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Who said it is old-fashioned? Lean is timeless.

If the earth is not flat but spherical, why is Japan to the east of the States? While we are thinking about this, misinterpretations empowered by marketing continue to dominate our understandings in some key fields. No worries, this will not be a political or socio-cultural debate. In fact, this is a late discussion on lean & some of the related concepts.

Lean (manufacturing / production) – appeared as a term in the late 1980s after decades of development in Japan manufacturing industry – is a fundamental way of thinking that aims to eliminate all sorts of waste (muda), which are non-value-adding (NVA). Essentially, it means to do more with less, thus enabling increased productivity.

Lean can be applied not only to manufacturing but also to services & to whole business functions. To achieve lean, several techniques are utilized, including but not limited to value-stream mapping (VSM), 5S (seiri / sort – seiton / set in order – seiso / shine – seiketsu / standardize – shitsuke / sustain), poka-yoke (mistake / error-proofing), 5 Whys & so forth.

Six Sigma (6σ) – also emerged in 1980s but in the US – on the other hand, can be considered as part of a broad field called Statistical Process / Quality Control (SPC / SQC) that includes tools to identify & reduce inherent process variation. The desired quality that meets specs defined by customer expectations is assured by taking necessary process capability improvement actions leading to tighter control (limits) on processes.

Trying to rigorously attain higher sigma levels (e.g. 6σ) is more suited for manufacturing businesses over a certain size. Yet, DMAIC (Define – Measure – Analyze – Improve – Control) routine – the common methodology employed in 6σ programs – can also be applied to services to reduce process variability & cost of quality.

Ironically, in many 6σ programs executed even in manufacturing environments, DMAIC becomes the whole focus whereas the actual statistical aspects of 6σ (i.e. sigma level / process capability / yield / defect calculations) are often ignored at all.

Now, there comes the blend of the above two concepts, my favorite: Lean 6σ, arose in early 2000s. Although what is meant here is to combine the benefits of the above two, even the phrase itself is a little weird. Did we manage to eliminate the waste within 6σ & is this now a leaner version of it? Some of the sigmas were non-value-adding so that can we can go with less instead of six, two is ok for example, deal? Are we getting rid of the unnecessary(!) letters in DMAIC, and supposed to use something like MAC? Why not!

Anyways, even if we leave somewhat funny linguistic aspects aside, seeing lean & 6σ as complementary to make a bigger impact might be disappointing. Why? Well, because going lean in practice does not necessarily go hand in hand with reaching 6σ (or vice versa), and you may observe this realize in considerable number of applications.

lean (and kaizen / continuous improvement) are in fact timeless. like other timeless ideas, we need to resort to them, sooner or later.

On top of 6σ & even lean, there is a third concept called kaizen – emerged along with lean in Japan & means change for the better / (continuous) improvement as it is called in the US. As the name suggests, it refers to a mentality of making improvements on a continual basis, independent of the industry or size of the business.

Incorporating lean principles & 6σ techniques in fact help achieve kaizen. Moreover, DMAIC, for example, is not really limited to 6σ as it describes typical steps to be taken within the scope of almost any type of process improvement activities, and therefore kaizen / continuous improvement.

Despite the given scopes of the above three notions, i continue to witness many businesses positioning 6σ (or Lean 6σ!) programs as enterprise-wide initiatives (sometimes even via standalone 6σ departments). In such cases, “lean projects” are expected to be performed as part of the overall 6σ initiative, and “kaizen events / burst / blitz” as small improvement / quick win actions within “lean projects”. In other words, the order is just the opposite of what these concepts actually stand for, at least from a philosophical perspective.

Apart from being a misinterpretation & a divergence from roots, i believe, misplacing these concepts – which are all expected to deliver value to the business & customers at the end – diminishes the expected return. If we are really looking for a company-wide initiative, we should go for lean (or kaizen / continuous improvement if we are after a deeper cultural shift).

What makes lean (and kaizen / continuous improvement) different than a trendy buzzword is, its being fundamental & indeed timeless. Like other timeless ideas, we need to resort to them, sooner or later.

For instance, what is at the core of agile concept in software development is nothing but the application of lean principles in an iterative manner (by the way, agile, at least in manufacturing setting, is an old concept dating back to early 1990s, and popularized again nowadays).

You may have also heard “The Lean Startup”, right? Building a company with just the essentials & avoiding all the excess that fail to contribute into the value proposition to target customers… How about lean government discussions? Simplifying processes, running with the minimal organization, eliminating all the operational waste & being frugal…

Examples are numerous, and i am sure you will think of many more. My firm belief is that, in today’s world that favor greedy consumption, we – as individuals & in our businesses – need to rethink the concepts like simplification, minimalism, frugality, essentialism, and lean, more than ever before. Less is – still – more & indeed brings continuous improvement in life.

#lean #kaizen #continuous-improvement #six-sigma


cover: Photo by David Yu from Pexels


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