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Larry Fast
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August 16, 2016

What's Next after Lean and Six Sigma?

Larry is Founder of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence, and a veteran of 35 years in the wire and cable industry. Larry is the author of The 12 Principles of Manufacturing Excellence--A Lean Leader's Guide to Achieving and Sustaining Excellence,  the second edition of which was published in September, 2015. You can follow him on Linkedin.

What comes next after lean and Six Sigma?

QUESTION: Given that some companies are already well down the Six Sigma and lean manufacturing path, TQM, JIT, etc., what is next for these companies?”

ANSWER: This question is similar to one I read a few days ago on a blog where this question is being raised yet again: “What’s Next?” The short answer is nothing. Don’t wait on anything new that is of a game-changing variety. There will undoubtedly continue to be repackaging of the alphabet soup initiatives, all under the same unchanging banner of CI, as there has been over the last 30-plus years in the USA. Don’t give “what’s next” a second thought. Really.

Frankly, I am incredulous at this constant wonderment about what’s next when most companies have done a poor job sustaining the journeys that have been started. I’ve cited numerous times in these writings as well as in my book that less than 5% of the companies that start the CI journey are still on it, uninterrupted, after 10 years.

Read More: Lean Six Sigma Resources

When we say, “companies are already well down the Six Sigma and lean manufacturing path,” that is only true in my mind if they are sustaining beyond 10 years and have a culture that’s committed to this career-long journey, generation after generation. All employees have changed the way they think, work and behave. Further, they don’t just expect but rather require any new entrants into the workforce to get trained up to speed so they will also think, work and behave within the company’s culture in order to be successful and to continue their employment.

In my view it is a colossal waste of time to contemplate what’s next at this juncture in most companies. It simply doesn’t matter what’s next until we master what we’ve already started.

Related: WHITE PAPER: Six Sigma's Best Kept Secrets: Motorola & The Malcolm Baldrige Award

Let’s focus on more than doing kaizens and kanbans and circle meetings and gemba walks on the shop floor. While these activities are useful and have a role to play, they are not CI. CI is much broader and much more comprehensive than a series of projects and events. The May 26th article in this magazine by John Dyer, Why Your Improvement Efforts Aren't Driving Better Results: The Façade of Lean and Six Sigma, speaks to this topic and is a recommended read.

Many businesses and factories are doing a great job with tools such as 5S, visual management, etc. and with talking the talk. But in my experience, when you look past the mostly cosmetic pleasantries, the basic systems and processes infrastructure of the business is not well coordinated/integrated; the KPIs aren’t actionable; standard work updates lag and sometimes aren’t completed at all; training processes have gaps, e.g. in training all concerned parties on standard work updates and engineering changes; the culture change is far from all-encompassing; and, most importantly, the benefits to the business for launching these CI initiatives are not tracked to measure their real impact on the income statement, balance sheet and customer service reports.

The 5% out there who have been on their CI journeys for more than 10 years, uninterrupted, certainly understand this and are leading and executing a much more comprehensive process.

If you must know “what’s next” then here it is. Drill down to greater levels of detail and understanding and get to work mapping every process for waste and opportunities to improve. Let’s see pervasive use of value stream maps to understand flow and line balance. Let’s see more disciplined use of process capability studies to understand the reality of both process and design and the opportunities that will surface for improvements. Let’s see routine use of poka-yoke as the last step in every problem-solving activity. Let’s measure the fruits of our labor and track them as they appear on income statements, balance sheets and customer service reports.

It is tedious and painstaking work. It takes incredible discipline to stay the course hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It takes years to arrive at an elevated “new normal.” And it will begin to come apart the very next time leadership and the team takes a day off from this relentless quest for excellence.

If your CI process isn’t delivering the results you expect, you don’t need a new buzzword to send you off frantically chasing a new star. Just reread the previous paragraph and get on with the “what’s NOW.”

Related: ARTICLE: Try 'Managing Up' to Boost your Continuous Improvement Efforts


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