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Bill Hathaway

Six Sigma

Complex Solutions May Be the Leanest Ones

Just what makes that little ol’ ant...

Published: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 - 05:30

While eating my lunch at the park last fall, I looked down at the wooden deck below me, and noticed that an ant had picked up a large crumb from my sandwich. The crumb was heavy, and the ant labored to move it. Unfortunately, the gap between the deck planks was too wide for the ant to cross while toting his new-found feast.

The problem is that the ant didn’t have perspective on the problem. He couldn’t look down the length of the gap to see if there was a narrow spot, so he was forced to experiment, one step at a time.

It was a practical approach to problem solving—a methodical one-factor-at-a-time (OFAT) effort that was necessary given the ant’s physical limitations, but certainly not very efficient. I was struck by the parallel to our world of process improvement.

The lean approach prizes many small incremental steps toward continuous improvement. The advantage is simplicity. Those small incremental steps can be carried out without computational complexity, and with limited risk. But it can take a long time to get from here to there along a winding path—not really a lean process when you think about the wasted time and effort.

If the ant could have seen his problem from a larger perspective, he would have noted that the gap between planks was not uniform and that there was an opportunity to cross the deck with only a short walk. This is what sound experimental design allows us to do: stand back to identify the best path while expending the least resources to do so.

Eventually, the ant found the narrow spot, and was able to cross over with the bread crumb, but it took a long time, a lot of trial and error, and he had to cover a lot of ground. It’s a good lesson for us.

On occasion, we see a bit of “Sigmaphobia” on the part of lean practitioners, and I think it’s misplaced. Yes, traditional Six Sigma tools can overly complicate a simple problem, and yes, lean methods are great for engaging the work force in a culture of improvement, but sometimes, more complex tools are a much leaner way to arrive at the optimal solution. There’s plenty of need for a robust blending of approaches.

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About The Author

Bill Hathaway’s picture

Bill Hathaway

Bill Hathaway is the president, CEO, and founder of MoreSteam.com, which was launched in February 2000 as an internet-based process improvement learning portal. Hathaway has overseen the creation of a full suite of online lean Six Sigma learning products at MoreSteam, including the first-ever commercially offered Black Belt, Green Belt, and Yellow Belt web-based courses. Throughout the last several years, Hathaway has publically championed the establishment of a more rigorous certification standard for Black Belts and Green Belts and worked to educate the lean Six Sigma community about the benefits of the blended learning training.