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Where does Lean Six Sigma come from?

This is maybe the second question people pose just after the question what it is. However answering one of these questions is not possible without answering the other one. In this brief article we address the origings as well as the possible results.

σ or Sigma - the Greek letter that defines a standard measure of deviation; the variability of collected data.

Sigma is also a measure of variability that indicates how much of the process data -such as product or service quality, on-time delivery, or other critical measures of consumer satisfaction- falls within the critical customer's requirements. The higher the "process sigma," the fewer the defects. Operating your process at 6 Sigma level means that a mere 3.4 defects per million products or transactions are generated.

As a methodology, 6 Sigma is embraced to optimize performance throughout an organization. It focuses on delivering improvements that are clearly linked to the company strategy, the core processes and critical customer requirements. Methodologies are available and proven very successful to improve existing processes (e.g. DMAIC)or at designing and implementing new ones (e.g. DMADV). Though it is used by some to deliver large-scale change across the entire organization -linking processes, culture and customers- it is also very effective as a focused improvement program in a particular area or department zooming in on what is most important to achieve and sustain hard financial results!


Huge multinationals such as Caterpillar have been producing staggering results implementing 6 Sigma across the board. In the first year of their implementation Caterpillar was able to achieve a significant net benefit of several millions. One estimates that the combined incremental benefits of 6 Sigma programs globally are more than € 400 billion!

Since 2000 a rejuvenated emphasis is seen on Lean Manufacturing. Lean Manufacturing originated in Japan just after the second World War and provides us with a comprehensive toolkit targeting process lead time and waste. The objective is simple. How can we produce the best product and or render the best services possible by optimizing our process (design) to the customer requirements and then drop or at least minimize all other work? Just-In-Time production, Value-added activities, a clean work place and preventive maintenance are all Lean developed tools.

Because Lean was very much put on the map by Toyota improvement practitioners and critiques keep an Argus-eye on everything that is currently happening to Toyota and the market. Design issues with brakes and gas peddles could be expected in any and all companies but these customer and safety issues and lack of communications thereafter could seriously jeopardize Toyota's superior position. The intermediate and long-term effect on the turnover that will be missed is already estimated in the hundreds of millions. That being said there is no doubt that 6 Sigma and Lean are a match made in heaven but like in every marriage we have to keep working hard to make it last.

Business Drivers/Triggers:

  • Cost and margin pressures
  • Stagnant Growth; loss of share
  • Customer Satisfaction declining/static
  • Product or Service Quality Issues
  • Low returns on current Improvement Initiatives
  • Need for Creating a Common, Rigorous Approach to Improvement and Customer Care

Value Proposition

Realize revenue growth and cost reduction that will break even on the initial investment in 12 months. Deliver a 5:1 return in the first year and up to a 10:1 return in the second year.

Build a capability to sustain benefits reaping the effects of your Lean Six program but as well from other infrastructure programs or IT initiatives because of the focus on hard benefits.

Methods and Tools

Lean Six Sigma consists of 2 core methods.

  • To improve ineffective existing processes; DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). Typical implementation time 2-6 months depending on the complexity of the projects and target setting.
  • To design and introduce new products, processes or systems; DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify) or similar approaches such as DMEDI. Typical implementation time 6-18 months.

Approach to Delivery

  • Top Leadership commitment
  • Alignment of improvements to strategy
  • Construct deployment plans
  • Lean Six Sigma training and coaching
  • Install project tracking and benefits realization systems
  • Performance management including personal scorecards, incentives and HC management
  • Develop process management capability
  • Knowledge management
  • Change and program management