Lean Six Sigma Generations: Evolution...and a hint of Revolution

I've been waiting a LONG time to finally link Star Trek and LSS! ;-P
Whilst it seems to have been around forever for anyone under 40, Lean Six Sigma (LSS) still remains a relatively young area of knowledge. Whereas mathematics has a history spanning thousands of years, LSS is still barely touching three decades in the public eye. 

Of course, that is only partly true. LSS is the child of many other disciplines: statistics, mathematics, visual techniques, engineering, art...well, maybe not that much art, but I have seen some very nice Value Maps. Still, being a hybrid, there is a case for saying it has true origins going back centuries, but as an integrated concept, it's an infant.

Because it is so recent, there has been relatively little research as to the progress of the knowledge and application of LSS. Serious historians tend to only develop an interest of perspective in any field only after much more time has passed, so LSS has thus far largely been left to progress forward (?) with relatively little understanding as to the reasons for its development.

Whilst I make no claim to being a historian of note, I have found that in order for me to be able to predict where we're going, it does help to understand a bit about where we've been...at the very least, it tends to ensure I'm a bit less wrong about the future. LSS has been at the core of how I and countless others have strived to improve existing systems, processes and businesses. In this ultra competitive field, we're always searching for an edge over our competitors....and often, having an edge means being 'first to market' with a new, better way of doing something. 

My experience with LSS (and that of many individuals I have spoken to) has been long enough to see certain patterns emerge over the years in various nations, industries and businesses...and they're patterns that people need to be aware of to understand where things have gone right, where they've gone wrong...and where they may go tomorrow.

To date, I have noted roughly 5 generations of Business Excellence / LSS development that I have been able to define (and I really want to stay away from the debate about the role TQM plays as much as possible - it's a moot point now!) Please note these are not absolute timelines and are actually quite fluid in many cases: they vary a bit not just by timeline, but by sector and geography. Still, they do serve to give a good way to segment how the whole field has developed. 

These are as follows...

1st Generation (pre-WW2): The Dark Ages...

This is effectively the world of Taylor, Ford and especially Deming...before that many in the West began to really understand what these guys were doing. Sure, Ford did actually do so much to bring the world to a good starting point for real LSS in a practical sense, building on the theories of Taylor. However, it was really Deming who took things to the next level.

However, in this era, Deming is still an oddity outside highly specialized roles, speaking to large US companies with mixed success. But in Japan, Sakichi Toyoda, his son Kiichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno have separately worked on what was the beginning of the just in time system. Ford's production system, however, was seen as the true wave of the future. There is systemization and work breakdown structures are not unknown, but the overall system is highly inflexible and not that widely adopted (at least properly adopted).

This was an era when there was so much waste, but there were glimmers of hope.

2nd Generation (post-WW2): The Light in the East

Probably best exemplified by something happening beyond the English speaking world. In Japan from the 1950s to 1970s, Deming did his port-war work - telling the Japanese exactly what he had been telling America for decades prior. The Toyota Production System was fine tuned from Deming's visits to Japan and the consequent work of Taiichi OhnoShigeo Shingo and Eiji Toyoda. It gave strong flexibility to to allow for variation and good profitability almost regardless of the size of the production runs - wastage became minimal. What was to become true Lean was born.
Interestingly, I have heard that the reason why Toyota - and most of Japan - leapfrogged the West here was indeed because of the devastation - physical and psychological - of WW2. The Japanese needed new thinking and were eager to embrace something that would help them quickly overcome the horrors of the war. And as America celebrated and continued making increasingly outlandish cars and consumer goods with quality falling behind, the Japanese learned from Deming...and applied it far better than the Americans.

From the 1960s onwards, the Japanese began to be known for cars and consumer durables that - whilst initially perhaps a little derivative - were cheaper and better made than goods from other countries. It took a while before people began to understand how they were doing it...

3rd Generation (mid-1980s): American Revolution...and the Forgotten

Finally, America wakes up. American consumers had the expectation that Japanese goods - especially cars - were simply more better made, reliable and cheaper than American ones. Finally, Americans started looking at what Japan was doing...and quickly realized they were doing what America told them they should, by the same Americans who were often ignored at home. But the US goes down a slightly different path.

This is the start of what most people know for Six Sigma. Motorola pioneered it, with Bill Smith & Mikel Harry's work. Whilst most people credit the date as 1986, it of course was being used well before at Motorola, if in more primitive form. Allied Signal took it to GE, and then GE used it to transform its business and stand as an example to the world. The beauty of Six Sigma is that it was easily systemized and made into a more accessible package that is (relatively) easily taught to a broad range of individuals to use to solve their problems. 

This is the start of the revolution in the business world, when Fortune 1000 companies really started their efforts to systemically improve quality, consistency and reduce costs.

Of course, this is also the era of TQM, which I believe still has much to offer even though it has been largely - and unfairly? - overshadowed by LSS and the ISO standards. Guess this is one war the US military just wasn't cut out to win. But in truth, I myself am as much a user of TQM tools as LSS - and from what I have seen, pretty much all individuals with a strong LSS background find that TQM offers a superb complement to their existing toolset - and on more than a few occasions, a superior overall approach.

And in Japan, the TPS continued to evolve and many see it as competing with Six Sigma. Initially it does and there starts a rather schoolyardish brawl between proponents of the two streams that lasts for a number of years, until someone realizes that, like peanut butter and jelly, they actually went together quite well...

4th generation (late 1990s): Consolidation

Characterized by Lean/TPS and Six Sigma being harmonized and combined after the somewhat redundant competition between them. The natural tension that exists between the two approaches is managed and exploited by carefully stressing their strengths and weaknesses, how they complement and compete with each other and tools to optimize both approaches working together. This is my initial experience of the methodologies.

It also includes increasing bodies of knowledge developing away from the manufacturing sector and into the services sector with transactional LSS; in this area, we also see the start of LSS being optimized for various other industries and companies, with more specific tools and approaches to support as well as taking into account company cultures. More LSS initiatives are managed internally by larger companies. The financial services sector begins to understand the potential of it...as does one Danish logistics company.

This is where most good organizations are still operating today. It's the standard of excellence for large, Fortune 500 companies who want to be recognized as the best without taking too many risks in or pushing the boundaries of the field.

5th generation (mid-2000s to today): Mild or Wild?

The cutting edge of LSS is today building on the best of 4th generation thinking. So how does it look in the real world...or at least, my little corner of it?

Today, we are seeing more intense flavoring of LSS for specialized usage: companies are developing their own knowledge bases and training staff internally. LSS has always encompassed a really a broad set of tools and ways of thinking: some are more applicable than others to various situations. And many different company cultures demand quite different approaches to ensure success - there are some companies that truly need an LSS rebirth, but who are far away in culture from that of Toyota and GE. As a result, LSS programmes in many organizations, whilst superficially similar, differ greatly in many ways as to the tools used and the depth, approach (especially with expectations of capability to utilize the tools), buy-in methods, speed of change and visibility.

Interestingly, all this is adding a very core question to the whole repertoire: should we do LSS at all? It's comes down to a debate between iteration and innovation: do we improve what we have, or do we go for something completely new? What are the potential payoffs? What are the risks of each approach? 

How do we decide?

We see TRIZ being used here along with Design for Six Sigma. TRIZ is a method developed in the former USSR that provides a structured guide to realizing innovative ideas into products and services. Now this is one of my favourite toolsets as it provides a logical way to assist the innovation process - and it also happens to be arguably the most challenging of areas to work in.

Furthermore, there is an increasing push for customer sourced data that defines what needs to be improved. Nothing new in that, but what is new is the speed and directness of getting the data. Indeed, LSS itself is becoming more Lean in many ways: get the results fast and look at what makes up an LSS project to see what can be paired down.

6th generation...and my Crystal Ball says....
The 5th generation has taken us to today's best practice. But as we all know, what is good enough today is the bare minimum for tomorrow...if you're lucky.

Now this is where I take out my crystal ball and start to draw upon what has happened, what is happening, what is needed, what is possible (probable?) and what is inevitable. But first, I want to make a critical point.

LSS - indeed any methodology or system of knowledge - cannot exist in vacuum: it answers new challenges and in turn is improved by external trends, concepts and ideas whilst adapting itself to new environments...and shaping them. So, if we're going to look at the future of LSS, we need to look at some touchpoints too.

So, what do I see happening?

Lean Six Sigma knowledge democratized.
When I did my original Lean and Six Sigma (yes, it was separate) training back in the late 1990s, it was via company certified internal training program that had a huge internal cost (~USD $45,000 in total when it concluded in 1998 - no wonder they were unhappy when I left!). LSS courses took only a few months of formal training, plus the first few months of the project and all the stumbles and errors as we begin.

But right now, with a little help from Google, you can assemble training material vastly superior to what I needed in order to help achieve my Master Black Belt, effectively for free. Of course, experience and application is something else, but there can be little doubt that the knowledge of Lean Six Sigma is out there and available in detailed - if often undirected - form. Basic LSS training is widespread online and is either free or very low cost - quality varies but some of it is actually outstanding. And having reviewed much of this material, an individual who applied themselves in the better courses well could gain skills at the same level as the best instructor led courses.

There is no question: the next stage of evolution must be further defining the availability of LSS knowledge - and actually, this must be part of a broader trend to democratize LSS even further.

I am a very strong believer that LSS needs to be open sourced in a more official way - perhaps governments or certain philanthropic bodies can make the knowledge available via Open Learning type systems (there is talk about MIT's Open CourseWare initiative following this track). And we cannot start soon enough: I am firmly convinced that LSS training should be starting at high school. Such is its importance and its practicality to just about every business environment that we should not wait until college or the workforce to get the next generation of business leaders thinking the right way.

LSS embedded into ERP systems
I still remember the clumsy Excel spreadsheets we created back in the 1990s, the ridiculousness of using PowerPoint for detailed flowcharts and the reams of business case justifications. Whilst we were using 'technology', everything was still rather manual as it was not integrated or flowing - you had to do that yourself. Maybe not a bad thing when starting out as it forces you to think and understand, but soon it becomes a time burden.

Naturally, software became optimized for it soon. MiniTab, whilst not originally designed for Six Sigma, has evolved over 4 decades with various addons to become the defacto standard for serious LSS and quality improvement players. And of course there are many other online options available. At present, all this LSS software, whilst highly capable in the right hands...doesn't always get used by the right hands. We have our SAP R/3, our Dynamics AX...and we have MiniTab requiring us to do a lot of work between them.

Beforehand, we had calculators to assist us. Soon after, there were some pretty amazing Excel spreadsheets. Next of course came MiniTab and even more optimized software for LSS projects.

So what happens next?

I believe that software needs to take things a step further. Much like the Microsoft Office suite of products talk to each other, I would like to see LSS tools incorporated directly into ERP systems. True LSS modules directly into the R/3 and AX environments.

Rather than simply processing data, these embedded applications can analyse data and  see exactly the impact of changes and present the business impact clearly. make recommendations as a core part of the ERP solution.

Artificial Intelligence and Lean Six Sigma

LSS boils down to a set of rules, systems and formulas: whilst they can be tricky at times to get right, it's really the interpretation of the results and the consequent action plans that require true intelligence...and can often prove humans lack quite a fair bit of the same. What I see is that artificial intelligence will be playing an increasing role not merely in the calculations, but in the following.

1) Optimizing the required data
2) Making actual recommendations as to system / process changes.
3) This will tie in closely with developments in ERP

Artificial intelligence software is still some time away, but it's potential in business rules and exception management is obvious. And LSS is an area where AI software can truly offer some amazing potential. Lading on from the above, this will really come into its own when it ties into the ERP environment.

User friendly Lean Six Sigma
As much as I hate to say it, not everyone in the world is a Deming, Smith, Welch or Ohno. Not everyone loves statistics, mathematics, flowcharts (even if they should and need to in order to do their jobs better). Not every CEO or senior executive is able / willing to grasp and champion an LSS transformation, no matter how sensible or convincing the argument.

It's simply the world we live in.

I have seen too many very smart and capable LSS professionals unsuccessfully try and translate their remarkable knowledge and solutions into the real world of blue collar workers, brutal deadlines and - sadly - practices which may not be intuitive or natural enough to sustain over the long term for many people (a future article will address this issue more fully). Far too often, I have heard variations of "Look, this is really great stuff, but really, it won't work here: our people are not sophisticated enough for this. So actually, it's not that great..."

Design of systems and processes takes into account possible future user demands and technical capabilities. The right process will not be one that is right for today, but can take into account future trends.

What I see happening is a greater capability to analyze an organization and individuals and tailor make a suitable system based on the capabilities of the staff over the long term. 

Expansion, flavoring and fragmentation
What I have always found is that as knowledge increases, so does the chance of specialization. Generations ago, we simply had lawyers. Nowadays, we have dozens of streams of law requiring specialization - there are simply so many different laws that no one can truly be a master in any but a small part. In the early days of flight, we had people who designed and built entire aircraft almost on their own. These days...forget it without a few dozen individuals even for a fairly simple aircraft. I am seeing now that many individuals spend their business improvement years in certain industries. Good in one sense...but perhaps disappointing in another.

We have already discussed how LSS is being specialized and flavored by larger companies. That is only going to continue. Already, there are many of the consultancy firms that teach very advanced LSS that pushes the boundaries of knowledge in the field. In the long term this knowledge will likely come out, but it does lead me to fragmentation.

We will see a lot of streams develop with LSS: some will be private because of company confidentiality, some will remain relatively obscure because they apply to only a very small area of business, some will be unknown to the English speaking world for some time because of language. In the end, things will likely eventually reach the public, but in the medium term, LSS will fragment into various streams that many will find strange, interesting or irrelevant...assuming they ever hear of them.

In my experience, LSS has often been seen as the albatross around the neck of innovation...or innovation has been seen as the pie in the sky puff of explosive costs.

The future to me is really about making LSS more accessible as well as more capable...and that's a tautology I hope everyone grasps much quicker than I did.

It's a future where not only is the knowledge more advanced, but more accessible, more embedded, more automated and most of all, more correctly applied. It is one where there is convergence with other disciplines - TQM, ISO standards and the like - indeed, there may be a case for new terminology being applied as LSS has grown far beyond its original methods. In the end, LSS is a methodology that to me represents something more: a systemized but highly flexible way to use powerful tools to improve a myriad of situations. The requirement for that is never going to go away and that is why LSS is not going away either, but what LSS will comprise and the way it is applied may prove radically different to today. And that is something we all need to be ready for.

Tomorrow often happens sooner than expected.