If You Were Stuck On An Island With Only 3 Six Sigma Tools…

The Best Lean Six Sigma Tools

There’s a great book that came out four or five years ago called “Dear Me.”  It’s a project from an editor who wanted to contact celebrities from all walks of entertainment, industry, and more and ask them to write a letter to their 16 year old selves. Some of the letters were very personal, others spoke in more general terms, clearly seeking to share knowledge with the reader rather than just their own “16 year old self.”

I was reminded of the book the other day when Lean Six Sigma newbie Mario de Graaff posted in the Lean Six Sigma LinkedIn group stating that he was new to the concepts of Lean and Six Sigma and wanted to know what tools professionals recommended, and why. Some of the responses that followed read a lot like I-wish-I’d-have-known-this-when-I-started letters to a younger, more inexperienced self.

From de Graaff’s question arose some great suggestions for how to get a footing with Lean Six Sigma and which tools he should start out with. As an added bonus, several users even talked about different ideologies within Lean or reference materials that might help further understanding. Today, I want to go over the creation of a sort of “Beginner’s Toolbox” for Lean Six Sigma, and think about what concepts would be the best to get someone started in not only understanding but also implementing Lean Six Sigma in their own work.

Six Sigma Tool – Mindset Progression

While maybe not typically touted as a “tool,” there’s a lot to be said for an understanding of your actual goals in Lean Six Sigma before you go about chasing whatever it is you think they are. One of my favorite comments from this discussion comes from Sean Towlson, a manager at a logistics firm. He mentions the “Bellinger, Castro, and Mills Knowledge Model,” which brings into play an understanding of the observations you make throughout Lean Six Sigma as shown through three distinct stages.

At the most basic level, you’re going to be collecting data, that’s raw information that, while good to have, is only useful if you’re able to interpret it. As you begin to understand what you’re looking at, you’ll be able to see relationships between sets of data or aspects of your business. Sometimes these are easy to spot, sometimes they’re more complex and multifaceted. Finally, the third phase is being able to recognize patterns. Over time, you want to be able to pluck out repeat offenders in your operations.

When you’re new to Lean Six Sigma, it could be extremely beneficial to, rather than trying to take everything in at once, think about moving through your evaluations and data in these three phases. In the end, it should offer you some clarity in your choice of which actual tools you choose to implement.

Six Sigma Tool – DMAIC

DMAIC wall sign
DMAIC wall sign

DMAIC is familiar tool to Six Sigma practitioners, and it’s one that shouldn’t be left out in the cold for beginners. A huge benefit for someone new to Lean Six Sigma is that it helps to establish a clear framework of how you can go about working through a problem. Also important to note:  Although DMAIC is traditionally associated with Six Sigma (variation reduction) specifically, the framework is also perfectly applicable to Lean (waste reduction) projects as well. DMAIC, as I see it simplified, goes a little something like this:

Define:  This is where you’re defining what your problem is, and what effects it’s having. At this phase, you don’t have to be overly scientific, but you should be specific.

Measure & AnalyzeThink of measuring as a hypothesis test for your issue definition; you’re going to be measuring variables involved to see to what extent something is having an impact. I combine these two steps because, without one the other is pointless. Collect your data, and then dig into it to find out what it’s telling you about the problem you’re having and (very important!) the types of solutions that could be effective.

ImproveNow that you’ve done your analysis, dive in and construct a plan to affect change. Follow through and implement, don’t just plan or map out forever. Remember, you’ve got data on your side already at this point, so you can generally be confident in your decisions here.

ControlControl can be a bit vague, but the easiest way for beginners to understand it is to think that if your improve step was about the short term change, then you want to ‘control’ long term direction as well. You’re basically looking for ways to sustain any improvements you’ve made by ensuring that new behaviors and policies stick.

Six Sigma Tool – SIPOC

Six Sigma Sign (Wall)
Six Sigma Wall Sign

SIPOC, or supplier, input, process, output, and customer, was also name dropped a couple of times within the discussion. I wanted to include this technique primarily because where DMAIC is meant to walk a problem to solution, SIPOC is more about simply giving an overview of a process to someone who might not be familiar with it. This can be especially helpful when explaining processes you want to work on to your boss(es), a team you’re working with, etc.

In SIPOC, you’ll be creating a table in order to lay out all appropriate factors for each section. The first column will list all of the supplier stakeholders in a process. Next, all inputs that come from the suppliers, directly or indirectly, are filled in. After that, the way(s) in which those inputs will be processed is listed out, before the fourth column lists out all the expected outputs from the process(es). Finally, you list what the consumer or end user receives, in full.

It’s easy and intuitive, and it can really help jump past some of the barriers we as Lean Six Sigma professionals will encounter when trying to illustrate the scenarios we work in to others.

The Lean Swiss Army Knife

In the original discussion, it seemed that many of the suggestions were more about understanding Lean Six Sigma concepts and mindsets rather than actual tools for problem solving. While this may not be exactly the kind of stuff that gets new practitioners excited, I’m inclined to agree with the approach used by the posters. In my experience, many of the individual ‘tools’ we use are so specific to certain situations that it’s kind of silly to suggest any one, three, or ten even as the “best” ones.

Furthermore, the specificity of such tools only underscores the need to have already mapped out and become familiar with the issues you’re facing and want to change before you ever reach for a solution. That said, just for the heck of it, here are a number of effective Lean or Six Sigma tools, in no particular order, that certainly have their time and place.

  • 5S
  • Heijunka
  • Product Intervals
  • Takt Time
  • Kanban
  • Kaizan concept

and many more.

Each has their own uses, and there isn’t nearly enough time or room today to go into each one. I think the number one most important thing to keep in mind when getting into Lean Six Sigma from a relatively clean slate is that you’re entering a discipline that most people will continue to hone after years, and even decades of experience.

Furthermore, there are a number of divergent paths that will continually challenge what you might think you already know, meaning that you may wish to look elsewhere if quick fixes and absolute certainty are important to you.

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