10 lessons learned while implementing a lean six sigma organization

Implementing a lean six sigma organization within a company is a challenging task. A lot of company struggles to set-up a lean six sigma organization. Setting up the organization is only the first and easiest step, making it a sustainable organization is even harder. Only a few companies really succeed in imbedding the lean six sigma mindset within the DNA of their company.

Over the years I have helped setting up lean six sigma (LSS) organization within different companies. Hereunder you find 10 of the lessons I learned while setting up a lean six sigma organization that I would like to share with you.

Lesson 1: It is not all about statistics

When you follow a six sigma course, the first thing they learn you is that six sigma is a statistic based method, And while that is true you have to realize that statistics are not the only skill you need to acquire when you want to successfully run a six sigma project. In my opinion a good six sigma project leader should have 1/3 statistics skills, 1/3 project management skills and 1/3 people skills. You should take this into account when selecting the people who you would like to train in six sigma.

Lesson 2: A LSS project should support the Businesses KPI’s

There is only one good reason to implement a lean six sigma organization and that is because you are convinced that it will improve your business. So do not implement it because the customer wants it or because other successful companies are doing it if you are not convinced it will help you in the long run!

When selecting a project, people tend to select a project that solves a problem they are having. There is a risk here that this is not the best way to spend your resources, since it could mean that you shift the problem from one department to another department. You have to make certain that the project supports also the business key performance indicators (KPI's). Make certain that the sponsor for the project is accountable for the business KPI the project is targeting.

Lesson 3: LSS is teamwork

LSS projects are most of the time big projects that need teams in order to move forward at a steady pace. Furthermore, you need to involve the people who are standing the closest to the process in order to gain insight and help to implement the change.

If you implement a lean six sigma organization within your company and you really want to embed it in the DNA of your company you have to make certain that everybody can speak the same language.

You will have to train everyone, from the people on the floor to the management, so that they all understand the basics. White belt courses have to be set up.

Lesson 4: management awareness and support is needed

Implementing a lean six sigma organization means implementing a change. In order to have a successful change, you need four things: pressure to change, a clear shared vision, willingness to change, and first feasible steps. Management plays an important step in providing the above things.

If needed management awareness courses have to be given to explain what LSS is and how it can help the organization. They need to be actively involved in the projects as sponsors.

Lesson 5: The project charter is the “contract” between project leader and sponsor

I do not know any lean six sigma course that does not include the project charter. Wikipedia defines a project charter as followed: "In project management, a project charter, project definition, or project statement is a statement of the scope, objectives, and participants in a project. It provides a preliminary delineation of roles and responsibilities, outlines the project's key goals, identifies the main stakeholders, and defines the authority of the project manager."

The project charter is the contract between the project leader and sponsor. It summarizes what KPI, for which the sponsor is accountable (lesson 2), will be improved by the project leader. It not only describes what KPI but also how big the improvement will be and what resources will be needed to provide this improvement. In return, the sponsor agrees to provide these resources.

However, I see many projects where there is a project charter that is not signed. In this case, we should ask our self, how is this possible. Is there a problem with the commitment of the management (lesson 4), does the project leader does not believe it is achievable, or is there something else ...

Lesson 6: Lean and six sigma are two different methodologies

Lean and six sigma have a lot it common. They are both looking for custom satisfaction and aiming for faster, better and cheaper products and services. Lean starts from reducing waste, while six sigma starts from reducing variation. Both methods have their own cylcles. Leans use the PDCA approach while six sigma uses the DMAIC approach.

You have to consider before you start implementing a lean six sigma organization if you really want to introduce the two techniques. nobody says you have to! Again you have to see what is best for the company. I have seen many companies that started with lean six sigma but after a few years, 95% were lean projects and only 5% six sigma projects.

Lesson 7: LSS needs a Structure

The roles within a lean six sigma organization can be summarized by the figure below.

Notice how they are represented in a pyramid. This is also the case in real life. You need less master black belts than black belts, less black belts than green belts, ... 1:10 is often given as a general rule, but it really depends on the situation of your organization.

Whatever you decide you have to keep in mind that you have to manage the growth. Training is just the beginning, the projects require resources. So you will have to prioritize them. Nothing is more frustrating as been trained in lean six sigma and then not be able to be part of a team and apply what you have learned because there are simply not enough resources.

Lesson 8: Continous improvement is a matter for all employees, and is only guaranteed by a culture change

Like described in the introduction of this article, setting up a lean six sigma organization although challenging is the easiest step. Maintaining it it even harder. You can only embed it in the DNA of your company and create a culture change if all employees are involved.

Employees should not only be involved in projects but they should also actively look for improvement opportunities.

Even when somebody is only doing an awareness or white belt course of a few hours I will ask them to come up with a small improvement project. This makes clear that it is expected that everybody will actively look for improvements. These quick wins will also help to get buy-in.

Just keep it in mind to manage the scope/expectations of this kind of project. If the chosen project is too big and can not be solved in a reasonable time people could get dismotivated.

LESSON 9: It is not all about the money

Projects with have hard savings and tangible results are easy to sell to the management. this does not mean that a project which could bring intangibles results should not be picked. But two conditions should be met. You have to be able to create a measurable KPI which represents the intangibles results and it has to support the business goals like any other project.

Even with tangible results, you have to watch out. Often lean six sigma courses and companies only give you your certificate if you reach a certain financial goal with your project. In my last company for example you needed to have a yearly benefit of 35K€ with one project to get your green belt certificate. One of the candidates had reached a saving of 30k€ with her project. Because she did not meet the requirement of 35K€ she started to search for a lot of small and expensive solutions to get the final 5k€ she needed for her belt. This shows how a fixed target can make that you put 80% of your resources in the last 20% of savings!

Lesson 10: Certification should not be the end goal

The final lesson is perhaps the most important one. In order to get a sustainable lean six sigma organization, you should start a new project once a project is finished. Too often you see that people who go for a certificate are driven only by personal gain since a certificate increases their value for their current but also their future employer. There is nothing wrong with this as long as it is a win-win situation. There the question and the end of a project should always be: What is your next project?

This article was updated on November 30, 2022