Sunday, February 2, 2014

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.

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