Lean Six Sigma is often called a philosophy, which gives it a somewhat distant and academic vibe. In reality Lean Six Sigma really isn't complicated. Sure, there are many things to consider when implementing the principles and planning activities by them. But in the end, it is all about the value delivered to the customer. Everything besides value is waste and must go. Before diving a little bit deeper into what are Lean and Six Sigma, there's a short story about where Lean and Six Sigma stem from you should check out: The Roots of LeanSigma.
The basis of Lean and Six Sigma are in manufacturing and early mass production, but the real masterminds behind the thinking are Toyota's visionary engineers. They drew inspiration from older and new innovations (at the time) and created something exceptional in the 50's that is still regarded as an advanced method.
Lean is sometimes described as a systematic method of eliminating non-value adding elements (waste) from a process. And Six Sigma as a set of techniques and tools for process improvement based mostly on improving quality. Both have in common, which is in Lean terminology known as Kaizen, the strive for continuous improvement. This principle is key in understanding Lean Six Sigma. As both methods require commitment and determination in the long-term to implement successfully. In this sense, Lean Six Sigma has more to do with today's agile methods and iteration cycles, than 1950's manufacturing logic.
In addition to Kaizen there are some fundamentals you need to understand to successfully use the tools. The fundamentals of Lean Six Sigma are:
- Improving the performance of a product, process or an organization. Understanding the current state and being able to vision a future state with improvement
- Fact and data-based decision making- Analysis is the key to understanding the current state what can be improved
- Keeping the customer/end-user in mind by engaging design un the process and implementing Kaizen into everyday work
- Treating causes not symptoms. You need to find the cause of the problem and not just fix the symptoms of the problem
- Seeing value and performance from the customer point of view. Customer centered thinking and design
- Thinking of end-to-end systems and processes. You need to be able to see the whole picture to be able to understand what is valuable to the customer
- Focusing on making value flow and removing waste and variation. Remember to find the true customer value adding components of the process and remove or minimize everything else
North Karelia Central hospital (in Finnish) is a prime example of Lean Six Sigma in action. The hospital uses a considerable amount of medical solutions (145 000 liters) in treating patients. The solutions are stored in small in-department storages before use and the nurses were responsible for keeping solutions stocked and receiving new shipments. Which meant that the nurses needed to open the delivery cardboard boxes and restock the small storages in addition to their basic duties.
In 2015, the Central hospital implemented a simple Lean method called Kanban, which derives from the Japanese word for "card" or " signboard". Simply put, it's a signal that is given (preferably automatically) when it's time to replenish the certain the storage in question. In North Karelia Central hospital the Kanban signal was as a simple as an empty see through plastic storage boxes, that needed replenishing when they were empty. When the box was empty a logistics employee would see it on their round and restock that specific storage. They were also assigned the tasks of receiving the solutions and filling the boxes centrally besides distributing the filled boxes to the departments.
The Central hospital invested 5500 €, as a one-time investment, into plastic storage boxes, labels and storage shelf alterations. With this they saved 5000 hours of the nurses' working time yearly + 40 days of labor from garbage disposal runs also yearly. The model has also improved hygiene levels and patient safety in the departments, as the cardboard delivery boxes don't come all the way to them.
As the example above demonstrates, implementing Lean Six Sigma can produce great results with little investment. Next time I’ll also introduce some more tools and methods to get you started.