Lean Six Sigma – Taking it Forward

This is the second post in a two part review of the discipline called Lean Six Sigma.  The first part of the discussion can be found here.

When I was in college at RPI, I segued from the core Engineering curriculum into a degree called Management Engineering. This degree had elements of Industrial Engineering, but also dove very deep into computers, statistics and operations research. As a result, graduates could pursue a variety of career paths including manufacturing, software development and various quantitative careers. I chose the software development direction, but also used the problem solving skills I’d learned. Later, a manager noticed those problem solving skills and offered me a position in operations management. I worked with teams to solve problems, organize processes and eliminate waste, but we did it on an ad hoc basis and had nothing like a Lean Six Sigma methodology to guide us. I’m proud of the work we did,but I soon got interested in products and moved into product management and R & D. In software project management, I tracked defects using databases and graphics, but never dove back into the statistics that I’d enjoyed so much in college.

I later shifted into product management for other products. In one particular case, we had a multi-million dollar customer who was very upset because the product process for an embedded voice mail system had fallen out of control. I was asked to solve the problem and took over program management for the product. I worked closely with our customer, manufacturing, sales and our quality department. We listened carefully to the customer and improved both the quality and efficiency of the product process. Within a year, the customer awarded our team a quality award in recognition of our progress. Once again, I’d worked with a team to solve problems, this time for an external customer. Our quality team used a number of statistical techniques to demonstrate our improved process quality and we used Pareto charts to identify and solve major problems. Sounds a lot like Lean Six Sigma.  We listened carefully to our customer and let them guide us on which problems were the most important to solve.

Fast forward to this year and my participation in this course. The cool thing about Lean Six Sigma for me is that is takes ALL of the skills I learned in my university studies, plus lots of hard earned learnings from different points in my career and weaves them together into a coherent methodology which is great for solving problems.  The review of statistics and other analytical tools in the course was an excellent refresher — I’d studied most of these techniques at RPI — and the techniques are highly relevant in today’s business environment. Analytics and quantitative analysis are hot in a wide variety of fields today, including politics, social media, medical devices, telecom and marketing. Companies like people with experience, but they like it even more if people can analyze data and use it to back up their ideas. The course also offered a variety of approaches for getting information from customers, including ideas on data driven approaches such as surveys and interviews. This ties well into contemporary marketing approaches where listening to the Voice of the Customer is critical and analytical tools such as A / B testing for new marketing campaign ideas are increasingly common.

In short, I’m really glad I took the Lean Six Sigma course. It’s equipped me with a useful philosophy for process and quality improvement and the tools we studied should be useful for numerous business situations. Lean Six Sigma. Check it out.

Lean Six Sigma – First Take

I just finished a two week course and now possess a certification known as the Lean Six Sigma Green Belt. I’d been running into a few people with Lean Six Sigma backgrounds while networking in the last several months, but didn’t really understand what it was all about until I took this course. I now have a much better appreciation for what I’ve been missing and am amazed by the degree to which this particular cluster of methodologies winds like a river through many different elements of my education and career.  

Lean Six Sigma is a combination of two movements. Lean is an approach to improving processes by analyzing and removing various types of waste. But that’s not all. It can also be used to assess a product or process and determine which elements provide value for customers. I’d been thinking Lean Six Sigma was just a manufacturing thing — a common misconception — but here they were talking about the customer value and the Voice of the Customer. So Lean is relevant to customers and therefore, might also be highly useful for people in marketing and product positions. Okay, so Lean is relevant for product and marketing people like me. What about Six Sigma?  

Six Sigma dates back to the Seventies, when Dr. Mikel Harry of Motorola put together a variety of quality and statistical approaches aimed toward helping organizations greatly improve the quality of their processes. The term Six Sigma derives from the statistical world, where sigma is another word for standard deviation. A six sigma process is highly accurate and produces on average only 3.4 defects per million. At one time, Six Sigma and Lean were separate movements, but organizations soon saw the value in using Six Sigma techniques to improve the quality of their processes and Lean to reduce wastes, eliminate unnecessary process costs and in general, have much more efficient processes.  

It turns out there’s a lot to learn. Green Belts get introduced to the smorgasbord of Lean and Six Sigma techniques, but true mastery of the tools takes more learning and experience — hence the use of the term Black Belt.  The overall Lean Six Sigma philosophy and collection of tools strikes me as being valuable for people in a wide variety of disciplines.  I’ll talk more about how Lean Six Sigma relates to my own background and today’s business needs in my next post.  


Going Lean

In January, I was fortunate enough to attend two events which both focused on the concept of product / market fit.  Marc Andreessen, of NetScape fame and now a venture capitalist, coined the term.  But the story doesn’t really begin there.  There is a movement known as “Lean Startup,” whose chief advocate is an entrepreneur and consultant named Eric Ries.  My introduction to Ries was at the two events I mentioned.  At TIE Boston, a group which helps entrepreneurs and startups, venture capitalist Tom Huntington spoke eloquently on product / market fit based on his own startup experiences.  His key point was that companies should not scale up in their use of resources until they have found the right fit between the product and the market it is directed to.  He used several examples where companies had functional products, but didn’t have the right market fit, so growth wasn’t happening.  

The next week, I attended the keynote at the Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) on “The Magic Fit”, delivered by Jeff Bussgang of Harvard and Flybridge Ventures.  Bussgang’s presentation built nicely upon the messages I’d heard the week before, but he dug a bit deeper.  He touted Lean principles as an ongoing revolution for Product Management and strongly encouraged all of us to get on board.  LIke Tom Huntington, he emphasized the value of placing the MVP (Minimum Viable Prototype) in the hands of customers and then learning as quickly as possible from these customer experiences.   Bussgang was generous in his use of references and made it clear that author Eric Ries was a key inspiration for many of these Lean Startup concepts.   

A few weeks ago, I borrowed Ries’s book The Lean Startup, from our library and I just finished reading it.  Ries does a nice job of explaining the series of startup experiences which caused him to develop the “Lean Startup” methodology and then he explains the methodology in detail.  As alluded to by the two speakers I’d heard in January, a key concept is setting up an approach that allows startups to get their prototypes (MVPs) out to customers and conduct detailed experiments to see which product or business model approaches are most valuable to customers.  Like many contemporary management theorists, Ries is a strong advocate of creating effective metrics and then conducting measurements, but he also emphasizes the need to talk with customers to understand the meaning behind the statistics.  In the latter approaches, he draws directly from the experiences of companies like Toyota who have been innovators in the lean manufacturing space.  

Ries has written an excellent book which holds lessons both for startups and bigger companies that want to move faster in a turbulent marketplace.   My thanks to Jeff Bussgang for recommending the book.  I ran my own company for 7 years in the Nineties, so the concepts of creating new product ideas and then testing them with customers are familiar to me.  But Eric Ries has put his lessons learned into playbook form and I anticipate these concepts will be valuable in my future business roles.