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Arthur G. Davis

Six Sigma

Six Steps to Practical Lean Six Sigma

“Getting lean” aids the development of more efficient systems.

Published: Tuesday, June 15, 2004 - 22:00


Falling revenues and changing customer requirements have forced many companies to look for ways to reduce the workload on current staff while developing long-term solutions. When companies are forced to downsize, the increased workload on remaining employees frequently results in stress, anxiety and decreased productivity.

Long-term solutions might lie in the development of more efficient systems. Some businesses shift from mass producing standard products to small-lot production of customized products, with even greater focus on quality. This often proves to be shortsighted in the long run. However, if a company can omit steps from its design, manufacturing and servicing processes, as well as fine-tune those that remain, it would be able to deliver better products to customers faster and cheaper.

Lean Six Sigma has taken root across corporate America over the past two years. Companies are using the techniques to analyze and improve tasks ranging from simple processes like customer credit checks to complex product design challenges. Lean is a systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste--nonvalue-added activities--through continuous improvement to allow product flow at the pull of the customer in pursuit of perfection.

The traditional Six Sigma Black Belt implementation approach can require millions of dollars in investment, dedication of a firm’s best full-time resources and lengthy training. This top-down approach is a major obstacle for small and mid-sized companies, but it doesn’t need to be. There is an alternative Six Sigma deployment model called the "Six Steps to Lean Six Sigma." Originally pioneered by Motorola, it allows small and mid-sized organizations to implement the methodology without the significant resource commitment and overhead structure of the Black Belt approach.

One of the strengths of the Six Steps to Lean Six Sigma is that it involves the entire company. Previous quality programs may have addressed a particular factory operation or only a part of it. The purpose is not to automate complicated processes, but to make existing processes lean by removing unnecessary steps and fixing those that remain. As a people-oriented approach that empowers a team to take action to achieve improvements, lean is the best way to effectively use a company’s most valuable resource--its people.

One size fits all?

One observation I’ve made about the Six Sigma implementation process is that the majority of benefits are not always derived from Black Belts-they’re generated at the Green and Yellow Belt level. Another observation is that Black Belts and Green/Yellow Belts are interchangeable for about 65 percent of an organization’s Six Sigma opportunities. Using the Yellow Belt approach embodied in the Six Steps to Lean Six Sigma addresses many of the constraints of small and mid-sized companies and permits implementation at a less costly, more manageable pace.

These organizations become just as technically skilled as their larger counterparts; in fact, many are outperforming their larger customers in terms of both financial results and cultural transformation.

Six Steps to Lean Six Sigma--How it works

The following is a brief overview explanation of a Six Steps to Lean Six Sigma deployment and execution process, recommended for small and mid-sized organizations.

The process begins by elevating senior management awareness of the procedures and benefits of the lean Six Sigma process. At this time, the strategy and implementation approach are aligned with the organization’s strategic business plan, focusing on customer requirements. Also at this step, a steering committee is established to create, foster and ensure application of the lean Six Sigma process throughout the organization.

Implementation planning is completed in this phase. This includes establishing baseline performance factors and expected performance/financial improvements, communicating program goals and implementation strategies, and developing training schedules for all employees. Employees and management are brought into the training in natural or functional work groups.

In the training, employees learn about the Six Steps to Lean Six Sigma process, methodology and tools. This course is designed to help organizations reach their goal of total customer satisfaction through reduced cycle time and increased quality. It does this by showing how functions can increase the extent to which their work meets the expectations of the people they do it for---their customers.

Training and team formation begin concurrently. In the training, employees learn the specific methodology of resolving differences in product/service expectations, so those mistakes that lead to customer dissatisfaction can be minimized. Any activity that doesn’t add to the market form or function of the product (things for which the customer is willing to pay) is a nonvalue-added activity, or the wastes that lean seeks to eliminate. Emphasis is on learning ways to achieve high levels of quality (on the order of 3 to 4 defects per million or Six Sigma) and gives participants a chance to start applying it right away in their own work.

Upon completion of the training, the natural work group is the Yellow Belt action team. The team sets about applying the six-step methodology to improve their major product or service. They identify customers, suppliers and their critical requirements, define value- vs. nonvalue-added activities via process analysis, improve the cycle time by removing defect causing, nonvalue-added tasks, and implement quality performance measures to assure continuous improvement: kaizen. The team continues this approach focusing on their other products or services for improvement.

Later in the progress of the program, certain individuals in the team may be transitioned to the next level of Six Sigma achievement. Some selected team members are developed into Green or Black Belts based on need.

These are the results that Thybar Inc.--a supplier to the HVAC industry--discovered when it adopted the Six Steps to Lean Six Sigma intervention more than a year ago. Trane, a major customer of Thybar, insisted that it adopt the Six Sigma methodology. However, Thybar found the investment necessary to embrace the traditional Back Belt approach that Trane requested was too prohibitive. The company understood the power of Six Sigma in eliminating defects but needed a more practical and economical approach that all of its employees could learn and apply.

Beginning in January of last year, Thybar implemented the Six Steps to Lean Six Sigma with its entire workforce, with significant bottomline results. Each training workshop yielded 25-30 implementable improvement ideas that averaged a 25 percent reduction in cost and process cycle time. Thybar’s president subsequently implemented the process with his other three plants in the United States.

Using this approach, organizations can accomplish their lean Six Sigma implementation at a more economical and manageable pace. The number of improvement activities, the levels of education, and the whole deployment and execution approach occur at a suitable rate, using all employees, with a direct link to strategy and results.

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About The Author

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Arthur G. Davis

Art Davis is principal of the Davis Group, a Chicago area consultancy specializing in business process improvement and Six Sigma quality. He has delivered many training programs in Six Sigma for Motorola, Caterpillar, ITW, Litelfuse and other firms.