Lean six sigma obituary – is it time to write one?

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Lean six sigma obituary – is it time to write one?

Six-Sigma-Process Improvement

A lot of lean six sigma professionals have in recent years wondered why this utterly successful business improvement methodology has been fading away from the collective consciousness and management radar so steadily and surely. Some have of course denied that such a trend exists in the first place and are happily engaged in projects and initiatives still packaged as six sigma. So what is really happening and can something be done? Should something be done?

I believe that six sigma has been sliding downhill (especially in the western world and in large organisations). In fact, this has been happening for several years now. Two key pieces of evidence support my personal experience and opinion in this regard: Google trends search interest on six sigma is down by ~ 70% since 2005 and six sigma job postings is down ~ 80% since 2011. Notwithstanding the financial crisis (which some would argue should actually have increased hiring of six sigma skills), this is a formidable trend. Many six sigma professionals and belts I personally know have moved on to core operations or other roles. Several lean six sigma initiatives have been folded up and teams disbanded. So maybe it is indeed time to write the obituary after all.

But hold on, this is not the full story! It is really important to dig down to understand what is happening below the surface.

I think the above trends are actually composed of two major sub-trends that almost counteract each other:

Sub-trend 1) There is indeed a downward trajectory that is quite secular: every management innovation has an adoption cycle and saturation/decline beyond that point is generally a given. Six sigma, after all, has now been practised intensively for 30+ years! One could also argue that over and above the natural lifecycle related hypothesis, certain contradictions within the methodology itself and an inadequate response from the profession to flexibly respond to the rapidly changing scenarios have led to a situation where the application of six sigma has become increasingly focused on tactical improvements rather than being implemented as a transformative strategic priority of the CEO. This certainly was not the case during the early years at Allied Signal or GE, for example, when six sigma drove breakthrough results. The need for transformation has not gone away. In fact, it has only increased and accelerated. But lean six sigma is more and more used to “run” business as usual instead of “galloping” ahead of competition or “flying” businesses into new blue spaces by fundamentally reimagining processes and products. According to me, this diagnosis gives hope, not doom and gloom. In most cases, if we understand the root causes, we can put in the right counter-measures too (this calls for a separate blog!).

Tactical vs Transformational six sigma

Tactical vs Transformational six sigma

Sub-trend 2) Google trends for Lean, Operational Excellence, Customer Experience, and Business Analytics are all sturdily going up! I believe two things have happened here – a) lots of lean six sigma initiatives have got repackaged and rebranded primarily as “Lean” and “Operational Excellence”. Very few companies are doing pure “TPS lean” anyway – usually it is a modified version of LSS with more lean tools thrown in and less analytical rigour. And b) when markets mature, they often break up and segment into related categories – what earlier was just six sigma has split up and developed into separate specialties like “customer experience” and “business analytics”. Incidentally, these have developed outside the realms of six sigma. So although they share the same umbilical cord and have borrowed concepts and methods heavily from six sigma, they have grown stripes of their own and are being branded and marketed as distinct capabilities/skillsets.

Therefore, the bottom-line to me is that lean six sigma is transforming, and renewing itself but becoming quite unrecognisable in the process. The change is not in the content or the philosophy so much but in the structure and the identity. So, while the old six sigma as it was increasingly being practiced in many places is indeed dying, the answer to the original question raised in the title of this post is much less obvious. Can a makeover really be reason enough to write an obituary?

If you have enjoyed reading this post, please share,like, and consider commenting 🙂

Disclaimer: The point of view and opinions expressed in all my blog posts are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my current or previous employers

11 Comments

  1. Raman Pushkar says:

    Great reading Shirshendu , a good insight and status on LSS. Love to read some more similar articles from you in near future.

    • shirshendu says:

      Thanks Raman 🙂

      Sure, now that I have started blogging, will try my best to keep at it and continue to give my blog followers and readers interesting stuff to mull over.

  2. Bharat Kunjur says:

    Liked the point on same philosophy in the new identity… We all know that Agile is lean, Scrumban is lean and a lot more… Let us be thankful for being initiated under the pure philosophy that’s timeless… Let’s also hope these core principles continue to get evangelised for posterity… Branding can evolve.

  3. Amrura Raste says:

    Indeed good insight
    While we all are just thinking about it and trying to find whether this really a trend.:)

  4. Rajeev Sikdar says:

    You got it absolutely bang on Shirshendu. Its the old wine in the new bottle, but i think its more effective in this form. Good insight and great read. Keep it up. Look forward for more article on this space.

  5. Mike Titchen says:

    The tools are the tools – package them as you may

  6. Tom Hughes says:

    Can you comment on who was using six sigma intensely 30+ years ago? I can recall Motorola 25 years ago, followed by AlliedSignal and GE 21 years ago? Followed by GenCorp, Navistar, Bombardier. Who was Motorola’s predecessor?

    • Shirshendu Mukherjee says:

      Hi Tom, there was no predecessor to Motorola. In 1981 Motorola set a goal of achieving X factor improvement in quality by 1986 and six sigma in its earliest Avatar was born in 1985 when Bill Smith published a paper followed by adoption of DPU as the standardised measure of defects. That makes it 30+ 😊

  7. Rajesh says:

    I also see the new age companies, where creativity is the forte rather than a set of process improvements pushing six sigma/lean to the back burner. Image all the E~comm sites mindless blowing cash in the name of market capitalization/valuation content, having to do six sigma and prove themselves!!

  8. Cyril Danthi says:

    Well after reading the article that thought that came to mind are organizations have benefited from applying Lean. What would happen if organisations stop doing basic tools for Quality Improvement. Organizations may deffer in using the different type of methodology based on the philosophy. One of the major reason for unsuccessful application and deployment of Six Sigma & Lean is the Philosophy, Purpose, Process for deployment and support for People to benefit. As per the WEF survey, one of the major skill that organizations needs is Critical Thinking & Problem Solving.

  9. Todd McCann "Lean Thinker" says:

    Great insight.
    I just think it’s so funny that nouns and verbs have replaced true intent of the simple word improvement. Here’s a thought, I’m old…Six Sigma thinking was borne at Motorola, but there are street vendors today who are willing to grab your hard earned cash so you can get a certificate of completion with a number on it! Shame on them. I had a recruiter ask me why I had no lean cerification. I asked the recruiter do you know what it takes to become lean bronze certified? No he said. $400 dollars, reading three books and taking a test. He had no idea. Where is the governance? For six sigma is it the genesis of the practice, Motorola?

    Lest we forget the simple word Improvement, is it not the true intent of all these LSS OPEX ETC ETC nouns is to create one specific focal point, A culture with a set of norms values and beliefs that lives improvement? Never to use the word program nor initiative to describe what it’s doing to make profit and customers happy. My belief, great companies have great employees (Dah) who do not even think to exit, and love what they do every day, but why? IMHO Leadership is the key. Yes we need profit, yes we need customers who are willing to come back again and again, but without a great group of motivated and inspired people to make those 2 things spring to life, close your doors.
    Just my opinion. I have seen enough companies in my Life to know whether they will or will not survive the longer term.
    Respectfully,
    Todd McCann

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