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.

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