driven decisions to guide you in improving them. Companies like IBM and GE that have implemented this have seen incredible results that translated into economic growth.
What Makes Lean Six Sigma So Great?
Lean Six Sigma tools and methodologies are a gift to project managers who are responsible to deliver world-class quality as part of their outcome. Here’s why: As the name implies, Lean Six Sigma is a philosophy and a toolset made up of Lean principles and Six Sigma methodologies. The Lean component focuses primarily on efficiency and eliminating waste, while the Six Sigma component helps make things consistent and predictable. Together this is a combination that has not been surpassed. Seriously—it’s better than red wine and dark chocolate.
Lean Six Sigma strips down all of the processes to their shiny, bare essentials and then tunes them to be highly reliable. When it’s done right, your manufacturing project hums along like a finely tuned engine. In my opinion, getting to this stage is some of the most important work a project manager will do or oversee.
Waste relentlessly creeps into manufacturing projects from multiple angles. It is a distraction and a drain on profits at best, but it can sink successful companies when it rises to even moderate levels. The Lean community looks for waste in Transportation, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over-processing, Overproduction, and Defects (abbreviated as TIMWOOD). Lean’s goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate waste in these areas, and it’s not a one-time activity. You perform it over and over, constantly seeking to improve your practice and waste less. The tricky part is that waste can sometimes be easy to see but difficult to eliminate. The good news is that once you do eliminate it, everyone benefits—your employees, the customer, and the performing organization.
The Six Sigma component seeks to make your quality consistent and to improve it to world-class level. It gives you tools to track issues, prioritize them, and systematically eliminate them. Six Sigma looks at the raw materials, the work being done, the product’s design, and the end result in order to tune them for improvement.
When Lean and Six Sigma are combined properly, it can create a magical benefit where your organization not only gets better, but it can achieve the mythical unicorn status of getting better at getting better. It’s like unlocking a secret level of efficiency.
How to Get Started
So If you’ve decided that Lean Six Sigma might be useful, where do you begin? Here are four steps to help you get underway.
1. Stop and look at your process.
Take a step away from your current process, and use fresh optics to take it all in from the top down. One great way to help with this is to create a Value Stream Map. This is where you map out the entire workflow, step by step, and carefully examine each element. Then you determine whether or not these steps add value. If it does not add value, then the step is flagged for elimination. A good Lean Six Sigma initiative puts a lot of energy into streamlining processes.
2. Measure and collect data.
If you have a manufacturing process as part of your project, then empirical measurements become all important. This is particularly true when it comes to issues and defects. Collect the metrics that tell the whole story. As Peter Drucker famously said: “What gets measured gets improved.”
Whenever something undesirable happens, lead your team through root cause analysis to understand the fundamental reason why. Then you attack these underlying causes, starting with the ones that will have the largest impact. Your goal is to get it right and then to remove any variance at production levels. In other words, nail it and scale it.
3. Train your team.
One reason training helps is that it develops a common vocabulary when it comes to production quality; another reason for training is to keep the concepts front and center. Lean Six Sigma can give quick benefits, but it’s arguably like exercise. The best benefits are realized over a long period time.
4. Focus on the Process
If you get the process right, the outcome will follow. Sometimes it takes time, but the process always drives the outcome. Be patient and relentless when it comes to this.
Even if you are not ready to commit to an entire formal Lean Six Sigma program, these steps will help you get started on the path. And this path is the one which separates the best companies in the world from all the rest.
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