Lean Tools vs. Lean Philosophy

The pace of doing business today is so fast that there is not a lot of time left to consider proper planning or dare I mention it, implementing a strategy. Competitors, customers and shareholders alike are all knocking on your door with the message ‘You must improve your competitiveness or you and your organisation will be gone soon!’

You also have internal issues like your employee’s motivation and productivity, ongoing problems of customer demand that cannot be met without ramping up, according to your operations manager. When the volume is turned up a notch, all sorts of other issues pop up such as an increase in error rates leading to rework with a significant increase in cost, need for overtime, staff out sick more than usual and a higher attrition rate, to name but a few. Of course there is also the ‘culture’ to contend with. As the saying goes: “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”

No wonder you are on the lookout for a quick solution. Your friends and colleagues keep telling you about ‘Lean’ and you start reading several books on how Toyota became the world’s biggest car manufacturer by implementing their Lean philosophy. You read about how some of the companies you respect and look up to, implemented 5S, Kanban and ‘Just in Time’ and you wonder why you did not hear about Lean earlier.

One morning you wake up and decide that your organisation needs to go on a diet and become Lean. You discover that Lean is not all that difficult to grasp, it seems to be a structured ‘common sense’ teaching and only requires a short learning curve. You now consider Lean to be the ‘Holy Grail’

Implementing Lean is a massive undertaking. I’ve got news for you: Lean is NOT a quick fix. Partly because of this, organisations who use Lean, are focussing on the tools they feel will provide the greatest benefits in the shortest space of time. Watering down Lean by focusing on tools brings with it a different set of issues, but is that such a bad thing?

 “Why does it work for Toyota?” you ask.

 The Lean philosophy is not just something that is deployed in work, Toyota’s whole culture is based on Lean, and they live Lean. Very few westerners can muster enough discipline to stop smoking or eating less. Our culture is leaning towards decadence, you only have to look around you and see the vast amount of waste that we create; our children are now becoming obese at an early age.

Very few western organisations understand that Lean requires a completely different set of expectations, practices and norms, the organisational structure must change, performance metrics must change, above all Lean requires a change in behaviour, not just for one day, but every day, every hour, every minute. That is a big ask for your team members and they soon revert back to the pre-deployment state. After all the 2nd Law of thermodynamics states: ‘There is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state.’


Should we ignore Lean all together? Not at all! We use it in ‘Lean Six Sigma’, where –in our western world – it plays an important role. Lean and Six Sigma are efficiency and effectiveness combined. It is a great marriage. Deploy Lean Six Sigma in the right place, and you will see bottom line improvements and customer experience improvements with enhanced quality.


The Lean toolset that everyone is so enthusiastic about is deployed early on in a Lean Six Sigma project and helps to get rid of waste in the process, increase flow and process efficiency, and eliminate non-value-add activities. Six Sigma increases effectiveness and, helps to reduce variation and defects. Since there is a ‘control phase’ at the end of the project methodology DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control), you sustain your improvements. Because you offer a learning path in many stages up to Black Belt, your employees will enjoy that journey and join you in your endeavours to make improvements.


Where is the right place to deploy Lean Six Sigma?

 We borrowed the concept from the ‘Theory of Constraints’. We look and find the weakest link and then deploy DMAIC methodology. When the weakest link (C) has been fixed, another one (B) becomes visible and we go and fix that one… and so on. That is true continuous improvement aiming for perfection.

Continuous Improvement helps you and your organisation to stay ahead of deterioration and will render quantifiable results in a short time and long term if ongoing Kaizen Events are planned.


When to use Lean Six Sigma?

 There is still a misunderstanding when it comes to deploying PMBoK or Prince2 or Lean Six Sigma Projects. PMBoK and Prince 2 are very well established. Those methodologies are mainly used when we know what the solution is.

 However Lean Six Sigma is deployed when we do not know what the solution is.

 Because of its strong focus on understanding the problem and then finding the root cause and the use of Data in the analysis, Lean Six Sigma plays an important role in the dynamism of an organisation.


Although we are generally not deploying Lean like Toyota does, we are using Lean within Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement projects to make sure we cut unnecessary costs as a direct result of waste and delays. The Lean savings of cost cutting can be booked to the bottom line and the advantages of waste elimination and increase flow will become clearer in the long run. Six Sigma will help you to fix the problem and the cost reduction arising from that effort can also be booked to the bottom line. Six Sigma improvements are more focused on the weakest link in the micro level and after eliminating the root cause, improvements are immediate.

One of the Lean tools – value stream mapping – helps us in the beginning of the Lean Six Sigma project to find the weakest link. This insures that we focus our efforts in the right direction and improve the right process.

Alongside process improvement, Lean tools such as Visual Management, Hoshin and Huddles are often used successfully in many different areas throughout the organisations.

Using Lean this way, we are creating a different version of Lean, one we are more comfortable with and it suits us westerners much better.


Yours sincerely,

Georges Van Cauwenbergh, Master Black Belt