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3 and a half reasons that Lean Six Sigma fails to deliver

Dec 4, 2020 | 4 min read

In this blog from our Lean Methodology Series, we explore the reasons why your Lean Six Sigma projects may have failed to deliver.

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Why Lean Six Sigma fails to deliver

Lean Six Sigma is a prescriptive methodology for improving flow and reducing variation in a process using data and process analysis techniques. More simply, it is a means to systematically improve the speed and quality of a process, and it is highly effective.

However, Lean Six Sigma is NOT a magic wand – faster and better isn’t always what is achieved.

Here at Roboyo we know that when executed badly Lean Six Sigma can have wildly varying degrees of success in its utilization.

In fact, I would guess that most people with some exposure to Lean Six Sigma have experienced the latter.

So, what is the problem?

As is often the case, there are a great many things that can go wrong with a Lean Six Sigma project but if you get the right practitioner such as Roboyo, these problems rapidly disappear. Here are a few pointers on how we make your Lean Six Sigma a success.

Focus on the right customer

One of the things that makes Lean Six Sigma effective is that part of the framework requires the practitioner to define the metric by which direction and success are gauged, and the metric is derived from the Voice of the Customer (VoC). This means that the project focuses on the important stuff, as opposed to subordinating to the existing, often arbitrary, often inconsequential metrics.

At the same time though, many of the tools used such as a SIPOC (suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, customers) diagram would define a customer as the recipient of an output of a process step. This means that any party, internal or external that is downstream from where the process is triggered can be classified as a customer.

The potential issue here is that some practitioners derive a metric from VoC, acquired internally, and then proceed to improve that. What results is an improvement in that one area, but no improvement from the perspective of the real customer.

This is an easy trap to fall into as the level of importance around an issue can be quite subjective. For example, we’ve seen a number of instances where a person has undertaken a piece of work to streamline the process of dealing with customer complaints as opposed to working on the things that cause customers to complain in the first place.

Data driven decision-making

A defining characteristic of the Lean Six Sigma approach is the use of data. Data is used to size the problem, to measure the impact, to prove and disprove root causes, and to test the ultimate solution. As practitioners we’re a slave to the data.

This is a good thing; to quote former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale: “If we have data, let’s look at the data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” Using data to drive decision making through the project ensures that the decision making is sound.

Data can be a fickle friend though, and sometimes tells us things we didn’t expect. Sometimes it contradicts our opinions and quite often shows a level of significance lower than expected – I have seen this many times; it happens.

The appropriate thing to do in these instances may be to just stop. Call it a day and simply publicize that we were all wrong about just how big a problem ‘that’ was.

When this occurs, I’ve seen practitioners just plough ahead. Maybe they’re committed to finishing what they started, maybe it’s a sunk cost mentality at work. I don’t know why it happens, I just know that it happens; and when the margin for improvement is considerably smaller than initially thought, the resulting condition can be a disappointment or even dissatisfaction at the overall impact of the project.

Get rid of any predefined solutions

By far the most common thing I have observed is practitioners undertaking a Lean Six Sigma project already having the solution in mind.

In the beginning, there are so many gaps in understanding. As explained above, the approach aims to attain an understanding of the size and impact of the problem, and to prove with data what is causing the problem – if we don’t yet know these things how can we possibly know what the appropriate solution is?

The obvious answer here is we can’t (or if we did, then Lean Six Sigma is not the right approach – more on this shortly), so what follows is a process of box-ticking – working through the framework in order to appear to satisfy the requirements in order for the practitioner to justifiably implement the solution that they had thought of before starting to investigate the problem.

This really is pointless. Ultimately one of two things happen as a result, either a working solution is implemented, but much time has been spent unnecessarily ticking boxes, or worse, a suboptimal solution is implemented – at least the former results in a working solution!

This leads me on to…

The half

This is only half a reason, as it’s an extension of the previous point.

Some people subscribe so heavily to Lean Six Sigma as an approach, that they apply it at every opportunity. The issue with that mentality is that it is not always the appropriate approach to use. Just like the above scenario where we already know what it is we are going to do, all the investigation and analysis is a waste of time, unless we are open to having our minds changed.

We see the sweet spot for the utilization of Lean Six Sigma is where the cause and solution to a problem are unknown, the problem is measurable, and the means to measure and influence contributing factors are within our control.

Each of the issues covered above stem from faux pas made by the practitioner. All the instances of a Lean Six Sigma project falling short are not the result of a shortfall in the methodology but in the execution.

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