Lean Six Sigma: Methodology or Mindset?
I often hear it said that Lean Six Sigma is nothing more than a process improvement methodology, aimed at increasing productivity and decreasing variation and waste. There is of course some truth to this statement, as it’s one that not even the most rebellious Lean Six Sigmanian could entirely refute.
However, I’d like to take the time in this article to tell you that Lean Six Sigma is much more than just a methodology. I’d like to take the time to tell you that Lean Six Sigma, at its heart, is about a mindset.
Lean Six Sigma – A Mindset
To me, Lean Six Sigma is about adopting a certain state of mind; an attitude if you will. An attitude of wanting to continuously improve the way you work and adapt to the ever-changing demands of both your customers and life itself. Because in the end, the only true constant in life is change. And that’s why the way I see it, this attitude is a necessity rather than an addition, and there is no excuse not to start adopting it right now.
Mindset + Application
So if we possess this attitude to life, how can we apply it? The answer depends on your situation, as Lean Six Sigma offers solutions to a variety of problems, both short-term and long-term. I often make the distinction between ‘Low-hanging fruit’ and ‘complex problems’.
‘Low hanging fruit’, referring to any obvious issues your customers have, can be tackled on a regular short-term basis. We often call these ‘ongoing initiatives’, as you should strive to identify and solve these issues on an ongoing basis, it is just part of our daily work.
The more complex issues that present themselves, with causes that are unknown to you at the start, should be solved by means of what we call ‘project-based initiatives’. These are often longer-term projects, taking roughly 3 to 6 months in general.
Some ways to apply the continuous improvement mindset with these project-based initiatives could be monthly reviews or bi-weekly workshops/meetings as part of a project (e.g. a Six Sigma project or an A3 project). Low-hanging fruit can best be picked up by using an improvement board and perhaps a daily or bi-weekly huddle.
These types of initiatives and methods to continuously improve and solve problems require the right attitude and mindset, but we can only apply them by using the tools we have at our disposal. Anyone reading Lean Six Sigma books will find a magnitude of tools. These range from more complex statistical tools such as a Design of Experiments (DOE) to qualitative tools such as brainstorming or fishbone diagrams. The tool you pick depends on what you want to change (the type of problem) and the situation you’re in (long-term project or ongoing initiative).
Tools, Methods and the Pitfall of Obfuscation
It is at this point that we encounter one of the pitfalls of Lean Six Sigma; focusing on the tools instead of the mindset. When I did my Black Belt course so many years ago, I remember having to memorize a myriad of tools, ranging from visualization tools to complex statistical tools, each accompanied by a variety of complicated abbreviations.
And besides this plethora of tools, there were also a bunch of methods to memorize, each of which was related to a different set of tools that you could use. After all, a hammer by itself does not produce a chair; this requires a ‘method’ of carpentry. But hammers don’t belong solely to the carpenter’s arsenal of tools, as they’re also vital to the construction worker in his labors. The only thing that should be important to both the carpenter and the construction worker is that they deliver the product that the customer wants; the hammer is just a means to an end. The same applies to Lean Six Sigma’s tools.
A Mindset above all else
Suffice to say I felt just a little overwhelmed when studying all these tools and methods and couldn’t see the wood for the trees at this point. Which once again brings me to the crux of my message; Lean Six Sigma is about the mindset, not about the tools.
The tools being applied without the mindset is usually the main reason why a Lean Six Sigma initiative has failed. You will know the tools, but with the wrong attitude, you will find excuses not to change the way you work and return to firefighting recurring issues without ever truly solving any problems.
The Parcel Parable
Allow me to give you a personal example. A while ago I needed to pick up a parcel from a well-known delivery service, who pride themselves on their attitude of continuous improvement. Home delivery was not convenient.
Arriving at their office, I was kindly asked to sit in the waiting room. The area was equipped with a few simple chairs and was not heated (I had to keep on my coat and gloves, as this particular story takes place in the winter). Just across from me was another door with a sign on it – Only for Head Office Visitors – , accompanied by the company logo.
Each time this fancy glass sliding door opened to a Head Office Visitor I could feel a wave of warmth and view the vastly superior and more comfortable waiting room across from me, where hot coffee and Dutch delicacy treats were being offered to the guests.
The good news was that within a few minutes I was handed a parcel which had travelled across the world by a friendly staff member.
Needless to say, I could not help having noticed the superior welcome for Head office visitors in comparison to mine as a customer. To me it showed that, despite the efficient work process for delivering parcels, this company had proven a lack of the most important thing: an attitude or mindset aimed at improving and producing customer value all the time.
Now this story isn’t to tell you how I’ve become embittered about sitting in the cold for a few minutes, but rather to illustrate how, absent the mindset, even the most robust and tested methodology will fail to deliver. Because at its core, that’s what Lean Six Sigma is all about: A mindset of continuously improving the way we work, so that we may adapt to and meet with the ever-changing demands of the customers.