What I Learned About Lean Six Sigma

Author: Pat Boutier (Shingo Prize Winning Author, Certified TWI and Coach, and retired TMACer)

Posted: April 2021

Fall Leaf

Welcome to the Musings of a Retired LSS TMACer!

I have had the privilege to learn, experiment, and work with Lean Six Sigma over the past 16 years. Over that time, I have learned much and wanted to share a few things.

Privilege  I had the great fortune to work with several master LSS people who taught me to adapt and assist others in how to apply what I’ve learned. People like Russ Aikman, Randy Bohannan, Alberto Yanez-Moreno, Satya Kudapa, Diana Martinez Cepeda, Chris Meeks, Jorge Eduardo Amezcua Martinez, and Mike Boyte, just to name a few. They have a body of knowledge that enables them to not only teach well, but to adapt their teaching methods to assist others for maximum effect.  Their ability in helping those who seek knowledge about Lean Six Sigma leaves the learner with a profound sense of the humility of these teachers, despite the fact that they have a superior knowledge-base.

I know about this, as I have often fallen into the trap of mistakenly talking as though I know all the answers.  One only needs to ask my kids about that ‘attitude’ and all would be understood. My eldest, now in her 40’s, thought I always had the answer. Until she was around 18, she began to realize that what I didn’t know, I made up! 

The TMAC group never makes it up. First, they have deep knowledge of Lean and Six Sigma. Second, they have learned to assess each student to determine where they may need extra help. Third, they have the ability to experiment to find what teaching method works best for each student.

Another privilege I have had, is to work with an extremely diverse group of individuals and businesses over the years in many different industries.  People who want to learn and improve, not only for themselves, but their companies. I have been rewarded with working with those who search for a better way, another method, a ‘new and improved’ or quicker version of what ‘was,’ into ‘what can be’. Sometimes, this desire to improve their business processes was in spite of company ‘handicaps’ that can often be a daunting task.

Here is my transition point as it includes both privilege and learning. These 16 years have also offered me the ability to learn that a process is just that: a process. People are told to follow the process. However, I’ve learned that if there is a failure, it is rarely a failure of the individual, but rather that the process has allowed failure. Deming pointed this out many, many years ago. But still leaders tend to look for blame. Do you remember this quote from Dr. Deming:

The fact is that most troubles with service and production lie in the system.

In other words, lousy systems (processes) will yield lousy results.

Keep in mind that if you follow the process for, say, the scientific method, DMAIC or PDSA, then you should get good results.  The LSS tools work. But there is another element: People.

These processes work well if you learn to work with people and have them learn the tools. It is also important to adapt the process to their learning and usage. That is, don’t force them to use words or phrases because those words are the ‘correct’ ones from a textbook. Instead, you need to come up with words or phrases that are acceptable to people.

There is no need to impose solutions because they are the ‘right ones’. Rather, it is important to allow employees to find their best method with coaching and guidance. A company, their management, and their LSS people gain so much by allowing this. Always remember: It is their solution, not yours. Again, humility is a key to your success as a LSS practitioner.

Learning I have been blessed over my career to always end up in positions where I was able to learn, learn, and learn some more. My parents brought me to the United States from France when I was a boy. I learned English which provided me with opportunities to learn in school, and later at work as an electrical engineer. Here is yet another transition point where learning and work combine.

At the beginning of my career, I was fortunate to work in a co-op opportunity with the Chicago Transit Authority. My first job as a junior engineer was learning to design subway cars. (I even got to drive a few!). Good thing they were on rails.

I also learned early about the perils of working on government projects. One such project was my first full-time job, which was with the First Orbital Space Laboratory Program with McDonnell Douglas. That program was canceled by the government, putting me – and at least 3,000 other engineers – out of work. That was an interesting career problem!

Work. Before joining TMAC I spent 16 years with Motorola. While there I got a chance to work in a variety of roles, including as a design engineer, a manufacturing engineer, an engineering manager and – eventually – a production manager. During this time I learned many things, the most important, that I was NOT a politician!

After leaving Motorola I worked in contract manufacturing and spent several years managing plants for Tandy Electronics. This gave me the opportunity to learn how Japanese companies operated.

With my experience in electronics manufacturing, I decided it was time to start my own company. Over a 12-year period I ran a business which designed and manufactured vision systems. It was challenging and interesting. Talk about learning experiences!

This led me to TMAC and the LSS program, where I learned (again!) by assisting many companies in varied ways. I learned Lean and I actually learned statistics in a meaningful way from Russ Aikman, as opposed to what I had learned in college.  

With TMAC I learned how the Lean and Six Sigma tools are more than just what is taught within the limited time of a LSS training program. Instead, these tools can all integrate and become part of a way of looking at what is happening and finding better ways to achieve company goals. 

Experiment. With TMAC, I had the opportunity to learn about TWI – Training Within Industry. Later, I learned about Toyota Kata. Intrigued by the possible benefits of these tools, I got the opportunity to co-write a book on these subjects with Conrad Soltero, another TMACer.  We released The Seven Kata: Toyota Kata, TWI & Lean Training, which won the Shingo Prize for publications in 2013! Talk about learning, combining experiences and finding out how the circumstances of companies are often in need of many Lean and Six Sigma methods. 

Additionally, I assisted companies, working with them on how they could improve their methods and processes to make their companies more profitable. With the pandemic and the imposition of off-site assistance, we even learned how to assist companies in navigating the risks and concerns required to meet DoD cybersecurity requirements. All of this is to say that LSS methodologies are applicable in many ways, especially if one is open to learning and working with people.

One other aspect of any LSS program, is that we learn the ‘what’ of the tools, and the ‘how’ to deploy and use those tools, however, not in a ‘hammer-and-nail’ perspective.  Rather, it involves following methods to assist employees in understanding ‘what’ must be done, ‘how’ it might be done, and ‘why’ it is necessary. Most of all, why it is important to experiment and find out what will work in a scientific way. 

“Firefighting,” as much as it is encouraged and practiced in companies and individuals, is never productive in the long run. Experimenting in the ‘unknown’ zone, where one doesn’t already know the answer, is learning by doing, deploying the scientific method to approach problem solving and improvements, daily.

DMAIC and PDSA is a scientific process itself, that provides opportunities to learn and work. Try it. It works!

Now I’m off to my next experiment: retirement.

Best regards, stay safe!

Pat Boutier retired from TMAC after 16 years on April 1, 2021. He specialized in applying Lean and won the Shingo Prize for co-authoring the book “The Seven Kata: Toyota, Kata, TWI, and Lean Training” in 2013. Pat is known for his focus on the customer, and for his ‘outside the box’ thinking when discussing possible solutions to complex problems.

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