Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow: the shadow is what we think of it: the tree is the real thing.

A. Lincoln

The Differences Between Lean and Six Sigma

Recently, I have been asked by several people, to explain the differences between lean and six sigma. I thought it might be helpful to share my thoughts with a broader audience. Hopefully this information will be useful for a number of people.

In my mind there are some big differences. Lean is an overall philosophy for continuous improvement which is based on the Toyota Business System. The six sigma methodology was developed by individuals at Motorola with some outside help.

Lean is about delivering value in the eyes of the customer through the unremitting  efforts to eliminate waste. Lean focuses on continuous improvement while demonstrating respect for people. Lean is also a mindset and an enabling strategy which helps organizations to effectively implement business strategies and initiatives to achieve overall objectives.

Lean is about getting the entire organization to make improvements on a daily basis. I feel that if lean is implemented correctly it should consists of 80% small aligned daily improvements and 20 % projects. Successful lean leaders are able to asks the right questions in helping the people who  they work for, to learn and discover the right solutions to the problems they are trying to solve. Lean requires employee engagement, continuous learning and employee empowerment.

Six sigma is a statistical methodology for improvement and focuses on eliminating variation.. Six sigma and lean both utilize the scientific method to solve problems. Six sigma is primarily a project based and top down approach. Belts are trained to lead projects and often end up doing things to people versus with people. There are many people that view the belt approach as elitist when applied broadly. It does not promote truly effective employee engagement at all levels of the organization.

A large number of companies have found that they have struggled in successfully sustaining the momentum in their six sigma deployments.  My observation is six sigma tends to be a push approach. In my view what we should be aiming  to create is pull for continuous improvement throughout the organization.

Six sigma, from my standpoint, is a methodology that compliments and enhances lean. Many six sigma companies which now use a lean sigma approach have told me they wish they had started with lean and enhanced their deployment with six sigma I feel it makes more sense to eliminate as much waste as possible upfront and then focuses on eliminating variation. Toyota has always used statistical methods in the appropriate situations. Currently the trend that I see is a major emphasis on lean implementations and a decrease in new six sigma deployments.

I am sure that many people have perspectives that are different from mine.  I am always open to learn from the experiences of others. I have developed my thoughts based on my personal experience in serving people as a lean leader over many years.


Humility can be a very elusive character trait. As illustrated by a favorite quote that I read a long time ago “Humility is a funny thing once you think you have it you’ve lost it”. It is however very noticeable when you observe it in another individual because it standouts as being both genuine and sincere. In a world that honors the great accomplishments of individuals, humility is not a quality that large numbers of people demonstrate in their daily interactions. Those who feign false modesty and altruistic motives are often seeking additional adulation. In looking at various organizations I have always admired the International Rotary’s noble motto. On a global basis the Rotarians are committed to the motto of service before self. It is evident that the world would be substantially different and a much better place if many more people embraced this mindset.

Ken Blanchard the leadership guru presented a very poignant quote on humility in his book The Heart Of Change which resonated with me and continues to be a very helpful reminder. He stated “Humility is not about thinking less of yourself, it is about thinking about yourself less “. It seems so many people either consciously or unconsciously prefer behaving in a fashion that is focused on being self serving versus serving others. I know from personal experience it takes a serious amount of reflection and being brutally honest with yourself in order to grow from being selfish to becoming self less. I have found it to be a life long personal journey of continuous improvement and personal growth in order to stay on the right course.

In this article I hope to provide you with some helpful lessons learned in trying to become a better leader throughout my career and in particular through my lean journey in the past twelve years. During the first twenty years of my career I was exposed to many leaders who achieved success by employing a command and control style. The organizations that I worked for during those years highly valued these types of leaders and rewarded these individuals with promotions and public recognition. They reinforced these behaviors throughout their organizations. I was on the receiving end of these leaders and it didn’t feel very good. It seemed that these leaders were doing things to people instead of with and for people. The other consistent message that they delivered was that the end justified the means. They felt that they had the knowledge and experience to solely make all the key decisions in term of their organizations. They operated from a position of power. The blame game was the immediate reaction to any problems or issues. I made a commitment to myself that given the opportunity I was going to employ a people centric style that I was formally learning about along with other progressive styles of leadership.

In assuming the role of director of operations of Xomed in 1993 I relied heavily on my prior experience, the lessons learned from Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People and Warren Bennis’ book Becoming a Leader as the foundation for my leadership approach. The operation was in very poor shape in terms of employee morale, product quality, cost and delivery. The operation in Jacksonville had started on a TQM program a year prior to my arrival and it had been unsuccessful and stalled almost completely. We worked hard during the first two years in improving employee engagement and processes. We were hugely successfully in dramatically improving quality, cost and delivery. I was being credited for leading an incredible turnaround and was promoted to Vice President of Operations. I was beginning to believe all the exaggerated things that were being said about me. At this point in my career hubris not humility was the character trait that I best exemplified.

Over the next three years we were able to deliver stellar results through our continuous improvement activities. The CEO of Xomed acknowledged our great performance but asked me to prepare a strategy to create a world class operation to support the explosive projected growth in sales in the upcoming years. I thought it was a layup because I was given an entire year to develop a strategy. Despite a great deal of benchmarking and study I struggled with this assignment and was running out of time. A brochure for the Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence crossed my desk and it seemed like the approach we needed. We attended the Shingo Conference in Columbus in May 1999. It was the most humbling experience of my business career. I listened to presentations from companies that were truly achieving world class performance. They were delivering annual results that we couldn’t deliver over five years. I realized that the only expertise that I possessed regarding lean was the ability to spell the word.

Fast forwarding, we began our lean journey with a healthy amount of humility and a burning passion. We realized early on the compelling Medtronic mission of alleviating pain, restoring health and extending life was the real purpose for committing to a lean journey. This approach certainly resonated with people throughout the operation. The Jacksonville facility in 2002 was awarded the Industry Week’s Ten Best Plants in North America and the Shingo Prize of Manufacturing Excellence in 2003. The operation was being touted as the center of excellence at Medtronic. We were constantly being asked to provide tours for Medtronic personnel and external companies. I was spending too much time giving presentations around the country and enjoying all the personal attention and heady experience. I was very fortunate because a very close friend came to me and had a painfully frank conversation which helped me in seeing the things I was ignoring in terms of my behavior. As I look back on this encounter it was a defining moment in my life. This watershed experience helped me to recognize my real purpose in life. My purpose was the compass that I needed to use to govern my behavior which would require unremitting humility if I was truly committed to serving people.

Sharpening the saw with Covey’s 7 Habits helped me to focus on humility as a principle. Covey describes principles as being timeless, universal and inarguable. Understanding the relationship between principles, beliefs, values and systems enables you to act correctly in a consistent fashion. Principles provide the unwavering why which should govern our beliefs values and systems. The biggest lesson I have learned beyond viewing humility as a principle is that you need to have at least a couple people who you trust and can play a critical role. They need to be available to provide consistent candid feedback. You will need their help to stay the course regarding humility in the face of accolades and personal recognition. The joy of serving people as a leader easily surpasses any shallow satisfaction that you receive from ego based recognition.

A Lean Sport

I recently had a novel experience when I attended the Rugby 7 Series in Las Vegas. It was a bit of a gamble because I didn’t know anything about the sport of rugby. I spent a few hours before the trip searching for information on the internet at the level of rugby for dummies. I was surprised to learn the event I was attending was a modified version of traditional rugby with 7 players, instead of the traditional 15 players on each side.

Arriving in Las Vegas, I learned that this was one in a series of tournaments around the globe with teams from dozens of countries participating. It immediately appeared to me that this was truly a lean sport because there are two seven minute halves with the entire game concluding in fourteen minutes. They play with a running clock and there were no replay reviews by the officials. The games starts and ends with the precision of a European train system. Each match was like an overtime situation with any mistake on either side magnified by the time constraints. The action in the stands added to the excitement. Groups in the crowd were dressed in a variety of outlandish costumes: sheep, cows, gladiators swimmers and some costumes too obscene to mention. It was definitely a Mardi Gras type atmosphere.

Upon returning home, I reflected on my three day experience at the tournament. It appeared that there were some very tangible examples that could be drawn from this lean sport and applied in business. As we adopt a mindset of compressing time and increasing the sense of urgency, we can accelerate improvement in an effective fashion in our businesses. The rugby players stayed with their game plan but picked up the pace as required. They tried to pass flawlessly with precision to one another as they marched up and down the field. They became more careful versus more careless because of their focus on execution.

I look around many businesses and they remind me of an NBA basketball game. There is little sense of urgency until the last five minutes of the game. Turnovers are a regular occurrence with a laissez faire attitude regarding mistakes. Team play breaks down at various point and turns into a series of one on one contests. No matter how bad teams play for most of the game they feel they can always bail themselves out with risky three point shots in the last quarter of the game.

I often visit operations or hear from people that they really want to do improvement daily but they just don’t have the time. It is probably something you also encounter on a regular basis. I often find these excuses as bogus because most of the people waste a great deal of their day on non value activity and have a fourth quarter mentality regarding execution. It is like exercise: if it is important enough to you, it becomes a priority in your life. You can find the time to do it. Improvements need to be a daily exercise not an episodic event.

So what is the take away from this missive on a lean sport and execution? As Abraham Lincoln stated “time is everything”. We need to view work in terms of minutes and hours and not in terms of days and weeks. We need to adopt Leadership Standard work to improve our ability to focus and execute together. It is essential to find ways to improve and eliminate the majority of non value activity from our hourly and daily work routines. You have to make daily improvement a part of your leadership standard work. It is important to have a coach who can provide feedback on your performance and you to make corrections. By compressing  time like the Rugby seven players you will have to focus more sharply on flawless execution. The time is there but you have to make a concerted effort to utilize time effectively.

Lean by Choice

In Jim Collins latest book Great by Choice he examines companies that rose from good to great from a different angle. He zooms into study companies that have outperformed industry indexes by a minimum of ten times over fifteen years in fast changing and highly unpredictable environments.

In this new study, Collins contrasts these companies with a group of companies who failed to achieve greatness in similar tumultuous environments. In addition, Collins shares some very surprising findings that contradict conventional thinking about leadership, innovation, fast decision making and the effective pace of changes within companies. In the last chapter of this book, Collins even explores the role of luck on companies that achieved in extreme times.

Collins used empirical business research to share credible findings from his studies. In reflecting on the book Great by Choice I have a couple of observations regarding the role of lean thinking and leadership in enabling companies to achieve and sustain greatness in challenging and uncertain environments. Collins refers to the great companies in this book as 10Xers. He points out consistent traits of  leaders which translate into the mindset of the organizations in these 10Xer companies. Collins describes the leaders in these companies as being fanatic about discipline, possessing productive paranoia and committed to empirical creativity.

My first observation is that Collins does a very good job in providing what differentiates companies that have become great in extreme environments. He does not provide a consistent methodology on how to build a great company. My belief (through experience) is that lean thinking is an enabling strategy which provides the how to achieve and sustain greatness in difficult and uncertain times. Toyota and a select group of companies that are exceptional at lean have incredible discipline, a very healthy paranoia which fuels their continuous improvement efforts. They use real experience and information to enhance creativity. A truly lean enterprise is able to inculcate a mindset of continuous improvement throughout the business through the behaviors of the leaders in the organization.

My second observation is that the companies that Collins deems to be great demonstrate they are committed to continuous improvement and employee engagement. However they are not among the companies we commonly refer to as excellent lean enterprises. My take is that there are many different approaches to become a great company. In my opinion, the adoption of lean throughout  a company will significantly increase a company’s chances of rising from good to great. Companies can become great by choice through becoming lean by choice.

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