If you’re in business then your ultimate aim is to be as successful as possible, and this entails streamlining the processes via which you deliver your business to the point at which mistakes are reduced to the absolute minimum.
In some cases, such as basic manufacturing, this may seem like a simple task, involving the refinement of concrete physical actions and the removal of wasteful movements. In other businesses, however, the intangible nature of processes such as those which revolve around customer services can make it seem harder to evaluate and measure the various parts of that process. Doing so is vital, however, since the people you employ are only ever as good as the efficiency and effectiveness of the processes which they are using; a problem inherent in a process will call upon the person working with that process to spend time and energy overcoming that problem, rather than utilising their skills properly. The irony of the situation is that the more skilled the people working within a process are, the less likely it is that the problems within the process will come to your attention. Deal with those problems, however, and you’ll find that the skills of the people working through the process are now doing what they ought to be doing – delivering first rate customer service. Whilst engaged in the day to day running of a business, it can be difficult to find the time to step back and note such problems, and that’s why many businesses carry on year in and year out, with entrenched problems acting as a drag anchor on achievement.
It’s useful to think of any process as a machine; if you’ve employed the right people then they’ll be feeding excellence into one end of that machine, but if the process is flawed and full of faults, log jams and delays, then that excellence will gradually be ground down until it emerges at the other end of the machine, the end where your customers are waiting, as simple competence. Competence may well be good enough for a while, of course, but one day your customers are going to come across excellence elsewhere and recognise simple competence as the underachieving compromise it actually is.
The Lean Six Sigma methodology is one which pulls together every member of a team to work together in order to eliminate waste and inefficiency within a process and produce the optimum results. The two components of the methodology, Lean and Six Sigma, can operate independently, but it is when they are applied in unison that the highest overall impact is achieved in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, productivity and customer experience.
Lean involves stripping down the processes involved in your business and eliminating everything which isn’t strictly and absolutely necessary. The word ‘necessary’, in this case, means something which adds value which a customer will appreciate and be willing to pay for. Amongst the wasteful factors which a Lean evaluation will be looking to identify and remove from a process are the likes of Defects, Overproduction and Excess Processing. In simple terms, Lean involves bringing the people involved in a process together in order to take that process apart, examine each individual factor or moment and ask themselves and each other ‘Is this needed?’ Unless the answer is yes, and can be shown to be affirmative in terms of a measurable outcome, then this factor can safely and advantageously be removed from the process.
Six Sigma is a management system aimed at eliminating flaws from a process until reaching the point at which the product or service being provided is perfect. Whilst perfection itself may seem like an impossibly ambitious target, it is the very ambition of this target which makes Six Sigma so effective. In striving for perfection, Six Sigma practitioners, using carefully collated data taken from every stage of a process, are constantly re-evaluating a process and pushing it further and further into the realms of excellence.
In Six Sigma terms, a defect in a process is anything within that process which falls outside the specifications of excellent customer service. The practical application of the methodology means that these defects can be identified and eliminated, and with each defect which goes, perfection moves a step closer. To see the principles of Six Sigma in action, consider the development of an elite sports performer. Despite any inherent skill, when they first pick up a tennis racket, to choose at random, they probably make mistakes at least 50% of the time.
With practice, and through noting how these mistakes are being made, the defects (in this case a poor grip or bad ball toss, for example) are ironed out and the truly elite performer moves closer and closer to perfection. Even Roger Federer, of course, can’t be guaranteed to serve an ace every time, but what he can guarantee is to be better than 99.999% of every other person with a tennis racket in their hand.
The combination of Lean and Six Sigma produces optimum efficiency within businesses of any kind, by streamlining operations and removing defects in a manner which is ongoing and evolutionary. The Lean Six Sigma methodology means that the process is never considered to be finished, just constantly being shifted towards higher and higher levels of excellence and efficiency.
The key difference between Lean Six Sigma and many other business processes is one of practical application. Every business has inefficiencies which can be weeded out and defects in the processes, and Lean Six Sigma presents an easily utilised set of tools aimed at identifying both types of problem quickly and easily, in a manner which guarantees that the team which will be involved in implementing any changes plays a huge part in identifying the need for this change. Whilst it may seem most obviously applicable to manufacturing processes, Lean Six Sigma is equally effective in the service industries, since the issues of customer satisfaction are just as vital and the problems, in the absence of a tangible manufactured item or process, can be harder to pin down. The Lean Six Sigma method provides a focus through which such problems can be brought to light, and the emphasis on concrete data makes it easier for everyone involved to see the positive results in the form of measurable outcomes. Many methodologies, in attempting to offer too much, become nebulous and ill-defined, offering the likes of ‘efficiency’ as a concept rather than a specific. The key to Lean Six Sigma is that it revolutionises the operation of processes throughout a business, whilst still remaining concrete, measurable and achievable.