Posted by: Knightbird | February 4, 2013

Six Sigma

I had a wonderful chat with a young man who attended a workshop I put on back in September 2012. Something I generally say in my workshops is that I am not fond of Six Sigma. I don’t typically explain my dislike very well, and this young man brought it up. I do run into a lot of Six Sigma trained green and black belts who are real optimistic about the model, and in my world of thinking, it’s understandable. Management recognizes earning a green or black belt as a promotable event. Employees are selected for the training, and it costs a lot of money to train a green belt. So managers screen who gets to participate in being trained. And they shell out a lot of money to give the employee a certification that improves their value in the marketplace of Six Sigma leaning managers. A green belt can cost as much as $35,000. A black belt may cost as much as $100,000. Then management selects projects to assign belts to. The team is selected to work with the belt, which ultimately responds to the belt as just another manager.

Lean is different. A Lean Executive may authorize positions or an office for promoting lean. Employees are then engaged in learning about lean as a culture of continuous improvement and respect for people. The tools used by lean management practitioners are not designed to boss team participants around through superior knowledge. Instead, the practitioner helps the team as a coach or sensei. Appropriate tools are introduced and the team members are taught how to use them. Team members collectively define the problem, gather the facts, and discover the value stream and brainstorm improvements. They implement the improvements using the scientific method (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust or PDCA). And they document the standard work so new participants in the process can learn quickly and effectively how to maintain the improvements. The employees in the value stream are responsible for maintaining the improved system. And they become accountable for any defects. Accountability means they must recognize when a defect occurs, and fix the root cause to eliminate the potential for the defect occurring again. If you are continuously trying to improve your process, you cannot revert to the previous norm.

The belt? The leave and move on to their next employer assigned project. The system they worked on may or may not improve. But in my opinion, the employees left behind have not been inspired to take charge of their value stream. It is just another mandated by management improvement that starts reverting to the previous norm.

The tools of Six Sigma are, in many respects, the same tools used by Lean Practitioners. My problem is not with the tools, but the philosophy the different tools create.


  1. […] Patrick Anderson, a devoted lean guy and all around mover and shaker in Alaska – particularly in health care and areas of interest to the native folks – wrote an interesting piece in the Lean in Alaska blog a few days ago.  It is simply called “Six Sigma”. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: