Five things to put in place when starting an improvement culture

Your business has identified improvement as a critical task. OK so what next?

Whether your business is in its early years and trying to grow or established and looking to stabilise, there are some things you need to do if you are going to sustain improvements. Often you look to consultants for help or send staff on a training course. These activities will make things happen and change, but will they deliver lasting change? Not without the five things listed below. So what are these five things?

  1. Clear purpose
    What is your business purpose, to make money? Look again. Believe it or not, making money is a side effect of a well-run business. Focusing on your customers and their needs ensuring that your product or service is designed to and capable of addressing and resolving that need is paramount. The business must also have a credible story of how customer’s pain points are relieved through the product or service provided. This clarity of purpose in the long term will ensure that you make good choices focused on delivering outstanding excellence of product and service to your customers. Look after your customers and they will look after you.
  2. Clear values
    Values dictate what we will and will not do as a business. How you make money is more important than how much money you make. I have met too many business owners who are so focused on money, they forget why they set up the business. As they focus more on making money, they stop paying attention to their purpose and lose the confidence and custom of their customers, Have clear values that you believe in and are lived not laminated. Values aligned to purpose that are real and applied every day have a powerful impact on your business, employees, suppliers and customers. your values become principles and express your mission with authenticity and integrity. Regardless of your stated values, always treat people with respect, it will pay back many times the cost in the medium to long term. More importantly a clear purpose and clear values generate trust.
  3. Prioritisation rules
    Often businesses set out to fix their problems with great energy and resolve. The problem they face is that not all of the problems can be solved quickly. The resources applied to improvement are quickly overstretched and the workload is inconsistent. This pattern leads to the overburden of staff and unevenness of demand. Don’t try to fix everything at once. Recognise your limitations and use your resources wisely, process improvement is a long term strategy, not a short term fix. Use your values and purpose to set in place a scoring system that can be used to prioritise resources on the improvements that will have the biggest impact on your business. The rules facilitate discussions and disagreements experienced in this phase allow constructive conflict to occur without damaging interpersonal conflict.
  4. Project selection guidelines
    Use your scoring system to ensure that projects are selected that improve your business performance whilst upholding and supporting your values and purpose. Creating a standard scoring process ensures that your projects are focused on long term developments. This doesn’t preclude selecting a project for some other reason, however, the individuals tasked with prioritisation are forced to be honest about their reasons for increasing the priority of this project, be that opportunism, ego, or anything else. Selecting the projects that are objectively shown to have the most impact is not easy, but it is vitally important for both survival and growth. Having a transparent process with foundations in trust and constructive conflict where those involved can discuss and resolve their differences leads to commitment.
  5. Project review process
    All of the work above is of no use if you don’t review project progress. No matter how well a project has been planned, things change and some assumptions are inevitably incorrect. Priorities change, demands change in the business and the resulting progress of the project may not be as planned. It’s not a sign that someone has done something wrong, it’s just business life, so don’t focus on the people focus on the process. Regular reviews encourage accountability and ensure that agreed actions are more likely to happen. Accountability generates results.


Developing these 5 aspects of process improvement will take discipline and focus. Changes to the business purpose and values are major, any change to core purpose and values must be done only after very careful consideration. Purpose and values are core and characteristic, they should not change easily. The specific details of the prioritisation rules, selection guidelines, and reviews will change over time so these are not single events and are in need of regular review.

Businesses often bring consultants and specialists in to help them with their improvement process and ask them to do the wrong things. Consultants are often asked to train, supervise projects, provide specialist analysis skills. Where they can really add value is helping the business leaders to articulate purpose and values, then use these to support the governance system that supports project prioritisation, selection and review.

Thanks for reading and I wish you nothing but success in your business improvement program.


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Don’t just move the average, understand the spread

Picture the scene; someone in your organisation comes up with a cost-saving idea. If we move the process mean to the lower limit, we can save £’000’s and still be in specification. The technical team doesn’t like it, but they can’t come up with a reason other than “it’ll cause problems”, the finance director loves the idea, and the production manager with one eye on costs says, well if we can save money and be in spec, what’s the problem?

Let me help you. 
In this scenario, the technical team may be right. If we assume that your process is in control and produces items with a normal distribution (remember that is the best case scenario!) logic dictates that half of your data is below the average value and half is above. That being the case, what you really want to know is how far from the average the distribution spreads. If the spread is large and you change process to the extreme where the average value sits right on the customer specification limit, half of everything you make will be out of spec. Can you afford a 50% failure rate? What will the impact be on your customers, your reputation, your workload (dealing with complaints). 

To work out how much we can move the process, we must first understand how much it varies, and we use a statistical value called the standard deviation to help us. Standard deviation is the average variation from the mean for a sample data set. To work it out, take 20 samples, measure them all 5 times then use a spreadsheet to work out the mean and standard deviation. If that is too much take 10 samples and measure 3 times. Keep in mind that the smaller sample size will give a larger standard deviation. Now take the mean and add 3 x standard deviation. This is the upper limit of your process spread. Subtract 3 x the standard deviation from the process mean to find the lower limit of your process spread. The difference between these two numbers is the spread of your process and will contain 99.7% of the results measured from the process output IF the process is in control and nothing changes.

If moving the mean takes the 3 standard deviation limits of your process outside of the specification, you will get complaints. It could be that the limits are already outside of the specification, in which case moving the average will make a bad situation worse.

It is possible to calculate the proportion of failures likely from a change of average, this done using z-score calculation. I’m not aiming to teach maths, so the important message is that the failure rate can be calculated.

This is the tip of the iceberg with understanding your process. If you don’t know that your process is stable and in control, the spread won’t help you because the process can jump erratically. To improve your process

1. Gain control, make sure the process is stable.

2. Eliminate errors and waste

3. Reduce variation

4. Monitor the process to make sure it stays that way.

The most significant and profitable gains are often from process stability, not from cost-cutting. All cost-cutting does is reduce the pain, think of cost-cutting as a painkiller when you have an infection. It makes it hurt less, but doesn’t stop the infection. You need to stop the infection to feel better.

Now do you want to hurt less or do you want to get better?

Why does the type of variation matter?

Everything varies. We know it happens, and if you can’t see it, the variation may not be that significant to your process. However, it may be that your measurement systems are incapable of detecting significant variation that is important to your process, more aout that in another post. Variation leads to production problems, waste and ultimately quality and delivery problems. Control the variation, you control the waste and costs. If waste and costs are a problem in your business, you may be interested in reading on.

There are two types of variation, common cause and special cause. Common cause variation is natural, characteristic of the process and most importantly, predictable. Special cause variation is caused by external factors acting on the process and is not predicable. This is an important distinction, because the methodologies for investigating special and common cause variation are different, and if you investigate the wrong sort of variation it can waste a huge amount of time and cause frustration.

Time series plot of reading

Take the process shown above. Just creating a graph of the data isn’t really useful, since it is unclear what should be investigated, or how to proceed. Typically a manager will look at a trend line to see if the process data is trending up or down. If the process is in control and (often) a manager observes an undesirable deviation from target, it is common to ask for that to be investigated. If the investigation focuses on special cause variation which is likely, since the investigator is likely to assume something is “wrong” therefore there must be a root cause. In businesses that do not use process control charts, there is no objective assessment of process performance before launching into seeking the root cause. The problem this creates is that there may not be a root cause. If common cause variation is at work, it is a fruitless exercise.

Where a root cause analysis finds nothing, managers can assume that the investigation is flawed and demand more work to identify the root cause. At this point willing workers are perplexed, nothing they look at can explain what they have seen. Eventually, the pressure leads to the willing worker picking the most likely “cause” and ascribing the failure to this cause. Success! The manager is happy and “corrective action” is taken. The problem is that system tampering will increase the variability in the system, making failures more likely.

The danger is then clear, if we investigate common cause variation using special cause techniques, we can increase variation through system tampering.

What then of the reverse, chasing common cause corrections for special cause variation. The basic performance of the process is unlikely to change, and every time there is a perceived “breakthrough” in performance, as soon as the special cause happens again the process exhibits more variation. The process does not see an increase in variation, however neither is there any improvement in the variation.

Control chart

The only way to determine if the process is in control, or if a significant process change has occurred is to look at the data in a control chart. Using a control chart we can see which variation should be investigated as a special cause, and where we should seek variation reduction. In this example, the only result that should be investigated is result 8. This is a special cause and will have a specific reason. Eliminate the root cause of that and the process is in normal control. Everything else appears to be in control. Analysing the process data in this way leads to a focused investigation. If after removal of the special cause the process limits are inconsistent with the customer specification, variation reduction efforts should focus on common cause variation.

If you are interested in understanding more about variation and how it affects your process, please get in touch or visit me on stand C23 at the E3 Business Expo on 3rd April. Details can be found at


What does quality mean and why should everyone be involved?

Everyone knows what quality is don’t they?

Or do we? I suspect there are a few words missing from that statement.

Everyone knows what quality means to them.

So why do we run into quality issues in business? In my experience it is usually because the person making promises (specifications) doesn’t have to deliver against them (product or service provision).  The meaning of quality is variable, depending on the purpose of the product or service, and the customers need. For example, if I want a quality car, my criteria are very different if I am a lottery winner, or earning minimum wage.

It goes hand in hand with the idea of “fit for purpose”. Often when judging if something is fit for purpose we are making a commercial judgement of risk to our business of receiving a complaint, when a product is outside of the agreed specification. If his commercial question becomes a technical question the standards drift. By the time our customer complains we are a long way from what was agreed and often don’t understand how we got here, and more importantly how to fix it.  I believe the question we should really be asking is this

“If I was the customer receiving this product or service, with the customers standards, would I accept it?” . If the answer is yes, check you are right. Respect your customer enough to ask them.

We must always remember that decisions about fitness for purpose and quality will always belong to the customer.

It is vital to ensure everyone is involved. If our employees understand why the specification is important to our customer, and the impact of being out of specification, they are more likely to ensure the specifications are met.


Simple. Tell me I forget, show me I remember, involve me I understand. It is only through open communication and transparent understanding that we can engage all of employees in delivering excellence for the customer.

Let’s engage all of our employees in delivering the customer’s vision of excellence within the cost constraints agreed.

Marketing Aspects

Why it is important to be authentic in your business

I recently gave an interview to Marketing aspects magazine looking at the importance of authenticity in business. If you are genuine and authentic in your business, you are more likely to be clear and succeed.

Read the full article here:



Lean? Six sigma? TPS? How about just improving the customer experience.

There are so many models out there for process improvement that I fear the reason for having the models gets lost. You can’t see the wood for the trees. How do we get back to seeing what is in front of us?

What lies at the heart of all of the improvement methodologies?

I would argue that the reason for doing any of this is the same; a basic desire to improve the business. The next question is to improve what? Why improve at all? All businesses are there to service the needs of their customers, whether that need is for doughnuts, cars, phones, accountancy services, medical aid, it doesn’t matter. If we can find a way to service the customer’s needs better, then perhaps we can find a way to make everyone’s job more secure and grow the business. If we can make more money along the way even better.

So why do we obsess about all these different methods?

Everyone tries to understand how someone else, who we perceive is better at something, does it. We all study someone, we are taught subjects in school, how to answer questions, how to solve problems, how to make things better. Unfortunately, our education systems teach us to copy, imitate rather than innovate, so we look for models and systems to copy since that is our conditioning.

Therein lie the seeds of ruin for many improvement projects. We go, we study, we focus on what, but we fail to understand why. The real question for improvement is, why do it? Many companies who engage in process improvement, lean or six sigma projects do so to reduce costs. That cost reduction is often accompanied by job losses, which works in the short terms, but destroys trust between workers and management, and makes future improvement projects almost impossible. This is because there is an internal, short term focus for the business. Management are changing every 3 to 5 years, every new set of management focus on the perceived deficiencies of their predecessor, then proceed to change the direction to make things better. W Edwards Deming identified these factors in his seven deadly diseases. Short term goals, lack of constancy of purpose, job hopping by management, performance reviews, focus on visible figures, excessive medical costs, excessive legal costs.

American Management thinks that they can just copy from Japan. But they don’t know what to copy

W Edwards Deming

How do we succeed?

As Simon Sinek observes, we must start with why. Why do we want to improve? Is it to better serve our customers or to make more money? As United Airlines have recently shown, just saying that your customers are a priority isn’t enough. If customer service was at the heart of their principles, that video of security guards dragging a paying passenger from a flight would not have been possible. To truly succeed, a business must focus on improving the aspects of their product or service their customers value most. It must not be done to simply improve margin, but to reduce the level of defects, improve customer satisfaction, eliminate the opportunity for defects, reduce lead time, reduce waste.

This focus will lead the business to look at the process for creating customer value; reducing defects, eliminating the opportunity for defects, reducing waste all deliver lower costs for the business and better service for the customer. Reducing waste and defects means that less time is wasted on defect correction and replacement, this gives a shorter lead time and lower costs. Determining a long-term strategy, and setting in place a review process to ensure the strategy is sustained will ensure constancy of purpose. Focusing on these factors and ensuring that all the changes are sustainable for the long term may be harder, but is ultimately much better for the business.

In summary, focus on your customer needs, plan for long term success, and make changes that are consistent with your long-term goals. Don’t copy what others have done, understand the link between their long-term goals and improvement activities. Once this is understood for their business, focus on your own business and use only the tools and techniques that support your own long-term goals AND your customer’s needs. If you ever find a conflict between these demands, always choose your customer’s needs; long-term success can only come from repeat business, and repeat business only comes from satisfied customers.

Profit in business comes from repeat customers, customers that boast about your project or service, and that bring friends with them.

W. Edwards Deming


Finding your company way

I have been thinking about why many lean and six sigma programmes struggle to gain traction. We all know the methods work, you only have to look at people like Toyota and GE to see that. What do they have that others are missing. I have an idea of what causes many of the problems, I would be interested in your views.

Most businesses chase cash investment to grow, sometimes they need cash investment just to survive. At the same time, they deem change to reduce, time, resources and cash used by existing processes too expensive, too difficult or unsustainable! This seems counter productive.

If we now look at how many improvement projects immediately look for reduced workforce overhead for justification we start to see the real problem. Someone recently commented to me that to expect anything else is unrealistic, because there are too many people in most businesses. If a manager has recruited such an excess of people to do the work because they have designed the work ineffectively, perhaps the first headcount reduction should be the manager! I wonder how many managers would enter into a project knowing that at the end one of the management team would be made redundant? I think the answer is none! Yet many of these same people expect their staff to engage in continuous improvement or lean projects, sometimes with a stated aim of headcount reduction, ‘for the good of the business’.

If your business is engaged in a process improvement project that increases capacity, the current perspective of many managers is to say “I can do the same with less resource!”. Is that in the best interests of the business? Wouldn’t the shareholders be more impressed with “I can do more with the same resource!”. This is a more challenging aim, one that places more pressure on sales and management since they are the people who have to find and win the opportunities.

We need to change the mindset of managers from short term ‘protect what we have’ to long term growth and winning new business. Settling for what is there today isn’t what got the business set up and growing. Consider Toyota’s transformation. Ohno Taiichi was not tasked with making better weaving looms, the core business of Toyota, he was tasked with preparing the business for making cars.
The objective of the Toyota Production System was not the product of short term thinking. It was set up to enable the vision of mass car production with limited resources, to allow a weaving loom company to manufacture cars cost effectively. Given that aim, would Ohno Taiichi have been concerned about headcount reduction as he sought process improvement? I can’t see it, I believe he was driven to generate cash and resources for growth by focusing on the customers’ needs, and developing a system of work that involved and engaged all employees in improving the system of work.

So many times I have heard that we have to adopt the TPS and the Toyota Way. Why would you do that if you are not Toyota? The real problem is that we have a consumerist, pick and choose approach to improvement. There are fundamental differences in culture between Japan and the west. It’s not about using this tool or that tool, it’s not even about recruiting the right sort of people. Let’s take a simple example, the attitude to rules. In Japanese society I am told that rules are very important, often more important that principles. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying that the Japanese are unprincipled, far from it, this is just about the Japanese attitude to rules. Even if they believe the rule is wrong, they will obey the rule, because they respect authority and the need for order and harmony. Now look at the west, and rules are made for breaking. How could we possibly expect to put in place rules and have them adhered to, no matter what, when our societal attitude is that rules are made for breaking? Principles on the other hand, are adhered to rigidly. So if we agree principles and then try to get someone to act in a way that is not aligned with their principles, they will adhere to the principle, often regardless of the cost.

So how do we compete with companies like Toyota? I don’t believe the answer to is to mimic them, I think the answer is to work out what we want to achieve and the principles we want to operate with along the way. If we treat people as disposable, they will treat the business as disposable. It becomes a marriage of convenience, with commitment until it is no longer fun. Then we move on to the next company. This generates a short term view of employment, success and results that is destructive in the long term. What is the point of a development process that may take 5 years if the people involved at the start will be gone before it delivers? Bear in mind here that Toyota have been developing the Toyota way for 70 years and are still refining their process and thinking. If we implement what Toyota do today without considering how that is supported, initially our organisation won’t be able to cope since the infrastructure and common belief system won’t exist, then we will lose ground on them tomorrow and every day after because improvement won’t be in our ‘business DNA’.

If you want your business to be like Toyota, I believe the first rule is don’t copy them. Copies are often pale imitations of the real thing. They lack authenticity and integrity. Most of all they lack the inherent self belief that what they are doing is right underpinned by a rigorous understanding of why they are doing  it. If you want your business to be like Toyota, first work out what your customers want. Then work out how you can meet that need and make money – what is your business like?. The answer isn’t like Toyota, your business can’t be like Toyota because it isn’t Toyota. Start with understanding what you want to achieve, then move on to the principles of how that will work, then consider if rules are an appropriate way to implement those principles in your society. Don’t demand action from your workforce, first demand that your management understands their role. Then start working through the business processes in a disciplined, scientific way to understand what every part of the business is trying to achieve. Once this is known compare what each department is trying to achieve with what the business objectives are – do they align?

Plan what must be done

Do what has been planned

Check that the activity delivered the expected results

Act on the results, reinforce the practices and activities that yield successful results, change the practices that are not aligned or don’t deliver success.

Then do it again.

Keep doing this until there is nothing that can be improved upon, wither by listening to other thought processes or by applying new knowledge

You see the pattern. If you do this you will develop your own way, tailored to your business and social environment. Then perhaps, if you are very disciplined, one day people will be talking about the {insert your company name here} Way. They may even prefer it to the Toyota Way. Who knows, you might get Toyota coming to learn from you. Toyota had the advantage of learning first hand from Deming, Juran and others. They had the presence of mind to write down much of what they were trying to convey, for which we should be grateful. Their guides are not a buffet of choices, they are hard practical realities, hard to understand and even harder to implement,

I was recently reminded of one of Dr Deming’s favorite quotes:

“American managers are stupid. They think all they have to do is copy from Japan, but they don’t know what to copy”

To be honest I think we can remove American managers and substitute Western managers.

I would add my own favourite Deming quote:

“You don’t have to change. Survival is not compulsory.”

Finding your own way is hard, but it is the only way to get to somewhere new and exciting.

One final point, if you ever do get to the point where you think nothing can be improved, get out there and start talking to people. You have missed something and if you don’t find it and use it your competitors will


Lean Management, Lean Manufacturing or Lean Leadership?

Wherever you look in the world of Lean, people are talking about Lean Manufacturing. Lean manufacturing is going to revolutionise your business, even if you don’t manufacture anything, all you must do is apply the tools and you will see improvement. Is it really that simple? Did Toyota just wake up one day and say we will apply these tools and everything will be brilliant, or is there a little more to it?

Anyone who thinks it is just about the tools really hasn’t heard the lean message. You see, Lean is not a set of tools or just about the application of certain techniques, it is an approach to business and way of thinking that is very different to the normal thought processes present in modern business. Given that so many businesses are trying to replicate the work done by Toyota, it is worth taking a few minutes to consider how Toyota apply the concepts that are known as Lean in western manufacturing.

The original work on manufacturing as a process was done by Henry Ford when he moved the product through the production steps instead of moving the process steps to the product, and became the blueprint for automotive manufacturing. At the end of the second world war Ohno Taiichi was tasked by the head of the Toyoda family with changing the manufacturing basis of Toyota from weaving looms to car manufacturing. It was recognised that the existing automotive model of high stock would not work for Toyota, hence Taiichi was tasked with developing a manufacturing process that could deliver the variety of features required without holding massive stock levels. One aspect of this that is often missed is that Ohno Taiichi was tasked with creating a uniquely Japanese model of manufacturing.

This is entirely consistent with the aims of the Meiji restoration, where the Japanese industrial revolution sought to adopt modern thinking, technology and methods that were aligned with Japanese values. In the author’s opinion, this is a vital consideration when trying to understand the Toyota phenomenon. At the end of the second world war, the Japanese had to rebuild their manufacturing base and industrial experts including Deming, Juran and Fiegenbaum went to Japan to help restore their economy, all at the time that Toyota were looking to develop their manufacturing process. This amounts to a powerful opportunity with unprecedented drive for change.

In 2001 Fujio Cho was president of Toyota and he launched ‘The Toyota Way’, which built on the previous work and created a clear structure to explain the concepts and provide a framework for success.

The five core values employed by The Toyota Way are as follows

1. Challenge : to maintain a long term vision and strive to meet all challenges with the courage and creativity needed to realise that vision

2. Kaizen : to strive for continuous improvement. As no process can ever be declared perfect, there is always room for improvement.

3. Genchi Genbutsu : to go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, build consensus and achieve goals

4. Respect : to make every effort to understand others, accepts responsibility and does its best to build mutual trust

5. Teamwork : to share opportunities for development and maximise individual and team performance

Is this lean manufacturing? It doesn’t sound like it to me, it sounds more like a management philosophy than a set of process tools, so perhaps we should be thinking more about management than simply manufacturing. The Toyota Way seeks to deploy the thinking well beyond manufacturing, applying the thinking to the whole organisation.

Taking a moment to consider the implications of these values we find that there are certain elements that must be recognised for Toyota’s success to be replicated.

Toyota are looking at a long-term goal with long-term planning. That doesn’t mean that short term needs are ignored, just that there is a difference between short-term or tactical activities and the long-term strategic changes that must be made. Throughout the organisation there is a recognition that long-term improvements are of higher value than short term benefits.

Similarly, there is a focus on continuous improvement of all processes, however the prioritisation of projects is based on a rational assessment of the business needs. The focus of Kaizen is to recognise the opportunity for improvement at both the tactical and strategic level, embracing new ways of thinking and working to achieve long-term benefit for the business.

going to see the problem at source, to find the facts to enable correct decisions to be made. It has been suggested that lean does not encompass systems thinking, however I believe it is clear from the first three values that systems thinking must be at work to enable the values to blend effectively.

Respect is an interesting topic. To whom should we show respect? It seems that often respect is confused with ill-discipline. I disagree with that view, lean teaches respect for the individual, for the supply chain including both customers and suppliers, governmental bodies, and the communities within which we work and live. If someone’s performance is unacceptable, you show them respect by telling them of the fact, not by ignoring their behaviour.

Teamwork does not mean silo behaviour. Teamwork means all aspects of the organisation collaborating to deliver the customer’s needs. I use the word collaborating deliberately. Co-operation results in each party yielding the minimum it can to gain agreement from another party to enable its needs to be delivered. In co-operation, I win you lose. Collaboration on the other hand requires all parties to be open with their needs and then for the team to work together to deliver as many of those requirements as possible.

Spear and Bowen proposed the 4 rules of the Toyota Production System in their Harvard Business Review Article.

Rule 1 : All work shall be highly specified as to content, sequence, timing, and outcome.

Rule 2 : Every customer-supplier connection must be direct, and there must be an unambiguous yes-or-no way to send requests and receive responses

Rule 3 : The pathway for every product and service must be simple and direct

Rule 4 : Any improvement must be made in accordance with the scientific method under the guidance of a teacher, at the lowest possible level of the organisation.

Now we are starting to see the errors in western implementation. Too often organisations seek to implement so called lean to achieve a reduction in costs and headcount, without a long-term vision of what the organisation wants to achieve.

Organisations then seek to implement lean exactly as the Japanese have done, without recognising the cultural differences, much less addressing them in line with long-term objectives.

The approach is reduced to the application of a series of disconnected tools without a coherent strategy for learning and developing knowledge.

The consequence is a confused piecemeal implementation with no coherent strategy. When this fails, the organisation will often blame the employees who have been diligently trying to implement a series of tools without a recognisable framework or set of common goals. Competition and conflict are commonplace in this environment and everyone strives to deliver disparate objectives and sometimes conflicting requirements all with short-term goals and often under immense pressure to succeed.

There is also intolerance of failure, and no recognition that lean aims to fail better next time rather than to be perfect next time. Implementations are often required in under two years to achieve that which Toyota have taken 50 years to achieve and are still working on.

Six sigma is treated as a different discipline to lean, with its origins in Motorola. It is worth noting Spear and Bowen’s rule 4 above. You cannot implement lean without embracing the scientific method. Scientific method requires data and evidence, to demonstrate improvement there must be clear evidence of a change, to clearly evidence a change one must employ statistical methods to demonstrate a significant change. Why then is there so much animosity between lean and six sigma? They are different approaches to the same objective. Scientific method also requires recognition of the system within which the process operates.

Lean manufacturing then, would seem to be a recipe for disaster, lean management is a vast improvement, however to achieve the most significant benefits from a lean deployment it is necessary to use lean leadership to succeed. Lean leadership also needs to recognise that the culture of both the organisation and the wider society within which it operates is relevant to how lean is developed, implemented and managed. Are you developing a lean implementation which is based on uniquely Japanese cultural values, or are you developing a lean implementation based on the relevant social values for your organisation and location?

In summary, the message for lean leadership seems to be don’t try to copy. Instead, understand the principles upon which Toyota succeeded and adapt them to your social, cultural and business situation. Understand your long-term vision for your organisation, then develop the strategies and make choices that are rigorously aligned with your strategy. Then you have a chance of succeeding if you stay true to your principles and work very hard at adapting the principles to your application.

As Deming has said, you don’t have to change, survival is not compulsory.


Lean and Six Sigma; Is it a choice or collaboration?

I regularly see posts and discussion points asking what are the differences between Lean and Six Sigma, should Lean or Six Sigma be used first, and if Lean is better than Six Sigma. I find it really puzzling that people involved in continuous improvement still have this debate, especially since the two techniques are not alternative approaches, but are complementary techniques.

Let’s take a quick look at these three questions

  1. What are the differences between Lean and Six Sigma?

    Lean is the practical application of the Toyota Production System. Lean started out as a simple way to ensure that business were focused on the things that customers value and ensuring the activities in the business are as efficient as possible at delivering customer value. Lean focuses on process velocity, reducing waste in all forms and eliminating non value added activities. There is a bias to immediate action Lean, to ensure that waste is removed in the shortest possible time.
    Six Sigma was developed by Motorola to enable effective competition against high quality imports from Japan. Six Sigma is a highly structured process aimed at understanding and reducing variation to ensure that the process always delivers the product or service required by the customer. Six Sigma requires statistical evidence and proof of performance, with a mantra of show me the evidence, the ultimate aim of which is to ensure the product delivered is absolutely consistent and within specification. Six Sigma has a bias to understanding the customer and only acting on statistically valid evidence.

    The aim of both Lean and Six Sigma is to reduce waste, particularly defects, improve process performance and thereby increase customer satisfaction. Lean aims to achieve this by identifying and removing waste and non-value added activities. Six Sigma aims to achieve this by ensuring the customer needs are fully understood and the process is capable of delivering the required product consistently.

  2. Which Should be used first, Lean or Six Sigma

    My perception is that if a practitioner is more comfortable with Lean they will use the lean tools first and if they are more comfortable with Six Sigma they will apply Six Sigma first. Let’s phrase that question differently and see if it still makes sense.
    Do you want to reduce waste, defects, and lead time for your process through Lean, or do you want to reduce waste, defects and lead time for your process through Six Sigma? I believe almost every production manager and senior executive would ask one more question; why do I have to choose?
    Lean and Six Sigma processes are valuable and there is a strong crossover in the skills. For example if final checking of a process is unnecessarily complicated and yielding too many defects, would you want to be certain that the test method was correctly identifying defects? Of course, therefore we should use Six Sigma first right, because that is where we find Gauge reproducibility and repeatability tools? However, would you want to eat until that was done before simplifying the process? If we give in to the tyranny of “or” we have to choose. What if we choose and instead, and use different groups in the team for both exercises. We need to make sure they communicate effectively, but if the tasks are perceived as of equal importance and we promote a collaborative approach, we can get both done in parallel. That way we eliminate the non-value added steps and ensure that we can separate good parts from bad parts.
    If we start with Lean we end up with a simple process (good) without knowing if our output performance is due to the test method, operator or parts (bad). If we start with Six Sigma, we know where the variation finished part performance comes from (good), but the process is still very complicated and we still can’t clearly see what needs to change (bad). If we apply both techniques in parallel we get a simplified process (good) with clarity of process performance (good). Applying both in parallel gives the best results.

  3. Is Lean better than Six Sigma?

    Is your car engine more important than the steering? Neither works well without the other, having a car that can go fast, but is hard to direct is not going to work, equally having an excellent capability to direct the car, but nothing to make it move is also going to fail.
    Lean and Six Sigma are complementary and whilst each is an excellent tool in it’s own right, when used together these two tools yield results far in excess of what each can give alone. Neither is better than the other, they are different and they are complimentary. Lean or six sigma is not a binary choice, it is a comprehensive toolkit for solving problems.
    Just as an engineer uses different tools and techniques for different structures, so Lean and Six Sigma should be applied when the tools and techniques are appropriate to the task in hand.


So my final message on this would be don’t worry about whether the improvement process should be lean or six sigma, instead worry about whether the tool selected to improve the process will yield the most effective solution. In other words don’t get trapped by the tyranny of “or” instead be empowered by the freedom of “and”.