The Umbrella Concept

In a recent ASQ forum discussion, this perennial question was posed:

Lean Manufacturing v. Six Sigma If a company is looking to improve its operations which should it focus on?

I have notice that many Quality professionals tend to speak about Lean Six Sigma as if the two have a relationship that can’t separate the two. Lean is about waste. Six Sigma is about variation.

Do these two approaches have to be connected?

My perennial response is:

I am agnostic with respect to the traditional definitions of “six sigma” or “lean manufacturing.” As an executive just trying to generate shareholder value, I have found devotees to philosophies labeled “lean” or “six sigma” or theory of constraints” etcetera have often spent more time in debates over semantics that verged on religious wars than actually solving the problem.

In the efforts I have led I have said that regardless of what we call the improvement effort (we could just call it “kumquat”) the critical point was to have a wide and robust set of tools and concepts that embraced the spectrum of problem solving, change management, and project leadership tools. We would need to size-up each situation to determine the requisite sequence of tool/concept use appropriate to the scale, complexity, readiness, competencies, risk tolerance, timeframe and objectives of the organization in question. Sometimes, we make assumptions, mental leaps, or block new ideas because our paradigm(s) such as “lean” or “six sigma” get in the way.

The “umbrella” concept is about defining an organization’s improvement effort in such a way so as to have a broad set of tools and concepts all sitting comfortably beneath a wide umbrella title (“Six Sigma” or “Avocado” or “Acme Performance Improvement Program”). The key is to focus on tools and concepts and not distracting philosophical subtitles such as “Six Sigma” or “lean manufacturing.”

This last point raises an interesting issue about the future of “Six Sigma,” which I will tackle in my next post.

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