Are Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma Effective for Organizations?

Can These Philosophies Help Your Organization Achieve Profitable Growth?

In an organization striving for operational excellence and continuous improvement, there are many possible methodologies to achieve transformation. For decades, Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma have been positioned as best practices for organizations looking to improve the productivity and ROI of their manufacturing capabilities. They are so closely linked to this goal that a hybrid theory of manufacturing management, Lean Six Sigma, was born into the fold. However, simply because these methods have been around awhile doesn’t make them optimal for every application. When selecting a partner in operational excellence consulting, it is critical to understand if their methods to achieve operational excellence align with the goals of your organization. Read more below for an explanation of the following concepts: what are lean manufacturing and six sigma, what are their benefits, what are their limitations, and how can you create systems that improve on these weaknesses?

What are Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma?

Lean Manufacturing focuses on minimizing waste in a manufacturing system and, thus, improving the existing level of productivity. This systematic mindset distinguishes between what adds value and what creates waste, then reduces the latter. Comprised of a set of tools to facilitate waste reduction, lean manufacturing seeks to achieve operational excellence by continuous elimination of non-value adding waste and optimizing flow.

Six Sigma originally focused on improving quality. By eliminating variation within manufacturing and business processes, organizations develop quality management processes and infrastructure to achieve six sigma quality levels. Over time, Six Sigma has morphed into a project-based improvement methodology that can be used to address a number of issues in industry. The two cornerstones of its success are the use of statistical tools and a disciplined project management methodology. By utilizes experts in statistical analysis and the DMAIC method to lead projects, many improvements can be achieved. With the completion and sustainment of each project, these organizations make strides to move closer to operational excellence.

What are the Limitations of Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma?

Lean Manufacturing philosophy on its own does not fully address the foundational structures necessary to realize and sustain improvement. Without a strategy and structure in place to address the foundational elements of the organization (such as equipment reliability, operator skills, and line level problem solving), organizations may adopt lean tactics and begin realizing some benefits, but fail to realize the right goal or long term sustainable change. In and of itself, the goal of eliminating waste is not enough; it is possible to optimize for the elimination of waste in a way that does not add long term value to a business. It is also possible to waste time and resources applying lean tools to processes that are too unstable to bear the reduction during the extremes of the cycle. Achievement of true operational excellence occurs when the lean manufacturing toolbox is opened up within an environment of well-established, controlled, structured processes that can guide the use of the tools and support the improvements.

While Six Sigma is an commendable strategy, there are many roadblocks to putting it into practice. For one, the focus on exacting quality standards can lead employees to focusing on areas that aren’t profit centers, hindering an optimization of manufacturing alignment with business goals. Additionally, six sigma is a much more rigid process, leaving less room for innovation and creativity. While striving for perfection is crucial, it should not be at the expense of the principles that are critical to overall business growth and performance. The quality emphasis that is foundational to six sigma is important in the journey to operational excellence, but is only one component of the elements needed for well-rounded success. However, perhaps the most significant weaknesses of Six Sigma is that it lacks a robust process for identifying the most beneficial opportunities to pursue. This is vitally important, since this can lead to significant efforts expended in areas using an organization’s limited resources that fail to deliver the desired results.

When combined, Lean Six Sigma focused organizations attempt to utilize the best of both methodologies to enhance the original. By including lean manufacturing tools and kaizen improvements, the speed of change is increased from the typically constrained Six Sigma organization. The addition of statistical analysis and quality management principles enhances the structure of lean and improves sustainability through statistical control.

Though Lean Six Sigma improves upon the limitations of Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma as stand-alone improvement methodologies, LSS organizations still face challenges. The development of belted experts that lead project execution can silo the organization into those who know and those who know not. Lean Six Sigma organizations can be highly effective in achieving operational excellence provided there is a strong culture of problem solving developed throughout all levels of the organization prior to LSS implementation.

Pillar House

Milliken Performance System

The Milliken Performance System promotes the goal of reducing defects, breakdowns, waste and other abnormalities with “zero” as the expected norm. This “Zero Loss” thinking identifies where to focus your improvement activities to reach a point with zero level of failure: no off quality, no breakdowns, no delays, no customer complaints, no manufacturing wastes, etc. The system is characterized by a foundation of safety and strategic clarity which support and direct activities of the 9 pillars. Within these pillars reside the core elements of both Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing which are deployed at the appropriate time when processes are stable and ownership at the line level has been established. Working together as one system, these components of operational excellence continue to drive Milliken and the clients of Performance Solutions to be lean enterprises. Through this systematic approach of uncovering root causes of less-than-optimized work streams, our operational excellence consulting clients have achieved an ROI performance of 8 to 1 within 2 years of beginning and implementation. By implementing the Milliken Performance System, you can dramatically improve your operational performance and employee engagement.

System is built to focus on:

  • Improving associates’ skills and knowledge
  • Building trust within the organization
  • Properly leading people
  • Properly managing equipment
  • Developing problem solving capability
  • Enhancing preventive and predictive maintenance
  • Achieving operational excellence

Six steps of transformation:

  • Visit Milliken for accommodation, education, and demonstration
  • Assess your sites
  • Master plan for alignment
  • Develop plant implementation plans
  • Model within plants
  • Replicate beyond models


Performance Solutions by Milliken