Published in For Teams

Achieving operational excellence: What’s Lean Six Sigma?

By Maggie Gowland


6 min read

Any business owner knows you must constantly enhance organizational performance to stand out in today’s competitive landscape. 

Enter Lean Six Sigma, an innovative approach that seamlessly integrates the renowned principles of Lean thinking and Six Sigma methodology. By harnessing the power of Lean Six Sigma, organizations can optimize their operations, eliminate wasteful practices, and achieve unparalleled efficiency.

What’s Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma combines the principles of Lean thinking and Six Sigma methodology.

Lean thinking takes a systematic approach to eliminating waste and improving efficiency in manufacturing processes. It originated from the Toyota Production System (TPS) and emphasizes the relentless pursuit of waste reduction. To embrace this pursuit, every employee must thoroughly understand their workflows and how these affect others’, leaders ought to create for present quotas — not future projections — to avoid over-manufacturing, and the entire team must strive toward perfection. 

Six Sigma’s approach to quality control is data-driven and aims to reduce defects and variations in processes to achieve consistent and high-quality outputs. The main goal is to reach a quality level of only 3.4 defects per million opportunities — meaning that for every million outputs your team produces (this could be anything from a single task to a completed project), there are only 3.4 issues (roadblocks, mistakes, inefficiencies, etc.). 

Lean Six Sigma combines these two methods to improve organizational performance by reducing waste, enhancing efficiency, and minimizing process defects or errors. Here are the seven principles that guide this quality management system

  1. Focus on customer value

  2. Understand your workflows

  3. Identify and eliminate waste

  4. Continuously improve processes

  5. Standardize all processes 

  6. Promote teamwork and collaboration

  7. Be flexible and use data to drive change

You can use the Lean Six Sigma methodology across industries, from engineering to healthcare to finance — really anywhere where continuous improvement is paramount.

Exploring the 4 key Lean Six Sigma techniques

Lean Six Sigma employs various methods to achieve process improvement and operational excellence. These techniques empower organizations to maximize their potential for sustainable growth. 

Here are the four main techniques within Lean Six Sigma:

  1. Kanban is a workflow management practice that involves visualizing tasks on a board with categories “To do,” “Working,” “In progress,” and “Done.” This visualization increases employee visibility and accountability regarding work and ensures everyone understands the team’s workflow.

  2. Kaizen is a workplace philosophy focused on continuous improvement involving every employee. The idea is to empower everyone to feel they have a stake in the company’s success and should propose innovative solutions and actively contribute to ongoing improvement efforts.

  3. Value stream mapping involves analyzing and mapping the flow of materials, information, and activities within a process. This technique helps organizations identify and eliminate areas of waste, optimize process steps, and enhance overall efficiency.

  4. The 5S tool aims to ensure that the workplace is productive, safe, and successful. This involves five key steps: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. By organizing the workplace, eliminating clutter, maintaining cleanliness, implementing standard procedures, and establishing sustainable practices, organizations can create a more efficient and streamlined environment.

Lean Six Sigma follows a structured approach known as DMAIC: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. These five interconnected phases serve as a roadmap for identifying and enhancing existing process problems with unknown root causes. Let's explore each step in more detail.

1. Define

In this phase, you work with every relevant stakeholder, including teammates, clients, and management, to identify an issue. By understanding customer expectations and assessing the problem's scope, you can set clear objectives for your team and lay the foundation for effective problem-solving.

2. Measure

To measure an issue, you’ll examine how the workflow surrounding the problem contributes to it. You must also determine if the overall process aligns with the predefined quality expectations set by customers. This involves gathering and analyzing data to measure process performance, identifying key process metrics, and assessing gaps between current and desired outcomes.

3. Analyze

Examine all your collected information to better understand the problem's nature, causes, and scope. Your company might have a process in place for this analysis that involves using AI-based or other technologies to identify root causes and improvement opportunities. This analysis provides insights into process performance factors and guides your team’s improvement strategy selection.

4. Improve

Now’s the time to implement solutions to address root causes, eliminating both the problem and its underlying factors. Collaborate with your teammates to design, test, refine, and validate the solution, using data for efficacy. This phase emphasizes iterative improvement for measurable and sustainable results.

5. Control

Your team must make sure you can sustain your chosen solution and that it prevents a problem’s recurrence. You’ll finalize performance criteria, establish monitoring and control plans, and implement robust measurement systems and feedback methods to adapt to variations and drive continuous improvement.

Lean Six Sigma versus Six Sigma

The pursuit of process improvement and operational excellence drives both Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma. These methodologies aim to enhance efficiency, reduce defects, and ultimately deliver superior value to customers. 

But Six Sigma is primarily data-driven, relying on rigorous statistical analysis to identify and resolve issues. Lean Six Sigma combines this reliance on data with a more qualitative emphasis on promoting a continuous improvement philosophy throughout the organization.

Unlocking the benefits of Lean Six Sigma

Lean Six Sigma provides several advantages for organizations and individuals, driving improved business performance and personal growth. Let's explore a few key benefits of implementing Lean Six Sigma:

  • Enhancing processes — by identifying and eliminating waste and inefficiencies, Lean Six Sigma streamlines workflows, making them easier to manage. This leads to faster and more reliable methods with fewer defects. And by reducing variability and optimizing performance, organizations gain better predictability, enabling them to set more accurate targets for continuous improvement.

  • Driving financial success — streamlined processes and improved quality result in faster delivery and increased customer satisfaction, leading to potential revenue growth. And resolving the root causes of defects reduces additional costs, enhancing profitability and mitigating financial waste.

  • Nurturing analytical thinking — Lean Six Sigma cultivates an analytical mindset, enabling individuals to break down complex issues into manageable tasks. This approach focuses on identifying root causes and making data-driven decisions to solve them, helping employees practice their critical thinking skills. 

  • Empowering individuals and promoting teamwork — through problem identification, root cause analysis, and hands-on solution implementation, individuals become more efficient in their roles. And the shared problem-solving attitude fostered by Lean Six Sigma drives a culture of collaboration.

Exploring Lean Six Sigma belt levels

Organizations and individuals who implement the Lean Six Sigma methodology can become certified at different belt levels. Here's an overview:

Document your improvement in Notion

Every team requires a unique quality improvement method — the important thing is to have one. Doing so showcases your organization’s growth mindset and commitment to innovation, and that’s a company culture most employees will want to embrace. 

Notion addresses your team’s unique needs by offering a connected and customizable workplace. House all your important documents — like a performance improvement plan or project roadmap — in one location that everyone can access.

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