Lean Six Sigma is one of the most relevant sets of tools and techniques for improving operations and processes. Lean Six Sigma (or Lean 6 Sigma, LSS) is the combination of 2 similar methodologies – Lean and Six Sigma. Perhaps you must improve customer satisfaction. Maybe you need to increase the process throughput. Lean Six Sigma can be used on a variety of subject matters.

What is Lean Six Sigma’s origin

This methodology was born out of two similar and compatible methodologies: Lean and Six Sigma.

Essentially, Lean is focused on the removal of waste. That’s process waste. It categorises every activity into customer value add or non value add. As Lean looks at everything from the customer’s perspective, it’s good for really identifying the most critical parts of a process or operation.

Next, we have Six Sigma. Basically, this is about stopping defects. Sigma (or using the Greek letter: σ) is the standard deviation or variation in a set of data. Six Sigma is about defining a range of what is acceptable an assessing frequency or volume passing within that range or outside the limits. The latter is a defect which of course you want to eliminate.

You can read more about these two methodologies here:

An important point to note

Lean six sigma has gained a reputation among many as a cost saving methodology. My view is that it can save costs. In fact, it’s very good at working out how to save costs. But, this is not the primary goal. Instead, the primary goal is to focus in on what is really important for customers. This has the consequence that activities and effort that is not important for customers should be removed. And therefore, inevitably reducing costs. A win on all fronts!

What is in Lean Six Sigma

The DMAIC lifecycle and tollgates

Lean six sigma is based on a 5 stage lifecycle called DMAIC. DMAIC is an acronym that stands for Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control. At the end of each stage, you should hold a tollgate to review progress and ensure that key criteria are being met.

The DMAIC lifecycle is set up to understand a process before fixing it. Without understanding the process, you are likely to make poor business decisions. Additionally, you risk not finding and fixing the real root causes of your problems. You risk removing effective, customer value add steps. Equally, you might end up keeping the wasteful process steps.

Read this article on DMAIC tollgates for more information.

When using the DMAIC process, the first 3 stages are focused on understanding the problem. Whilst the final 2 stages often take more time than the first 3, I find it symbolic that over half of the model process is focused on understanding the status quo. It definitely suggests that if you can’t understand a problem then you can’t fix it!

(One watchout with using DMAIC tollgates)

Often, business leaders find the DMAIC model can be frustrating. Good, but frustrating. One of the implied concepts sitting behind DMAIC is that you don’t start to generate solutions until the Improve phase. Up to then, ideas should be parked for later reference. With no definitive answer about what the solution is, it gets challenging to actually assess the potential benefits and costs involved. In turn, this makes it difficult to plan financially until the project is relatively well established. This requires trust in the process as well as experience of outline costs that could be involved. In a very non-committal way that is.

Process mapping tools and techniques

Lean Six Sigma is known for being able to map out processes. This includes tools and techniques like:

  • Classic process mapping – both simple and detailed.
  • SIPOC (Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer).
  • Swimlane process maps.
  • Value stream mapping.

You should work with a cross functional team to be able to explore the full process. End to end is the buzzword currently on everyone’s lips. Really, it’s important to explore what happens before or after processes. This may offer additional insight about the root causes and implications. In addition, you may find potential solutions to your challenge exist outside of your expected scope.

Root cause tools and techniques

Lean Six Sigma includes some brilliant tools for understanding problems. It’s critical to be able to identify the root cause. If you can’t identify the root cause then you are only applying a small band aid or plaster when you need full on surgery. Ignoring to find the root cause will mean that you never know if you’ve actually resolved the problem. Plus, it could come back unexpectedly at any moment in time.

The bottom line: Lean Six Sigma is used to improve processes

If you’ve been asking “what is Lean Six Sigma”, then I hope by now, that you know:

  • Lean Six Sigma is a way of improving processes and procedures.
  • It is a blend of 2 methodologies – Lean and Six Sigma.
  • You should use it to focus on the most important customers requirements.
  • That you must use Lean Six Sigma to eliminate non value add activities and process steps.

This article will grow over time so come back to learn more…

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma, specialising in the Design for Lean Six Sigma (DfLSS) discipline. He’s also an expert at delivering retail change projects and programmes. He’s led and managed many different types of retail projects, working with a variety of stakeholders. Oliver loves the opportunity to improve and innovate. This brings together his engineering background, his curiosity and his passion for making things better. You can find Oliver on LinkedIn.


project management expert Oliver Banks

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