LeanSix Sigma

Knowledge and Thinking

By Ron Pereira Updated on July 31st, 2013

“Knowledge is what keeps the momentum going between dreams and reality.” -Author Unknown

I am a firm believer that the “thinking” that occurs while practicing lean manufacturing and six sigma is extremely important.

I was reminded of this by, well, myself when I re-read an answer I gave Kevin Meyer a month or so ago for a blog series he’s running.

And I won’t back away from this since I truly believe that learning how to think is far more important than any single “tool” or “technique” one can learn.

But does this mean the tools and techniques of continuous improvement aren’t important? Of course not.

In fact, I’d be willing to wager that the more tools and techniques you know the better you’ll be able to think and solve problems. Allow me to explain.

Continuous Improvement Snobs

There are some folks so in love with either lean or six sigma they snub their nose at the other.

Some ‘lean purists’ will attempt to say, for example, how six sigma is no good and that they wouldn’t be caught dead using “it” as if it (six sigma) were some type of disease.

Likewise there are ‘six sigma purists’ who think lean is a second class continuous improvement citizen due to what they feel to be a simple set of tools.

With all due respect, I find both sets of people highly ignorant… but that’s just me.

Learn it all

My approach has always been to learn as much as I can about all facets of continuous improvement. You see, I could really care less if something is labeled lean, six sigma, lean six sigma, TOC, etc.

All I want to know is how to solve problems no matter the situation. And time has taught me that sometimes a so-called six sigma toolset might be of better use than a so-called lean toolset.

For example, I am not sure I’ve ever read Dr. James Womack or Dr. Jeffrey Liker (two leading ‘lean’ experts) ever write about the benefits or importance of a repeatable and reproducible measurement system.

Likewise, I am not sure I’ve ever read George Box (a leading statistical expert) write about the greatness of an andon system. But does this mean six sigma ‘belts’ should not learn about what an andon system is? Of course not.

Moral of the story

So, the moral of my rant is this. I truly believe the more you learn the more you’ll be able to think. And the more you’re able to think the better you’ll be at solving problems. And, in the end, isn’t that what continuous improvement is really about?

Do you agree with me? Have you ever heard a ‘lean’ guru bash six sigma or perhaps a ‘six sigma’ guru bash lean? What is your response when they do?

  1. Anja S.

    May 25, 2009 - 3:25 pm

    I see this all the time. mostly lean people attacking six sigma. I agree we should learn both but it’s hard at my company since we are more focused on lean no matter situatiion.

  2. Adam Roberts

    May 26, 2009 - 7:01 am

    Agree with your assessment. Part of the problem is consultants. Some have sold themselves as Lean experts and thus have little use for Six Sigma and vice versa. The smart consultants offer both since both are needed from time to time. Me, I am biased towards to Six Sigma but am open to learning more about Lean and am doing my best to do so. Your blog has really helped me in this area.

  3. miket

    May 26, 2009 - 8:46 am

    Is my perception that six sixgma tools can build upon lean but that six sigma can be used in a very non-lean way, accurate?

  4. Nathaniel

    May 26, 2009 - 8:53 am

    In all honesty, I can see why lean thinkers such as Jones and Womack don’t spend a great deal of time talking about measurements or six sigma: they like to keep it simple. I know it’s not what six sigma proponents envision as an ideal system, but most six sigma implementations I’ve witnessed involve several process engineers (whether it be in manufacturing or services) measuring, recording, then quickly going back to their offices to apply statistics in their spreadsheets to report their findings. This, I think everyone here can agree, is nothing but muda.

    I love manufacturing, and that’s where the bulk of my experiences come from. I like simple and I’ve found that those on the floor like and want simple as well. That’s not to say that statistics/six sigma doesn’t have it’s place. Also, Womack may not be overtly advocating for six sigma, but he isn’t necessarily harping against it as well. In a b log entry at lean.org, Womack does recognize the importance of six sigma (or atleast it’s relationship) to process capability (http://lean.org/common/display/Default.aspx?o=710).

    I think you will see that your opinions on the lean vs six sigma approaches are closer to Womack’s than you might believe. The above mentioned blog entry he is asked to compare lean/six sigma/tpm/re-engineering/etc… and the final lines summarize his opinion well, “…energy expended on comparing and criticizing improvement methods rather than pursuing the perfect value stream, is surely Type Two muda. That’s the type of waste we can get rid of immediately!”.

  5. Atul Kulkarni

    May 26, 2009 - 9:18 am

    Just try to relate following two things with Six Sigma or Lean implementation in any organization,
    1. Somebody once said that the difference between knowledge and wisdom is this.. Knowledge is the understanding that a tomato is a fruit..wisdom is the understanding that you don’t put tomatoes’ in fruit salads.
    (Morale: If you know what you want to achieve, focus on the usability of the roadmap any one Six Sigma or Lean i.e. what to use and when; be less rigid; definitions are a way to communicate and not the end of road)

    Next one is a famous quote by Albert Einstein
    2. Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.
    Albert Einstein

    (Morale: why to make things more complex, because we can not expect all the employees to learn everything, and if the level of knowledge (wisdom?) is not same, i think the situation in any industry will become more regressive)

    I hope this approach can make tings a bit simpler, as said by Albert Einstein
    “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

    Atul Kulkarni

  6. Adam Roberts

    May 26, 2009 - 9:30 am

    Nathaniel, your comments about process engineers using statistics in their office being nothing but muda are the types of comments that create the divide this blog post is speaking about.

    For the record, I have seen companies abuse 5S thinking they are “Lean” because they have cleaned up their desks and removed pictures. Obviously Lean is much more than 5S just like Six Sigma is much more than process engineers using statistics.

    So I think caution should be used when attempting to explain why one methodology is better than another or why one so-called expert is right or wrong.

    I am a Master Black Belt and would be happy to put the results our company has achieved with Six Sigma up against anyone. Are we perfect? No. Far from it but we are constantly trying to find ways to improve and Six Sigma has been our primary vehicle to get us there.

  7. Nathaniel

    May 26, 2009 - 9:57 am

    I’m sorry, Mr. Roberts. My words didn’t properly convey my meaning. The scenario above only reflects the six sigma implementations I have first hand witnessed, not at all the mainstream way of doing business, and certainly not the preferred methodology. These were, at most, half hearted attempts and likely just “doing six sigma for the sake of doing six sigma”, not for any true benefit to the organization.

    My apologies for the confusion.

  8. Adam Roberts

    May 26, 2009 - 11:14 am

    No problem Nathaniel. I was having a bad morning and probably over reacted with my reply so my apologies as well.


  9. miket

    May 26, 2009 - 11:21 am

    How far away from the shop floor are these six sigma offices?

  10. Adam Roberts

    May 26, 2009 - 11:46 am

    miket, your comment may be more on the fun side of things so I will just reply that my desk (sorry, I don’t have a fancy office) is on the shop floor along with all our production engineers and line supervisors. If you don’t mind me asking where is yours?


  11. miket

    May 26, 2009 - 11:54 am

    Currently I’m unemployed.

  12. miket

    May 26, 2009 - 12:11 pm

    Yeah my comment was in fun, but im serious about my idea that since six sigma guys took the colored belts, lean guys should have colored suspenders. And of course the guys who are lean and six sigma…

  13. miket

    May 26, 2009 - 12:25 pm

    And all consultants should have cowboy hats.

  14. Garth F

    May 26, 2009 - 2:19 pm

    Lean, Six Sigma, TOC, TQM et al in my opinion are all just footnotes to Demming. Get the 14 points right, and you’re set. The various philosophies and tools that have come afterward are just that – tools to help achieve that same end goal. Use which ever tool suits a given situation.

  15. DJ Duarte

    May 26, 2009 - 5:08 pm

    If I may be so bold as to share my view on this and other quality tools, I would just say that I have learned over the years to value collaborative improvement efforts. Both lean and six sigma as well as the other quality tools compliment each other in ways that are essential to getting people to improve the organization together. One is not more important than the other. They simply are designed to view the effort slightly different. As for the methodologies, yes they are different, but then again, every situation doesn’t require the same approach or method.

    When I meet those guru’s that slam one or the other, I listen closely for why they lean (no pun intended) towards the one. Usually its because they like a tool, details, etc., this then allows me the opportunity to frame the value of the other method into something they can understand. For example, all of them are about eliminating waste, yet they do this in very different ways. TOC focuses on bottlenecks which for lean translates into reducing inventory levels and for six sigma shares that their is huge variation in continuous flow.

    So, we can’t change others unless we first change ourselves. This debate I’m sure is long from over, if in fact it will ever be over. The only piece to me that is important is that they all are valuable tools, different yes but valuable in the end, and that in certain situations can help provide the right clarity and purpose for improving your organization. Good luck and thanks for listening!

  16. Ron Pereira

    May 26, 2009 - 7:09 pm

    Thank you all for your amazing comments. As always I am humbled by your active participation. Wishing you all the very best!

  17. Observer

    May 27, 2009 - 1:36 am

    Every one is comfortable in acquiring some skill sets. Some are numerically endowed. Some others think graphically. Some are action oriented and not like paper work. So there is nothing like a single tool or tool set that is good for every body and every situation. The problem does not know which tool we are using. Nor does the customer care which tool we used. Some famous quotes “For a person with a hammer every problem appears to be a nail”. Another quote from the Chinese communist party leader (when asked about their SEZ driven growth being capitalistic), “I do not care what is the colour of the Cat, as long as it can catch mice”. He cared for employment generation for his people and not for capitalism or communism.

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