Preventing Lean Six Sigma failures

HR should be first group to be trained, involved in more productive way
By Mike Boucher
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/27/2012

As economic conditions cause organizations in many sectors to find ways to do more with less, a growing number are turning to an approach commonly called Lean Six Sigma. This strategy began in the industrial sector and has since spread to many other areas, including health care, education, government services, hospitality and financial services.

Lean Six Sigma represents two distinct production practices that are frequently used together. Six Sigma, made famous by corporations such as Motorola and General Electric, is a system for measuring and reducing variation and errors in products or services.

Lean is a system pioneered by Toyota for improving quality while minimizing wasteful practices. While Six Sigma helps diagnose and solve point problems, Lean provides a comprehensive system for making wide-ranging workplace improvements that reduce costs, decrease wait times, increase flexibility, improve working conditions and raise quality and productivity levels.

Both methodologies use sets of process tools but the differences are fundamental. Six Sigma tools are relatively straightforward to apply in a standalone fashion to a variety of specific problems. Lean tools are designed to be used within the context of an enterprise-wide transformation. Essentially, Lean requires that people change not only the way they work but the way they think about their work.

Within a Lean transformation, Six Sigma tools can be used in conjunction with Lean tools to measure and reduce defects and improve quality.

Common practices

Lean is often mistakenly applied as a collection of standalone tools and techniques, leading to short-term and, ultimately, unsustainable results. While paying lip service to the widely known benefits of Lean, management typically delegates such efforts to a single department, such as a quality group, in the mistaken belief they can forget about the issue but still see results.

To achieve the kind of Lean Six Sigma results that can turn an organization around, the initiative needs to be aligned with corporate goals and sponsored at the highest levels. Change in a Lean organization happens not only on the shop floor but in management, support services and, eventually, the supply chain. Lean requires a long-term, enterprise-level vision.

HR touchpoints

While the HR department is unlikely to have the final say in committing an organization to Lean, it should keep an eye on Lean Six Sigma initiatives and ensure the bases are covered from an HR perspective. Here are the key touchpoints:

Value streams and cross-functional teams: Rather than pursue and measure results by department or work group, Lean organizations look at what is called a “value stream.” This consists of the end-to-end chain of activity to create an entire product or service — a chain that typically crosses a number of departments or work groups. Through a process called value stream mapping, teams chart all of the activities and outlays involved in a value stream, and then identify which of these contribute directly to the value received by the customer.

For example, at an automotive plant, attaching a bumper to a car adds value to it. Walking across the plant to retrieve a tool does not. A hospital nurse adds value when attending to a patient but not when walking kilometres each day retrieving equipment or supplies or searching for missing information. Value stream mapping creates road maps for eliminating as much of this non-value activity, or waste, as possible and improving efficiency and quality simultaneously.

Because value streams cross many departments, value stream mapping and the changes it initiates must be carried out by cross-functional teams. These must include people from all levels of the organization and they must all work together side-by-side. HR can play a key role in bringing these different groups together and ensuring the appropriate expertise is represented on each team.

The worker as a change leader: In contrast to the top-down approach used at many management systems, Lean calls on the direct workforce to generate and implement ideas for improvement. Using the results of the value stream mapping exercise as a road map, cross-functional teams of four to eight workers assemble in brief, focused sessions of five days or fewer — called Kaizen (continuous improvement) events — and apply Lean process tools to develop and test ways to eliminate waste. Typically, the implemented ideas are incremental improvements that require little or no investment.

A key stumbling block is most managers are not accustomed to thinking of the front-line worker as a critical element in leading change and they will be resistant to releasing staff for hours, let alone days, at a time.

Another problem is the reliance on a consultant or internal champion to single-handedly identify problems and provide solutions. Successful organizations engage a champion at the outset of their Lean journey to provide expertise while facilitating teams to problem-solve and develop solutions the team can own and support.

HR can play a critical role in helping remove organizational barriers to scheduling staff for Lean events and facilitating the change in roles that comes with Lean.

Building a lean culture: The most difficult element in any Lean Six Sigma transformation is also the most powerful — the engagement of staff at all levels. Because these initiatives usually happen when companies are under pressure, workers and their managers are likely to feel they are already working at 100 per cent and will see major change initiative as the last straw. At the early stages, resistance goes with the territory.

Patience, persistence, good communication and strong leadership are all essential in getting through the Lean Six Sigma’s initial growing pains. Resistance must be addressed at all levels. Managers need to learn to let go and let their teams lead change. Senior managers must learn to be mentors and to set an example for the rest of the organization by doing as well as saying. And workers in all departments have to learn to discard their organizational differences and co-operate in the interest of the customer.

Here, HR can make its most important contribution. The principles behind Lean thinking must be ever-present in a Lean organization — more pervasive than any green awareness campaign, branding exercise or other cultural initiative. HR is usually one of the last groups considered for training when organizations set a Lean Six Sigma course. Given the culture change Lean Six Sigma requires, it should probably be among the first.

Mike Boucher is vice-president of client services at Lean Advisors in Ottawa. He can be reached at For more information about Lean and Six Sigma, visit

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