7 Words You Should Never Say in Lean Six Sigma

Author: Russ Aikman

Originally Posted in August 2016; Updated in July 2020

In the 1970s the late comedian George Carlin (1937-2008) perfected a routine in which he discussed seven words which could not be used on broadcast television.  Carlin was known for his acerbic wit and  ability to skewer bureaucrats, politicians, and anyone else he found to be arrogant, pompous, or just plain ignorant.  And he also loved words, and often found humor in how words were used.

Imagine a variation on this idea:  Seven words that should not be used at a company implementing Lean Six Sigma.  Perhaps this could even be expanded to an episode of the show “Undercover Boss” in which the CEO of a firm dresses as an ordinary employee to observe his company in everyday situations.

Here are seven words or phrases that should cause concern for your CEO – and anyone else interested in a successful LSS program. With apologies to Mr. Carlin:
1. Layoff
2. Tweaking
3. Expediting
4. Pushing
5. Batching
6. Product Focus
7. End of Month Goal

1. Layoff – When workers associate a continuous improvement program with layoffs that program is doomed to failure.  Think about it:  Would you work to improve processes at your firm if your reward was a pink slip?  It is critical to make clear to employees this is not company policy.  One best practice is for the CEO to announce at the beginning of a Lean Six Sigma Program that no one will be laid off as a result of the program.  And then to honor that commitment.

2. Tweaking – Many business processes involve one or more steps in which employees spend time ‘tweaking things’ in order to achieve some outcome.  This may be seen as a good thing to do, but is really a form of tampering.  Studies have shown that by eliminating tampering the level of process variation can be reduced by up to 50%.  In other words, just by getting rid of tampering you can improve the consistency of business processes.  How to do this? Here are some great Lean tools for eliminating tampering: mistake proofing, checklists, visual management and standard work.

3. Expediting – Does your company offer expediting as a special service for customers?  The problem with this approach is that when one customer order is expedited then all of the other orders end up waiting.  And what if multiple customers want their orders expedited at the same time?  Suddenly every job is a ‘hot job!’  Expediting causes a lot of wasteful activity as different expediters fight for resources.  An overarching goal at all Lean Six Sigma companies is to reduce process lead time (PLT) for all jobs, thus eliminating the need for expediting.  One TMAC customer that did this was a laboratory at hospital. They used lean to greatly shorten the turnaround time for medical tests. The basics of reducing PLT involve either reducing work-in-process (WIP) or increasing capacity.

4. Pushing – Have you ever heard a co-worker say ‘Let’s push this job through?’ In a LSS environment a push occurs anytime one process step produces at a rate faster than the next step.  This is true whether the next step is the paying customer or an internal operation.  Pushing results in two of the eight wastes of Lean: overproduction and inventory. As WIP levels go up, process lead times also go up – as do quality problems.  And on-time delivery tends to go down.  One key to overcoming a push mentality is to educate employees on systems thinking. Managers and front-line staff must both understand the goal is to optimize the system – as opposed to any one step in the system.

5. Batching – Batching often occurs due to a focus on operational efficiency.  The traditional mindset is to increase the efficiency of a specific activity by keeping WIP high at that step.  Again, this mentality is often due to a management goal to optimize a single process step (or department), instead of the overall system.  Sometimes batching is done as a matter of convenience. One of my customers would batch their incoming customer orders in sales before handing them off to order entry. The batch was handed over when sales took their lunch break. The ultimate goal in Lean is one-piece flow, and this is true whether the process is producing lawn mowers or customer orders.

6. Product Focus – How could a product focus be bad?  The problem here is that if firms only measure the product they are waiting too late to catch a problem.  A fundamental tenet of both Lean and Six Sigma is that good processes will yield good products. In other words, a process focus is the best practice. Hence – you must measure the process in addition to the product. In Six Sigma terms – measure the Xs (process measures), and not just the Ys (output measures). The challenge is to find good process measures. Such measures are leading indicators which can be monitored to assess the health of the process.  Put differently, a product focus means you are always monitoring lagging indicators. That’s akin to driving a car while only checking the rearview mirror.

7. End of Month Goal – Sometimes seen as an End of Week or End of Quarter Goal, this mentality is common in all types of businesses. It can result in the ‘hockey stick effect’ where an artificially high amount of work is completed at the end of the week (or month, or quarter) to achieve a goal established by management. One of my customers manufactured dog food and always experienced this in the form of quarterly sales goals.  They pushed product out to the marketplace at the end of each quarter in order to achieve their quarterly sales goals.  But do dogs really eat more food the last few weeks in a quarter?  Of course not!  Such goals cause organizations to manipulate their processes to satisfy internal goals – and not true customer needs. These manipulations often take the form of overproduction, expediting, rushing, pushing, and other non-Lean behavior.

More about Russ Aikman:

Russ is the LSS Program Manager at TMAC, and started the program in 2003. He is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with over 30 years of experience working in a wide variety of industries, and with small firms up to Fortune 500 companies. He has taught dozens of LSS classes from Yellow Belt up to Master Black Belt. He has also coached hundreds of LSS practitioners on their projects and advised managers on their LSS program. Before joining TMAC he worked at George Group, the first firm to integrate Lean and Six Sigma.

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