When processes don’t work as they should, productivity suffers, and unexpected variations lead to product defects that compromise customer experience and a company’s bottom line. Six Sigma (also called 6 Sigma) is a process management system that aims to improve efficiency, quality, and performance. Lean Six Sigma principles provide a framework for understanding how processes work and what steps a company can take to identify and remedy obstacles to quality and customer satisfaction.
In this article, we will dig into Lean and Six Sigma principles, the benefits of applying them, real-world examples, how you can get started on your Lean Six Sigma training, and more.
What Are the Principles of Six Sigma?
Six Sigma is a popular process management methodology that originated in 1986 when engineer Bill Smith implemented its core principles at Motorola. The Six Sigma methodology draws heavily from Japanese production principles in use at its Toyota plants in the 1930s, where workers were empowered to halt production lines when they encountered glitches.
Although its origins lie in the world of manufacturing, Six Sigma has been adopted across sectors as diverse as finance, healthcare, hospitality, and aviation. Six Sigma provides a systematic, data-driven framework for improving quality and empowering employees in these and many other industries. That framework rests on Six Sigma’s five core principles: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control.
The first step in improving processes and performance is clearly identifying the problem interfering with desired outcomes. This requires understanding how a process is supposed to work and how it actually works. By asking questions and observing processes and outcomes, Six Sigma teams can dig deep to find the root causes of variations that create obstacles.
The Six Sigma methodology requires proof of a cause-and-effect relationship between processes and outcomes before embarking on a plan for improvement. That improves efficiency and reduces the waste of resources and materials. Through observation, statistical analysis and other means, Six Sigma teams can establish clear connections to guide improvement.
Establishing causal relationships that impact processes and performance requires collecting and analyzing data from various relevant sources. The data analysis tools allow Six Sigma teams and professionals to uncover the true cause of process variations that lead to defects in production and performance.
After identifying the core causes of process problems, all team members work together to resolve those problems. Six Sigma encourages everyone on the team to take a proactive approach to improve processes, which makes team members invested in outcomes and committed to company goals.
Once problems have been identified and processes have been corrected, it’s essential to maintain control of those processes so that they continue to work properly and variations can be prevented before they lead to defects that compromise quality.
Known collectively as DMAIC principles, these define the Six Sigma methodology. But other concepts have also become a part of the broader Six Sigma system, including:
- A customer-first perspective. To achieve the desired outcomes, teams need to focus on what customers need and want, not what the company thinks they want. Working from the customer’s perspective allows teams to identify defects and deficits affecting the optimal customer experience.
- Flexibility and diligence. To establish the root causes of problems and make the changes needed to fix them, companies need to thoroughly investigate and evaluate processes and be flexible enough to adopt new approaches. Empowering employees and educating them about the benefits of Six Sigma can help them adapt to new ways of working that lead to better outcomes.
Also Read: What Is Total Productive Maintenance?
Lean Six Sigma: Reducing Both Variables and Waste
Six Sigma principles share features of other process improvement methodologies, specifically Lean, a methodology aimed at reducing waste that is also inspired by Japanese manufacturing processes. In its emphasis on improving outcomes from a “people-first” perspective, Six Sigma has also been likened to Agile, which emphasizes flexibility and adaptability for better outcomes. But Agile is a mindset rather than a framework, and Lean focuses specifically on eliminating waste.
Six Sigma offers a methodology for process improvement that starts with identifying and establishing clear connections between the causes of process variations and their outcomes. That provides a roadmap for improvement that can be easily applied in various corporate settings.
Because Six Sigma and Lean are inspired by Japanese manufacturing philosophies and share the goal of increasing efficiency, Lean’s principles of waste reduction can also be incorporated into Six Sigma. The result is a hybrid of Lean and Six Sigma principles called Lean Six Sigma, which works toward reducing process variations and waste on every level.
The Benefits of Implementing Lean Six Sigma Principles
Implementing Six Sigma principles in the workplace brings a long list of benefits for customers, employees, and the organization’s overall mission, including:
- Improved efficiency and productivity. Because Six Sigma principles emphasize targeting the root causes of process inefficiency, processes work better and improve productivity when minimizing deficiencies and variables. That improves efficiency and reduces time and resources lost from poorly performing processes.
- Higher quality output and customer satisfaction. Lean Six Sigma principles prioritize customer satisfaction, encouraging teams to see processes and performances from the customer’s perspective to identify critical points for improvement. Eliminating the variables that create defects leads to higher-quality output that better meets the needs and expectations of customers.
- Reduced costs and less waste. Poorly performing processes cost money and waste an organization’s resources. The principles of Six Sigma aim to make processes work optimally, eliminating the variables that lead to defective products and poor performance. In that way, the Six Sigma framework can cut costs and reduce waste, especially when combined with the waste-reducing principles of Lean.
- Increased employee engagement and satisfaction. Six Sigma principles encourage employees to find and resolve process problems proactively. When their input is valued, and they become empowered to take action, employees experience greater engagement with the organization and satisfaction with their jobs.
Also Read: What is Quality Management? A Complete Guide
Applying Six Sigma Principles in Practice
Six Sigma is one of the top process management frameworks in the world, used to improve operational efficiency and product quality in companies ranging from small startups to global giants, including:
- 3M completed more than 30,000 projects using the principles of Six Sigma and Lean while reducing environmental impacts from waste and energy expenditures.
- Rockwell Automation used Lean Six Sigma to improve its cooling systems and reduced energy costs by more than $300,000 annually.
- Xerox uses the principles of Six Sigma to adapt to industry changes and remain competitive in a rapidly evolving global marketplace.
Implementing Lean Six Sigma principles in an organization requires company-wide coordination and commitment. The process begins with management. Executives and managers must embrace Six Sigma on an organizational level to define projects needing attention, allocate resources and make training available.
Once an organization commits to using Six Sigma, managers must find and train employees who will put the principles to work, resolving practical issues. Building Six Sigma teams from different work areas provides multiple perspectives and ideas for new approaches, and organizations can provide opportunities for high-performing employees to take advanced Six Sigma training.
The key to Six Sigma’s success is data analysis, which reveals the causes of process and performance issues. To implement the methodology, organizations need to plan what data is needed and how it will be collected and analyzed. Employees on Six Sigma teams must have access to the tools and resources they need to analyze the data correctly.
Six Sigma Tools and Techniques for Implementing the Principles
Six Sigma teams can use various statistical and analytical tools to acquire and analyze data and extract the insights that guide process change. The basic tools for Six Sigma arise from a framework designed by Japanese engineer Kaoru Ishikawa for the Japanese manufacturing sector, and they are still used, with some modification, today. Essentials include:
- Cause and effect diagrams allow the team to list all possible causes and sub-causes of a poorly performing process. This might incorporate the “5 Whys” — a strategy of asking five “why” questions about an issue to find its root cause.
- Control charts track how a process changes over time to compare past and present process data and identify changes that cause process variation.
- Process mapping provides a visual representation of an entire process and the steps it contains. A process map offers a holistic view of the process and gives teams a simple tool for locating problems and tracking progress.
- Histograms display frequency distributions for a given data set and provide a visual snapshot of process performance over time.
Six Sigma training includes multiple certification levels, called “belts,” which include Yellow Belt for beginners, Green Belt for intermediate-level users, and Black Belt for advanced training in leading projects and teams. Learn the essentials with our IASSC-accredited Lean Six Sigma certification program and fast-track your career in quality management in just six months.