by Sarah K. White

Lean Six Sigma: Process improvement with a purpose

Nov 29, 20217 mins
IT Governance FrameworksIT LeadershipSoftware Development

Lean and Six Sigma are the perfect pair for improving customer value by reducing waste, boosting productivity, and reducing defects and variations in products and services.

agile retraining cross train crossfit jumping athletic excel
Credit: LightFieldStudios / Getty Images

Lean Six Sigma combines two methodologies, Lean and Six Sigma, to help accelerate specific processes so that organizations can solve problems faster and reduce waste, while creating more value for customers. It combines the waste-reducing mentality of the Lean methodology with the defect and variance reduction focus of Six Sigma. Together, Lean Six Sigma creates a powerful methodology for keeping businesses ahead of schedule and under budget, enabling organizations to create processes that support the organization and its employees, while saving money, adding value, and improving productivity.

The main focus of Lean Six Sigma is to reduce waste by minimizing variability in business processes and creating a continuous flow between each step. The methodology categorizes eight types of waste: defects, overproduction, waiting, nonutilized talent, transportation, inventory, motion, and extra-processing. Once your organization reduces these types of waste, you can solve problems faster, reduce process inefficiencies, and boost productivity.

Lean Six Sigma principles

While Lean and Six Sigma have their own sets of principles, Lean Six Sigma offers a separate set of principles that combines elements of both frameworks.

According to Purdue University, the five main principles of Lean Six Sigma are:

  • Work for the customer: Ensure any changes you implement will benefit the customer and will offer the highest standard of quality according to market demands.
  • Find your problem and focus on it: Avoid getting distracted by other issues while fixing processes in the organization. Determine the problem to address, stay focused on that area of business, and turn to other issues once you’ve finished fixing the main problem.
  • Remove variations and bottlenecks: Optimize processes by finding ways to decrease defects. Streamlining your processes will help improve efficiency and quality.
  • Communicate clearly and train team members: Implementing Lean Six Sigma can create a sense of upheaval in the company. Ensure everyone is trained and prepared to implement Lean Six Sigma to reduce the risk of project failure.
  • Be flexible and responsible: As you embark on Lean Six Sigma, you’ll likely need to refine your approach and pivot your strategy. It doesn’t make sense to cling to a failing strategy, so stay agile and flexible during the process if you want the best outcome.

[ Learn more about the top ITSM tools today and how ITSM is evolving in the digital transformation era. ]

Lean Six Sigma belts

To designate an individual’s experience and proficiency in implementing the methodology, Lean Six Sigma uses a similar structure as Six Sigma, which borrows from martial arts. As you work your way up the certification ladder, you’ll earn different belts until you reach the final “Champion” level.

  • White Belt: At the entry-level designation, you’ll report process issues to Green and Black Belts. You should understand the basics of Lean Six Sigma, including common terminology and the basic structure and goals of the methodology.
  • Yellow Belt: You’ll still report to Green and Black Belts. As a Yellow Belt, you’ll need a strong grasp of the leading principles of Lean Six Sigma. You’ll also participate on project teams and receive more training.
  • Green Belt:  Green Belts are responsible for starting and managing Lean Six Sigma projects and are expected to provide training to White and Yellow Belts. At this level, you should have a detailed understanding of the Lean Six Sigma methodology.
  • Black Belt: As a Black Belt, you report to Master Black Belts and have advanced knowledge of Lean Six Sigma. You’ll be viewed as a mentor, coach, and project leader for Lean Six Sigma projects.
  • Master Black Belt: This designation is responsible for implementation and driving necessary culture shifts. You’ll work directly with executive leadership and will be expected to coach, mentor, monitor, and lead Lean Six Sigma projects.
  • Champion: The top Lean Six Sigma designation is for executive leaders who help identify and select the right projects and then ensure teams have the support they need to be successful.

Lean Six Sigma certification and training

A Six Sigma certification can be a valuable investment. According to the Six Sigma Council, the average salary for a Lean Six Sigma White Belt is $42,000 per year. That number goes up to $65,000 for Yellow Belts; $85,000 for Green Belts; $95,000 to $110,000 for Black Belts; and $100,000 to $135,000 for Master Black Belts.

Larger enterprises typically have an internal system for certifying employees’ Lean Six Sigma belt levels. Several colleges, universities, and independent organizations also offer certification courses and training for Lean Six Sigma designations, including:

Lean Six Sigma tools

Lean Six Sigma tools typically focus on streamlining processes, enhancing collaboration, and providing data analysis. Common Lean Six Sigma tools include DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control), data collection plan, scatter plots, SIPOC (suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, customers), stakeholder analysis, seven wastes, value stream mapping, flow, fishbone diagram, regression analysis, project management, visual workplace, statistical process control, and voice of the customer.

Software tools designed to assist with Lean Six Sigma can help you effectively implement the methodology. These solutions typically focus on data reporting and analysis as well as collaboration. Popular software tools include:

  • ARIS Six Sigma
  • KaiNexus
  • Kanbanize
  • KPI Fire
  • Microsoft Visio
  • Minitab
  • Oracle Crystal Ball
  • Process Street
  • R Language
  • SDI Tools
  • SigmaXL
  • SmartView
  • Statgraphics
  • TeamPage
  • Telelogic System Architect

How to integrate Lean and Six Sigma

The American Society for Quality (ASQ) states that most successful implementations begin with the Lean approach, which boosts efficiency and makes the workplace as efficient and effective by reducing waste and using value stream maps to improve throughput. After that, whatever process problems remain can be addressed with “more technical Six Sigma statistical tools.”

The overall idea is to use the best of both methodologies to build a well-rounded IT process improvement strategy. Alone, there are weak areas in both methodologies, but used together it’s easier to fill in those gaps. For example, according to the Business Process Management Institute (BPMI), Six Sigma eliminates defects but won’t show organizations how to optimize process flow. Similarly, the BPMI says Lean offers a shallow view of process defects, lacking the “advanced statistical tools often required to achieve the process capabilities needed to be truly ‘lean.’” 

Every organization’s strategy will be different when integrating and implementing Lean and Six Sigma. Lean uses less technical tools such as Kaizen, workplace organization, and visual controls, according to the ASQ. Whereas Six Sigma relies on tools such as statistical data analysis, design of experiments, and hypothesis tests. Some organizations might be fine relying on mostly Lean principles, while other companies will need to expand into more in-depth Six Sigma analysis.