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The lessons from Six Sigma and Lean

Two of the biggest recent trends in management have been Six Sigma and Lean. These were originally separate approaches, but they are often conflated nowadays into Lean Six Sigma. In this article I treat them as one discipline, although each brings different tools, areas of focus and value.

I do not see Lean Six Sigma as a panacea for all business problems, as some of its staunchest advocates present it, but it has proven its value. Lean Six Sigma is not exactly leading edge thinking, but it has powerful lessons for project managers and project teams which are new to many practitioners.

I want to look at some of the underlying philosophies of Lean Six Sigma, and show what project managers and teams can learn from this.

Lesson 1: Start with the customer

Lean Six Sigma puts customers and customer satisfaction at the heart of everything it does. It starts by considering the needs of the customers (voice of the customer), and defining quality in terms of the customer. Lean Six Sigma seeks to improve customer satisfaction, reduce defects (anything unacceptable to a customer), reduce waste (non-value adding activities), and reduce cycle times. Good is not good enough, quality can always be improved further.

What is the lesson for projects? The best projects have a relentless focus on customers, but all too often customers are treated as people who are spoken to at the start and end of the project. In between they are forgotten. On a daily basis there is no questioning of ”how is what I am doing adding value to the customer?” Only work which progresses towards outcomes of real customer value, or reduces the risk of achieving them, should be included in the project.

Lesson 2: The importance of data

Lean Six Sigma is a fact based discipline with an obsessive focus on data. Of course, in many situations there is no adequate data to understand situations and measure improvements. When this is true, Lean Six Sigma does not just accept this, but find measures – whether this is by counts, samples or other approaches.

In Lean Six Sigma you cannot claim a benefit unless you have a baseline to measure against, and much of the training in Lean Six Sigma is on measurement and data analysis. But not just any data will do, it has to link back to the customer’s needs.

Some projects are brilliantly analytical, but the lesson for other projects is clear. Drop those weak business cases with half thought through metrics, immeasurable claims and unproven benefits. If there are no measures in place early in the project, put them in place and build your baseline to show progress against them.

Lesson 3: Challenging the iron triangle

One central piece of project management thinking is the “iron triangle” – stating the interdependency between time, cost and quality. The theory is that you cannot alter one without having an impact on the others. For instance: reduce project time and you must either increase cost or reduce quality.

The iron triangle was a brilliantly clear and insightful piece of thinking by its inventor, Dr Martin Barnes. Whilst many project managers have recognised that in reality it is overly simplistic, it is a helpful way of thinking about projects, and a powerful tool for working with project stakeholders explaining why their requests in one area have an impact elsewhere. But the iron triangle is not a law.

The iron triangle has been criticised by some as being too simplistic – but I like its simplicity, again as long as it is not treated as a law.

Many Lean Six Sigma initiatives have shown that it is possible to reduce cost, increase speed and increase quality. By removing waste, focussing only on value added tasks, and by reducing defects, processes can be improved in all three dimensions at once.

Does this mean I do not use the iron triangle? No it does not! I continue to use it. But I treat the iron triangle as a theoretical model. If you apply the iron triangle as a law to your project it assumes you have perfectly planned it, you have chosen approaches which have no waste and only do value added tasks, and that you have a negligible defect level. I have found few projects like this. In most projects there is room to improve our project management practices, processes and tools – to eliminate redundant steps and improve quality.

This is not just a theoretical point. Simple steps like reducing work in progress (as done in Agile), can improve cost, time and quality. There may be trade off between these dimensions, but only once you have perfected your project approach!

When challenged to decrease time, cost and quality, don’t forget the iron triangle as it may hold, but be open to thinking about and finding alternative, lower waste and lower defect project practices.

Lesson 4: Learning

Lean Six Sigma is built on a learning and continuous improvement model. Coaching is inbuilt. There is formal training, lots of it, but as important is the on-the-job coaching that goes on throughout Lean Six Sigma projects. Master black belts coach black belts, who in turn coach green belts, who in turn work with and coach team members. The whole thing self-replicates: every Lean Six Sigma initiative adds value in its own right, but also coaches a wider pool of Lean Six Sigma team members. This is a great model for improving and expanding project management skills.

Lean Six Sigma assumes the best people to fix a problem are the people who do the work day in, day out. The assumption is the team knows the problems and can find answers. Lean Six Sigma is not about micro control of how work is done – it is about micro control of the outcomes from work.

Many project managers could learn from this. There is a tendency to focus on controlling the activities and approaches team members use. A more productive focus is to ensure a relentless focus on outcomes is being achieved, combined with an attitude of coaching team members to find ways of solving project problems themselves.

In project management we talk about learning and continuous improvement, but too often this is left to the luck of on the job training and a cursory post implementation review. There is nothing wrong with on-the-job learning, as long as it is oriented to real learning needs and supported by appropriate coaching. Post implementation reviews are powerful learning opportunities, as long as learning really is achieved. But learning can also be a deliberate daily part of a project’s routine: what is going well, what is getting in the way, and what can be done differently.

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