Lean Six Sigma: An intelligent Business Process Management asset
By Aqua Porter, Lean Six Sigma advocate, Xerox
Organizations create processes to establish a consistent and efficient way of performing tasks. Processes can drive almost every department in a business, from the payroll process in the accounting department and new hire process in human resources to the training process in the sales department and assembling a product in manufacturing. Over time, however, processes can become ridden with errors and redundancies as employees fall into ritualized habits and communication breaks down.
Process improvement methodologies like Lean and Six Sigma have gone through several boom and bust cycles since their introduction in the mid-eighties. Despite moving in and out of favor, the longevity of Lean and Six Sigma can be attributed to the flexibility and applicability to companies of all sizes in all industries. Combining the two methodologies into Lean Six Sigma creates a rigorous, data-driven, results-oriented approach to process improvement.
Businesses can use Lean Six Sigma to avoid the breakdown of processes over time by evaluating existing practices, identifying pain points and solutions to ease them, and establishing a plan for ongoing measurement. This culture of continuous improvement can touch any and every aspect of the business, increasing the overall health of the organization and creating a competitive advantage. Several examples of areas of the business that can dramatically benefit from the use of Lean Six Sigma include customer relationships, innovation and productivity.
Describing customer satisfaction as a current top priority is putting it mildly for most businesses in industries across the board – it’s always all about the customer. Lean Six Sigma not only helps organizations optimize internal processes, it also helps to deliver an outstanding customer experience. Developing lasting customer relationships requires an understanding of each unique customer and their changing environments, goals and areas of importance.
Voice of the Customer (VOC) is used to describe customers’ needs and their perceptions of available products and services. There is no better way to understand how to best serve customers than by gathering their direct feedback, which requires a tremendous amount of listening and a lot of dialogue. Surveys, interviews, and focus groups are useful in turning that dialogue into formal feedback that can be collected and analyzed. The VOC can then be prioritized and translated into requirements that are critical to quality.
Walking the customer’s process is equally as important as gathering the VOC as it can help illuminate unspoken needs. Going through the process step by step allows the team to map out pain points – identifying which parts of the process and system are not as effective as they need to be. The combined knowledge of customer needs and current pain points will allow the team to focus efforts, design a solution and deliver results for the customer’s business goals.
Success in Innovation
Lean Six Sigma has expanded into research and development. The idea of Lean Six Sigma and innovation being used in the same process, or even the same sentence, is considered by many to be an oxymoron. Many believe that Lean Six Sigma stifles creativity and turns people into robots, but this is a misconception. Lean Six Sigma can actually aid in the innovation process and many companies are seeing impressive results by pairing process improvement and innovation teams together to drive product development.
Innovation is known to take unpredictable twists and turns, but there are processes that guide it. It takes many well-designed processes to move an idea from inception to operation, and they need to be continuously evaluated for areas needing improvement.
Design for Lean Six Sigma (DfLSS) is a technique that specifically focuses on improving efficiencies and reducing costs related to the design and delivery of new technology. Engineers use DfLSS to deliver products that not only meet the needs of the customer, but do so in the most efficient and economical way possible. Its use can also dramatically reduce cycle time and time-to-market, putting new solutions into the hands of customers faster.
A common misconception exists that all Lean Six Sigma projects are time intensive, cumbersome and bureaucratic. While some projects do require the context of a full, rigorous endeavor, others problems can be resolved with quick, minimum commitment projects.
The Agile Scrum process, for example, is a light-weight project management system that traditionally relies on daily face-to-face communication and encourages teams to collaborate in real-time. By hosting live, frequent discussions on progress and priorities, teams are often able to accomplish significant results in short periods of time – often while juggling other projects.
A Kaizen event is another short cycle time project, in fact, it is often referred to as a blitz and typically ranges from a few days to a week. A Kaizen aims to increase efficiency and eliminate waste in a particular area of a process, allowing the team to drive focus and efforts to workflow problems in a specific, identified step. Solutions are typically implemented immediately following the event.
Empower Swift, Sound Decisions
Sometimes Lean Six Sigma can support better decision making without the context of a project at all. Using the thought process supported by basic Lean Six Sigma tools can help people across the organization, whether or not they are formally trained in Lean Six Sigma, know when and how to apply it to everyday decision-making and problem-solving situations.
Using Lean Six Sigma tools and thought processes, along with intuitive thinking, helps employees tackle core assignments with greater efficiency. The target problems and decisions are typically of lower complexity and size and can be made in real time with the available data and information on hand. This mindset provides agility while maintaining the discipline of sound decision making.
The Bottom Line
By harnessing the speed of Lean Manufacturing and the quality of Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma is a powerful business process management tool, holding a basic assumption that all activities of the organization should add business value. It helps organizations improve operational efficiency, power productivity and reduce costs, and even make progress toward environmental sustainability metrics.
The quest for continuous improvement is a race without a finish line, so it is important to implement a mechanism for ongoing measurement. Sustaining the results generated by an improved process is almost always more difficult than achieving them in the short-term. Monitor and evaluate progress on a regular basis and apply necessary controls to ensure long lasting high-quality performance, creating a source of sustainable competitive advantage.
About the Author
Aqua Porter has been with Xerox since 1984 and has held a variety of positions in fields including engineering, marketing, product development, purchasing, manufacturing and supply chain management. She is an advocate for Lean Six Sigma at Xerox. Xerox Corporation is a $22 billion leading global enterprise for business process and document management. Through its broad portfolio of technology and services, Xerox provides the essential back-office support that clears the way for clients to focus on what they do best: their real business.More by Aqua Porter
Xerox Global Services employs Smarter Document ManagementSM technologies to add intelligence and structure to both paper and digital documents and activate the content they contain. Our extensive industry expertise, combined with tools like Lean Six Sigma, creates a powerful portfolio of services that adds real value to enterprises worldwide. For more information visit www.xerox.com/globalservices.