By Paul Todd, Project Manager, Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech
Which process improvement methodology should you pursue to enhance your value as an individual? The availability of Lean training has expanded in recent years from general overview courses to tool-specific and industry-specific sessions, including versions intended for professionals in health care, logistics, and other fields outside the manufacturing sector. Six Sigma has also spread beyond its manufacturing roots, particularly into banking and other transaction-focused areas. Some training programs combine elements of both methods and call it “Lean Sigma.” Which program is right for you depends on your specific situation.
Before you choose, it’s important to research the strengths and weaknesses of both Lean and Six Sigma approaches. One of the most common and least accurate shorthand descriptions is that Lean is about reducing waste while Six Sigma reduces variation. In fact, both approaches are rooted in the scientific method and the compression of cycle time. From different starting points, they both recognize that focusing on the combination of faster cycle times and higher quality must inevitably result in lower cost. Rooting out inefficiencies, imbalances, and delays generates the need for specific tools. Beyond cost cutting, however, both efforts must be part of the larger business plan to provide superior value to the customer.
Consider these criteria when deciding what type of training suits your needs.
What is driving the need for your training?
Understand the business need behind the decision, and how the new skills gained in the training will fit into the overall strategy of your organization. These considerations come back to the central question of all process improvement activities: What problem are you trying to solve? The answers to that question will determine what type of expertise your organization needs. The risk is that a trainee will return from an excellent workshop armed with new knowledge, but with no clear direction for what should happen next. Any new initiative seen as tangential to the purpose of the organization is unlikely to have staying power.
What will you be asked to do with the training you receive?
It may sound like an odd question, but it is well worth discussing before deciding what type of training to attend. What is expected of you after attending the training? Will you be asked to lead kaizen teams? Will you work individually on assigned projects? Will you be expected to perform specific tasks like Process Capability Analysis or Kanban sizing? Understanding your future responsibilities is crucial to meeting the expectations of your organization.
Don’t confuse certification with expertise.
Certification is a somewhat touchy subject for many management professionals because even the best programs are not substitutes for experience on the job. This is true even in certification programs that require trainees to complete a project or series of projects using the newly acquired skills. Many simple projects have been distorted in this way to fit the needs of certification, emphasizing the procedural elements of the project over the needs of the user or customer. Recognize that in process improvement, as in most endeavors, the completion of classroom training is the beginning, not the end, of the learning process.
Consider your own experience and that of the people around you.
Choosing what level of process improvement training to invest in may depend on your previous experience. Many people who have been in the workforce for a few years have had some exposure to Lean and Six Sigma in one form or another, often under different program names and without a great deal of formal training. Recent college graduates or military veterans may find parallels in their coursework or training. Understand specifically what you know and don’t know within the proposed curriculum, and what knowledge your colleagues may have. Your ability to absorb the training and use it effectively depends in part on your previous exposure to the underlying concepts.
Both Lean and Six Sigma have evolved in recent years to focus on the core elements of process management rather than the narrow application of specific tools. Both have many beneficial aspects, but your challenge is to find the training that best fits your needs. The right selection will get you started on a journey that will help you grow throughout your career. As business fads come and go, the underlying principles of Lean and Six Sigma will remain the foundation for business excellence.
This is part of a series of articles for manufacturing improvement. Download a pdf of Lean, Six Sigma, Lean Sigma – What Training Should I Attend?