Lean Six Sigma – The 3 Most Important Tools for Beginners

A Discussion About Methods and Tools That Are The Most Useful In Lean Six Sigma

Lean Six Sigma has absolutely revolutionized the way workplaces and production facilities alike are managed and laid out. Since the mid 20th century, transformations toward making businesses more efficient and less wasteful – measured in time, money, and more – have undergone constant evolution. Today, so many Lean processes and strategies have come about that for those not already experts in the field, it can be difficult to pin down exactly which things will have the biggest impact on your personal operations. Especially because some techniques can be more complex and difficult to measure than others, it’s important to not (ironically) end up wasting your time on something meant to improve efficiency.

Lucky for you, a LinkedIn Lean Six sigma group discussion might be able shed some light on the matter. User Parveen Goel asked the group what they thought were the most effective and important Lean tools to use. In response, LinkedIn users shared a variety of opinions on what techniques they just couldn’t live without, and a few stuck out as popular choices. In this blog post, we’re going to break down a few of the fan favorites so that you can jump right into the Lean process with the best tools and mindset possible.

1. Measurement

One of the sentiments voiced over and over again was that no Lean implementation is worth doing if you can’t effectively measure it’s effect on your crucial metrics. To remedy this, confidence intervals are generally used. Confidence intervals are a statistical concept that allow you to determine how accurate an estimated impact is – this is extremely useful when setting goals for your lean implementations. Measuring the actual outcome is just as important, if not more important, as predicting results, and here you’ll also be able to make use of common statistical tools. Once you’ve measured your results, confidence intervals can be used again, along with the help of “standard deviations” to determine the effect your Lean strategies have had.

Here’s an example of why getting “mathy” is important: Let’s say you implement a continual improvement program on an assembly line, and compare the month since you began with the month before (before changes were made) to determine if your production numbers have changed. Without taking into consideration natural fluctuation in demand, seasonal or month to month volume changes, etc., you’re comparing apples to oranges. Statistical tools can help you normalize for these and similar factors and help to ensure you’re getting the results you want and expect.

When working out effective strategies for measuring effectiveness, be sure that the measurement method is appropriate for the type of results you’re looking for. These could be a number of things, from improvements in worker safety/decreases in incidence rates, to increased profits, to increased production volume, to decreased materials or input used, and more.

Finally, don’t let the math scare you off, these are basic statistics concepts and, if you like, programs exist to help you use them quickly and cleanly without having to calculate anything yourself.

2. Value Stream Mapping

Unsurprisingly, a number of visual Lean strategies made their way into the LinkedIn suggestions. That said, Value Stream Mapping, or VSM, was mentioned on several different occasions. Value stream mapping is all about laying out your entire production process in an easy to understand diagram. These diagrams are able to show managers and work teams where they fit into the overall puzzle of the business, and you can easily see where bottlenecking might be occurring. These insights can help lead to drastic decreases in lead times, helping you easily cut wasted time out of the process.

VSM’s are usually done as either a top down chart, in which the initial supplier steps are represented at the top of the diagram and and the processes that follow them branch out below, and then other processes come out from those as well (visually, this looks like a family tree diagram). Other times, often used in more simple production schemes, the process is just shown in a linear flowchart, in which each box leads to the next. VSM’s can be as simple or as detailed as you want, though including as much relevant information about each stage on the diagram can help you and your team gain deeper insights.

Ultimately, these charts are about accurately representing your current state of operations, and then using that information to tighten and improve the process. VSM and its insights are also sometimes referred to as “process mapping.”

3. No Tool At All

According to LinkedIn user Kevin Corby:

“The tools and methods are absolutely vital, but by far the best way to get real changes made and sustained is by personal intervention…talking to, listening to, and hearing what the enterprise says it had problems with. LSS is about people, first and foremost.”

This may just be a personal quirk, but one of my favorite points brought up in the discussion was that Lean Six Sigma is, at its core, about improvement through the behaviors and attitudes of people. By extension, the commenter quoted above wrote, no specific Lean method is going to be all that effective without the input and support of the people behind it. With that in mind, here are a few practical ways to integrate people into your lean efforts:

  1. Form a team for any Lean projects you’re going to undertake, or even a “council” on Lean comprised of members of various teams within your business. A diverse team can tackle improvement issues with a broader view.
  2. Have business-wide forums. Instead of dictating from the top down, involve all of your employees in new ideas. When implementing something that might be temporarily disruptive to work, or a large change, help employees to see the same importance you see in order to avoid potential resistance.
  3. Be humble and receptive. Especially if you are new at Lean, always be open to hearing suggestions from your employees. A large part of the success of any Six Sigma plan is how well it fits in with the business, so while you might not be re-writing the book on Lean, feel free to scratch out a line or two and fill it in with your own notes.

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