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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Program vs System: Lean’s ambition is to propose a full business model, not just a productivity improvement program

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Sunday, April 4, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

A few years ago, at the first French Lean Summit, one participant would stand up at the end of every presentation and ask “what about six sigma? Couldn’t this be done better with six sigma?” – until José Ferro, President of the Lean Institute Brasil answered with his incomparable charm that he didn’t feel competent to answer, having never worked with six sigma, but that the Toyota veterans he knew absolutely hated six sigma for its anti-teamwork spirit. The idea of having a green belt or black belt present to senior management the work of an entire team, he explained, was absolutely abhorrent to TPS practitioners whose fundamental aim is to develop individual competence through team problem solving. The audience clapped and cheered.

This indictment of six sigma might sound a bit extreme, and no doubt triggered by the insistence of the six sigma advocate, but it nonetheless highlights a key different in mindsets. Lean and six sigma share many of the same tools. Lean favors short and frequent kaizen projects, but also has kaikaku projects based on a business case and a DMAIC – type 16 weeks process. Productivity is clearly built on a mix of large steps and small steps improvements.

The huge distinction between the lean approach and six sigma is not one of tools – both sets of tools have emerged from Dr. Deming’s original PDCA thinking, even if lean would insist more on facts (standing in front of the process and watching for hours) rather than data (collecting realms of data points). The difference lies in who does the analysis and to what purpose.

Six sigma is a sophisticated version of Taylor’s “scientific management”: the staff expert uses engineering techniques to improve productivity (and quality) in processes by studying how people work, devising a better-and-faster method and then getting them to apply it. I’m not knocking that since, according to Drucker, Taylorism has triggered a 3 to 4 percent compound productivity rise since the late nineteenth century which has, essentially, enabled us to build the society we know as opposed to drag us all towards Marx’s apocalyptic vision of worldwide revolution of the proletariat. Still, one of the key aspects of Toyota’s innovation in management is the second pillar of lean management: developing people to the full of their ability in supporting them to improve and run their own workplaces.

The tools can be the same but what fundamentally distinguishes Toyotism (lean) from Taylorism (six sigma) is that they’re used by the management line itself. The line must learn to solve its own problems. Engineers devise the basic process, and then local applicability to keep on delivering at nominal capacity is a line problem, as is continuous improvement to fight the inevitable entropy that affects any process. Operations managers are expected to conduct their own kaikaku projects (coached by a sensei) and frontline supervisors are expected to work daily with operators on kaizen to improve workstations – both aim to lower overburden, unlevelness and to eradicate waste.

Staff experts are often needed to crack difficult technical problems, or more specifically to teach the line team how to better understand the fine points of the problems they’re facing – but staff experts are not in the driver’s seat. They’re part of the team, but leadership rests squarely with the process owner who needs to work with his or her people to improve how they work every day. In doing so, the lean process not only delivers better performance but also a greater shared understanding and ultimately mutual trust, which makes it function sustainably as a superior management model.

Teamwork is not a “nice to have” in lean but one of the key components that make lean a superior business model. Results are obtained both by greater competence on the technical aspects of the job, but equally by stronger relationships within and without the company which take away much of the costly instability we find in modern businesses (silo turf fights, antagonistic relationships with suppliers, poor customer trust, etc.) People learn best within mutually supportive relationships because it gives them the confidence and the curiosity to investigate and look for pareto-optimal win-win solutions as opposed to be satisfied with the usual lose-lose compromises.

Teamwork permits the use of what Mike Rother terms “improvement katas” – standardized activities aimed towards practicing how to reach challenging objectives. Indeed, one of the early definitions of TPS was a set of interrelated activities to reduce cost and lead-time by eliminating waste. Such as system cannot be applied to people by a belted expert, but is, on the contrary a method to train temas to perform better, much as any system of sports team coaching during practice and competion. A lean system is not a bureaucratic excel-sheet based house one builds layer after a layer (following a roadmap), it’s a team one coaches to superior performance.

Ultimately, by reproducing the taylorist approach to productivity, six sigma programs remain just that: programs – and cannot grow to become the full systems sought by lean practitioners. As my father once quipped: I’ve visited a few lean plants, but I can’t imagine what a six sigma plant would look like. By nature, six sigma is bound to stay a productivity program, whereas lean, in its better implementations, aims to be a full business model – from strategy to daily implementation. We’re talking about very different beasts, even thought they might share some of the same spots.

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