Monday, October 19, 2009

Six sigma vs Lean. Whats the difference?

As you consider your options for kicking off a Continuous Improvement initiative, one of the questions you'll face is which program to chose. I talked a little about this here. Today, I want to go a little more in depth on the differences between two of the most popular CI programs; Lean and Six Sigma.

First a little definition, starting with Six Sigma. Six Sigma is many things. It is a statistic (3.4 defects per million), it is a set of tools (GR&R, Descriptive Stats, Regression, DOE, etc.), it is a problem solving process (DMAIC, PIDOV, DMADV), but it is also a management philosophy.

Lean is all of the things listed above (except a statistic) for Six Sigma. Lean is a toolset (Kanban, Poke Yoke, Andon, VSM, Standard Work, Visual Factory, etc..).Lean is also a process, usually starting with 5S and proceeding from there to more difficult problems and solving them using a Kaizen approach. Lean is also a management philosophy.

Both approaches can be successfully applied at any of the levels mentioned, but the full realization of each is as a management philosophy. Gains can be made when the tools are applied to a given problem so each can be successful without full commitment, further each compliments weaknesses in the other approach, which leads to the recent trend in combining the tools and methods together (Lean Six Sigma). There are obvious differences between the tools used in each method, the processes used are similar to each other. Kaizen can be mapped over the steps of DMAIC or vice versa.

So what is the difference between Lean and Six Sigma? The biggest differences can be found when Lean or Six Sigma is applied pervasively as a way of managing the business. Both include training as a core component but there is a subtle difference between the approaches used. While both Lean and Six Sigma need trained practitioners to be successful, Lean has an additional value placed on training that does not exist in Six Sigma. A core concept of a Lean culture is a cross-trained workforce. Cross-trained in the work process, not specifically in Lean tools. This is an important part of a Lean Transformation because a cross-trained workforce supports job rotation to keep workers from getting bored and complacent. Another significant difference is evident in the use of measurements. Both Lean and Six Sigma emphasize measuring performance, the approach is very different however. Six Sigma seeks to measure process performance relative to the problem being worked on at the project level or of the most important measures of business success through Dashboards. These dashboards cascade down from the top and rarely show up on the shop floor, so the workers dont really know how they are doing. Lean, on the other hand, focuses measurements on the shop floor FIRST and places a high value on managers going to the Gemba, or shop floor to see for themselves how things are going. This suggests a bottoms up approach to measurement, starting with the work cell and proceeding UP to the plant and the company from there. This is supported by Visual Factory concepts. I remember a quote from one of my Lean Sensei's that the standard for Visual Factory effectiveness was that a one eyed person could gallop a horse through the plant and at the end be able to tell you what is going on in that plant. It should be that obvious. This difference highlights the main philisophical difference between Lean and Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a tops-down management philosophy that only occasionally reaches the shop floor whose main practitioners are mid-level managers and engineers. Six Sigma projects are chosen by reviewing performance at a high level and imposing the change down with some involvement from the "doers". Lean, on the other hand is characterized by the idea of "servant leadership" in which the leadership views one of its main functions to be enabling the success of the workers. Management goes to the floor to see what is happening, values effective communication, training, promotion, and learning and the initiative start and complete improvment work starts at the lowest level, the individual worker and the work cell member's desire to improve their own work.

Finally, there is one other significant differnce between Lean and Six Sigma at top level. Since Lean is so focused on enabling the worker to perform better, a sacred trust is built between the workers and management. This implied contract is that making Lean improvements will not result in people losing their jobs. This is incredibly powerful in creating trust. Dont get me wrong, Lean does result in fewer workers being needed in the work cell, but the sacred trust means that those workers are placed elsewhere, not on the street. Six Sigma on the other hand...well, one only needs to talk to someone who has worked for GE during the Welch era to know what happened there.


Brad said...


Thanks for the clarification. I've often wondered the difference and you explained it quite well. The point about top down versus bottom up was very interesting. Too many organizations have leaders who sit and look at dashboards and graphs all day rather than looking at what's really going on in their business. As a result they become detached not just from the work, but as you pointed out, from the worker. Then they wonder why there are some many problems with employee engagement.

Great post!

Jim said...


Thanks for the comment and the support. It takes courage to go out to the shop floor and talk to people who actually do the work of the company. You might not like what you hear. Its much easier to sit around the conference table and agree with each other, than to go see for yourself.

Online Six Sigma Black Belt Certification said...

Nice post ! This truly brings out the difference between Lean and Six Sigma. The best thing is that while implementing Lean people will not loose their jobs.

Anonymous said...

This was very useful & well explained.Thank you

Unknown said...

Six Sigma is all about reducing the defects to the minimum. Thus while implementing six sigma one should not really be concerned with the size of the organization.Six Sigma Certification

Unknown said...

Thanks six I plan to post approximately weekly real world advice and experiences on six sigma, lean and quality management topics.
Hope to hear from you again soon.Lean Six Sigma Training

Unknown said...

Awesome post.This is a wonderful blog.If we are lost the way
Principles are that gives as hint what to do or not to do so
always remember the Principles and follow that
to achieve.Thanks for visiting this site.
Online Courses Lean 6 Sigma

Unknown said...

Generally I don't read post on blogs, however I wish to say that this write-up very forced me to take a look at and do it! Your writing taste has been amazed me.
Thanks, quite nice post.lean six sigma

Unknown said...

Thanks for clarification. I wondered about your explanation about the differences between Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma .

Anonymous said...

smokeless cigarettes, e cigarette, electronic cigarette, ecig forum, e cigarette, electronic cigarette

Unknown said...

There are many more benefits of pursuing Six Sigma Certification in USA It draws out the hidden skills and increase your market value that can be much beneficial for the future.

KnowledgeCert is a leading provider of Professional Courses Certification which provides Six Sigma Certification in USA a beneficial training and certification.

Unknown said...

This is an incredible post about Six Sigma Certification in USA Getting such a wide range of benefits is really amazing.

Evan said...

To learn more about six sigma, here are some Six Sigma Tools that can be visually represented Six Sigma. You can draw all these diagrams with Creately online diagramming and collaboration software.

Paritosh Dobhal said...

I wanted to thank you for this great read. Your blog is one of the finest blogs about the Six Sigma Certification vs Lean Six Sigma. Thanks for posting this informative article.