Posted by: malstott | October 15, 2012

The Fullness of Lean

Quality concepts have come and gone. Have we finally arrived at what will stick as the right approach? Or is there an extra ingredient needed to pull off Lean Six Sigma success?

Once upon a time in a manufacturing plant that no longer exists I led and evaluated Quality Circles. This was a line worker driven concept to engage all in the concept of continuous improvement. If you added up all of the on paper savings, millions upon millions of dollars were saved just in our little division. Reality was something less but we did have breakthroughs and it did improve full buy-in to the concept that quality was everyone’s job. Later, when I worked at a robotics company in the late 1990’s I brought in the concept of “demand flow” which was a precursor to “lean”. However, the Toyota Production System (TPS), the mother of all things lean, was conceived and implemented before I even started working in manufacturing. The idea of driving out muri, mura and muda (overburdening, inconsistency and waste, respectively) was the basis for the process work that went on during the second half of the last century at Toyota. TPS translated to Just In Time (JIT) and Total Quality Control (TQC) for companies in the 80’s. When I took over at the robotics company in the 90’s we combined Demand Flow and TQC to drive improvement. The concepts at that time focused on pulling product through the process based on demand, used “takt time” to balance stations in order to avoid queues and used signage to clearly mark what was to happen along the way. Making these changes helped us reduce inventory by 30% in the factory. In addition, we increased our on-time delivery and reduced lead-time. TQC was still in vogue as a term and our statistical quality control kept quality steadily improving.

Then came Six Sigma. Over the first decade of this century the concepts of Six Sigma took over the language. Measure, use data and statistical analysis to improve, teach the concepts of data driven problem solving by training green and black belts who in turn would bring “Sigma” language and action into every nook of the organization.

And today we put it together. What is refered to as “Lean Six Sigma” is the culmination of lean concepts, statistical quality control, and the data driven improvement cycle of Six Sigma.  Lean Six Sigma is what you might call the union of the sets: Lean U Sigma.

But with this definition there is a risk that we will leave out a few other more subtle concepts from the Toyota Production System that should not be forgotten. Let me call them out:

1. Respect for each other and what each party offers to the work. Each participant in the work (including partners) has a voice and a responsibility.

2. Teamwork – The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Work together. See #1.

3. Learning organization Invest in people.

4. Long-Term Vision – Do the right thing for the organization in the long run. Don’t solve only for short-term gain.

These four softer descriptions could be simply termed signs of good leadership. I conclude then in saying that the fullness of the concept of “lean sigma” requires excellence in leadership. Leadership is the caulk in the cracks of all of these concepts that have come and gone over the years. Without the caulk, the walls will quickly crumble. I’ve seen it happen.

Not the cry, but the flight of a wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.
Chinese Proverb



  1. […] Employ Lean and Agile Methodologies: Productivity in the US (GDP/hour worked) has increased year over year for 3 decades. In the first quarter of 2016 it actually decreased by .6%. We need to find ways of doing more with what we have. Lean for Manufacturing and Agile for Innovation are two proven ways to improve efficiency and speed up results. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


Attila Ovari

Loving Life and Inspiring Others

OpsTrak Consulting

Optimizing Cost, Quality and Time to Market

Suzi McAlpine Leadership Development

Executive Coach, Leadership Coach, Workshop Facilitator, Professional Speaker


Leadership Management


Communication, communities, quirks and opinions. Of course.


Mentoring, Travel, Books, Family, Cabooses

Business & Money

The latest news and commentary on the economy, the markets, and business

WINNING IDEAS - Tien Wong's Blog

On Leadership and Hypergrowth in the Entrepreneurial Economy

Leadership Freak

Empowering Leaders 300 Words at a Time

%d bloggers like this: