It's not understanding Lean that's the challenge, it's how to apply it

Written by  Jill Dooney
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The principles and techniques that are described by Lean process improvement are undoubtedly powerful. The challenge lies in designing an implementation programme that will engage colleagues and deliver lasting benefits.

In this first of three articles, Jill looks at introducing Lean using a Lean Six Sigma project.

The elimination of waste is a simple definition of Lean. To uncover the waste, the business needs to understand its “value stream”. This means examining how work flows through the organisation to create the product or service for which the customer is willing to pay. Each step in the process is challenged with the question “why do we do that?” and ultimately each step is defined as value adding (VA) or non value adding (NVA). Examples of NVA are waiting, moving, creating defects, holding stock and doing more work than is necessary to meet the customers’ needs.

So, the principles are not rocket science! It’s getting buy-in to the way it is applied at all levels in the organisation that needs consideration. There are three proposed approaches – with associated benefits and drawbacks

    Lean Six Sigma projects – senior management initiate a project that will deliver significant business benefit
      Lean Blitzes – a cross functional team takes a week away from daily work to analyse their processes and propose changes
        Lean Daily Management – under the guidance of their team leader, a team looks at the standard operation in their daily routine and manages their work flow


      In this article we focus on Lean Six Sigma projects. These are a powerful way to focus on a strategic objective – maybe to cut cost or to make a dramatic improvement in customer satisfaction. They will normally be led by a “Black Belt” – a project manager who specialises in the analysis and improvement of problem processes. They will apply the DMAIC (define, measure, analyse, improve, control) methodology to achieve their goal. Typical projects will be three to six months in duration, but may be far longer where a business case is needed to justify investment in, say IT development. During this time the team may lose focus and there may be too much reliance on the project manager, rather than the senior manager who owns the process, to drive the project through to a successful conclusion.

      Real world example

      A global courier company used this approach to look at reasons why deliveries were not always being competed within the specified time frame. During the “analyse” phase of the project, root causes were classified as unstable variation or stable variation. Unstable variation, also known as special causes, came from internal and external “one-off” factors such as vehicle breakdowns, strikes, or weather. The challenge here was to think of means to prevent these occurring or contingencies if they did. Stable variation occurs in every process. In our courier example, this is the variation in journey time from Heathrow to East London, when the journey is undertaken at the same time every day. There will be lots of minor differences caused by other vehicles and traffic signals. A key question that is posed is “Is this process capable of delivering to the required standard?” This can lead to a frank discussion about how realistic commitments to customers are, or some creative thinking on process redesign to enable the standard to be achieved. In this Lean Six Sigma project, variation was analysed on several routes and appropriate solutions were implemented to increase customer satisfaction with delivery reliability.

      My next article will look at Lean Blitzes and how the technique can give a kick-start to your Lean initiative.

      Jill Dooney is a qualified Six-Sigma practitioner and specialises in organisational transformation using Lean techniques.  For more information on how we can introduce Lean into your organisation contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.