Barriers to Lean Six Sigma

At the 2009 ASQ World Conference, Joe Defeo, President of the Juran Institute, gave an interactive session on the future of quality. Like everyone else, I probably heard only what I wanted to hear, but the message was clear: the future is upon us and it will be different from the past. 

While the past was predominantly about reducing manufacturing variation, the present moment shows signs that quality will be about leaner, greener, global realtime information systems. To improve quality now, there will be massive numbers of transactions-- "information that has to be decoded." 

Transactional Lean Six Sigma

Where transactions used to happen more slowly, they now happen in real time. 

What are real time information systems? On Memorial day, I had two people in Poland order the QI Macros software, pay with a credit card, and download the installation software. Electronic medical records keep track of a patient's treatment down to the last medication they received. A laptop purchased at a computer store in Denver triggers a supply chain event that initiates a new laptop's construction at a factory in China. 

What does this mean? While reducing variation in manufacturing is still important, the service side of the business, especially the information systems that power these customer interactions, has become critical to quality. 

Lower the Barriers to Quality

One participant in the ASQ session suggested that we need to: "Lower the barriers of entry to quality." Joe Defeo offered some key thoughts on how to lower the barriers:

  • Low cost quality management
  • Standard work practices
  • Real time analysis
  • Scorecards
  • Individual process improvements

While Lean Six Sigma has been focused on high cost training, software, teams and variation, the future belongs to low cost just-in-time training, software, individuals and information transactions. 

For the last several decades, I've sought to lower the barriers to quality with low-cost software like the QI Macros and our Excel-based scorecards and dashboards. I've applied Lean Six Sigma to itself to identify the essential methods and tools of quality which led to the Lean Six Sigma Simplified and Demystified books. I've used my software background to identify easy ways to analyze the flurry of transactions produced by most Information Systems ( And I've championed the idea of Money Belts--employees who can find and fix the problems of unnecessary delay, defects and deviation.

Here's My Point

To implement Lean Six Sigma, most companies spent a lot of money developing a hierarchy of Green and Black Belts. Lately, I've heard customers complaining that even the best trained Black Belt doesn't seem to know how to plug the leaks in cash flow caused by poor quality. I've heard top consultants say that companies would be better off with a few Green Belts who get coached through their initial projects by Money Belts. 

By making Lean Six Sigma sound complex and expensive, we've discouraged too many businesses from learning the essential methods and tools of Lean Six Sigma. We've stopped them from making improvements in their mission critical processes. With our focus on variation, we've discouraged IT departments from considering Lean Six Sigma. The hierarchy of Master Black Belts, Black Belts and Green Belts has created a problem of the haves vs the have nots. Isn't it time we got over our arrogance about Lean Six Sigma and start lowering the barriers to entry for everyone? 

Here's an example of what I mean. We looked at one of the many books for sale at the ASQ conference. Here's what one author had to say:

Sadly, computers and hand held devices have made statistics too easy to do now. Problems that took hours to setup and solve just a few decades ago can now be handled in nanoseconds by people who do not have the slightest idea what they are doing because the computer requires them to do nothing more than enter some data.

Here's the kicker: By virtually eliminating human involvement in doing statistics, computer power has done us a disservice.

Jeffrey Bauer
Statistical Analysis for Decision Makers in Healthcare, CRC Press, 2009.

Frankly, this sounds like scribes with quills complaining that the printing press has done us a disservice. It's time to lower the barriers to quality. There's an old saying the science advances death by death. As the old guard dies out, it makes room for the new discoveries. Let's hope the same isn't true of quality. 

Over the years, I've written many articles on this subject backed by research into how companies adopt, adapt or reject change. The answers are out there and they are surprisingly simple, but to apply them we will need to challenge conventional wisdom and act in the face of ridicule.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537,"

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