The Politics of Continuous Improvement

The other day I came across a post on LinkedIn that stated, “Lean Crushing Six Sigma as the New Dominant Force in Corporate Continuous Improvement.”  It pointed to a survey done by the Avery Point Group which found that Lean talent demand was outpacing Six Sigma talent demand.  I was also enlightened about the animosity that appears to exist between the systems thinking advocates of John Seddon and the lean advocates of the Lean Enterprise Institute.

All of this has me thinking – when did we start the competition about which improvement methodology is the best?  Why do we want to waste our time arguing over which methodology is the best (sometimes to an all too personal level)?  Isn’t the purpose of these approaches to establish an on-going system of Continuous Improvement?  Whether it’s Lean, Six Sigma, Systems Thinking, Theory of Constraints, or something else – if the organization can establish a continuous improvement mindset, does the methodology used really matter?

Based on my background, I tend to look at this from a somewhat different perspective.  I obtained a Six Sigma Black Belt while working at Ford Motor Company, was trained in the fundamentals of Lean through the Ford Production System there, have been an avid student and implementer of Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints for 20 years, believe in looking at things from a systems perspective, and have a Master’s in Industrial Engineering.  So my background covers all the bases of these methodologies, especially since most of them have strong parallels to the fundamentals of Industrial Engineering and the scientific method.  Which, one could argue, might put me in a position to pass judgment on this topic – but I won’t.

Because to determine which methodology is right for an organization depends on the organization – its culture, management, type of business, financial situation, and much more.  Not on opinion or who can yell the loudest.

Organizations need to improve, and the approach an organization will use in its continuous improvement journey will vary greatly.  Some will be in a situation where they need to act, and be better served starting with tools, needing to make rapid and focused improvement then moving toward slowly changing the culture.  Some will be in a position where they can start at a higher level by changing the way they think, moving the organization to think differently on its journey.  Others will start somewhere in the middle, teaching a new way of thinking and selectively utilizing improvement tools concurrently.  Depending on the current situation of the organization will determine where it should start.

But what we need to stop doing is bashing each other over which methodology is the best – this serves no purpose.  It’s like debating with someone they should like chocolate ice cream over vanilla, when vanilla is their favorite.  Calling them names because you think chocolate is better than vanilla isn’t going to change their taste buds; just agree you both like ice cream and move on.  So, let’s agree we all want organizations to develop a system of on-going continuous improvement, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of each approach and the situations in which each approach should be applied.

Then, instead of this ridiculous banter, we can go help organizations improve.

Let me know your thoughts!


4 thoughts on “The Politics of Continuous Improvement

  1. It is very much another example of waste. Here’s two examples.

    One eventual client (a hospital system) spent two years at the board of directors level trying to make a decision about whether they should pursue lean or six sigma. That’s two years lost that they could have been making progress.

    In another example, at a client, they were spending regular time and resources deciding if improvement credit would go to the six sigma resources or the lean resources (even though in most cases both contributed).

    Your title is appropriate – politics can trump purpose.

    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  2. Great subject, which makes explicit how management is creating more waste than it is removing. I once had the honour of meeting Mr Nakao (an Ohno student and former president of Sjingijutsu). He had the following to say: management should not talk kaizen but do kaizen. It is not about the methodology but about the principles behind them. And…both should not be argued but implemented.

  3. Nice post, Glenn. I see merit in all disciplines and try to give and take what I can from each. We live in a gray world with very little being totally right or totally wrong. It is what we make out of it. Do I practice Lean, Six Sigma, Agile, TOC? I think I use from each what works for me.

    The one thing I have learned from each of them is that Continuous Improvement and Continuous Learning is the key to success. And, what makes us successful is our own.

  4. Yes, good points. Lean picks up low-hanging fruit more quickly than SS, but the more technical, the more likely that SS projects will have great value. Yet I see that typically in manufacturing welding environments, the missing element in DMAIC projects is that there is no process expert involved. The reason the SS welding project exists and doesn’t melt into irrelevance is too often because the SS methodology is a substitute for process expertise. Commonly this expertise is either not hired (or is eliminated) as a “cost reduction”, crippling profit improvement efforts. I wrote a post on how this plays out and ties into CI and SS efforts:

    Brian Dobben

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