In Pursuit of Process Excellence – Don’t Let the Terminology Immobilize You!

Six Sigma.  LEAN.  TQM.  5S.

Do a search on process improvement methodologies and tools, and you will likely be overwhelmed by the amount of material there is to review.  On top of that, companies frequently rebrand their approach within their organizations as they build upon the methodologies of the past and integrate their own cultural aspects, and you will hear your business peers talk about Business Process Engineering, Continuous Improvement, or Integrated Work Systems.  But what does it all mean and how do we, as organizations, choose between them?

Of course there are many subtly different approaches to Process Excellence (a more efficient and effective process), but the two most often referenced are Six Sigma and LEAN.   In general, Six Sigma focuses on elimination of defects (that is, products or services that do not meet the customer’s requirements).  For example, in a world where things are 99.9% defect free, we could expect approximately:

* One hour of unsafe drinking water every month.

* Two unsafe plane landings per day at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

* 16,000 pieces of mail lost by the U.S. Postal Service every hour.

* 20,000 incorrect drug prescriptions per year.

* 500 incorrect surgical operations each week.

* 50 newborn babies dropped at birth by doctors every day.

* 22,000 checks deducted from the wrong bank accounts each hour.

* 32,000 missed heartbeats per person per year.

Using a variety of tools within an approach known as DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control), Six Sigma helps organizations eliminate defects and achieve customer-focused quality.  Six Sigma lends itself well to data-rich environments, since many of the tools in the Measure/Analyze phases are statistical tools.

Alternately, LEAN focuses on reducing the time it takes for a process to be correctly completed, by eliminating the waste in the process.   Lean defines process problem symptoms (the “8 wastes”) and identifies them through an activity called Value Stream Mapping.  This approach helps the organization visualize where the value added process steps occur, and where waste is occurring, and assigns an efficiency percentage to the process.  After identification of the process waste, there are a suite of time-tested tools to eliminate the non-value-added activities and optimize the value stream.  These tools are not statistical in nature and can be implemented regardless of whether process data is being captured.

Hopefully from this very brief description you can see how the approaches, and the tools associated with them, are actually quite complementary in achieving overall process excellence in your organization.  In fact, much of the coursework available to practitioners is now blending these approaches in a single certification.

Both of these methodologies were developed specifically for manufacturing processes but the principles and tools have broad application across all kinds of business and IT processes (and even personal processes!).  Implemented well, they can also help structure and facilitate the more stringent requirements for ISO or OSHA compliance, food safety, etc.  They address not only the overall process approach and the tools and training necessary to identify and eliminate process issues, but also the cultural and organizational changes that will be needed to sustain the improved processes.  Many organizations have integrated these methodologies and appointed a single owner of process excellence and a group of practitioners (Six Sigma Yellow, Green or Black Belts, LEAN Bronze, Silver or Gold, or internal certifications) who work across functions to facilitate end-to-end process excellence.

Want to know more?  Stay tuned for more specific information on some of the most useful tools of process improvement methodology!

  • Posted Friday, October 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm CDT in Content Type, Management |  Comment (RSS)
    Selene Crosby

    Contact Selene Crosby

    Selene Crosby is an expert in process improvement engineering. She holds a Six Sigma black belt, Lean Bronze certification and an Innovation Engineering black belt.


    1. Holly Lutze says:

      An excellent summary, Selene. I enjoyed reading it and look forward to sharing it with others.

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