7 Words You Should Never Say in Lean Six Sigma

This article originally ran as part of TMAC's Lean Six Sigma Newsletter.

In the 1970s, the late comedian George Carlin perfected a routine in which he listed seven words that could not be used on broadcast television. Carlin was known for his acerbic wit and ability to skewer bureaucrats, politicians, and anyone else that he found to be arrogant, pompous, or just plain ignorant. He loved words and often found humor in how words were used.

Imagine a variation on this idea: Seven words that should not be used at a company implementing Lean Six Sigma (LSS). Perhaps this could even be expanded to an episode of the show Undercover Boss in which the CEO of a firm dresses as an ordinary employee to observe his company in everyday situations.

What words might cause a CEO to frown, cringe, or perhaps use one of Carlin's original seven words in anger? (Let's assume your CEO is highly knowledgeable in both Lean and Six Sigma. Yes, I know that may be a stretch. Work with me on this!)

Here are seven words or phrases that should cause concern for your CEO--and anyone else interested in a successful LSS program. With apologies to Mr. Carlin:

Layoff - When workers associate a continuous improvement program with layoffs, that program is doomed to fail. Think about it: Would you work to improve processes at your firm if your reward was a pink slip? It is critical to clarify to employees that this is not the policy. One best practice is for the CEO to announce at the beginning of a Lean Six Sigma Program that no one will be laid off as a result of the program. And then to honor that commitment.

Tweaking - Many business processes involve one or more steps in which employees spend time "tweaking things" in order to achieve some outcome. This may be seen as a positive trait but is really a form of tampering. Studies have shown that by eliminating tampering, the level of process variation can be reduced by up to 50%. In other words, just by getting rid of tampering you can make business processes more consistent. How to do this? Four Lean tools that are great for eliminating tampering are: mistake proofing, checklists, visual management, and standard work.

Expediting - Does your company offer expediting as a special service for customers? The problem with this approach is that when one customer order is expedited, then all of the other orders end up waiting. And what if multiple customers want their orders expedited at the same time? Suddenly every job is a "hot job"! Expediting causes a lot of wasteful activity as different expediters fight for resources. In an LSS environment, an overarching goal is to reduce process lead-time for all jobs.

Pushing - Have you ever heard a coworker say, "Let's push this job through"? In an LSS environment, a push occurs anytime one process step produces at a rate faster than the next step. This is true whether the next step is the paying customer or an internal operation. Pushing results in one of the eight wastes of Lean: overproduction. And it manifests itself in the form of another form of waste: inventory. As work-in-process inventory levels go up, process lead times also go up--as do quality problems (another form of waste!) and on-time delivery tends to go down. One key to overcoming a push mentality is to educate employees on systems thinking. Staff members must understand the goal is to optimize the system--as opposed to any one step in the system.

Batching - Batching often occurs due to a focus on operational efficiency. The traditional mindset is to keep the efficiency of a specific operation high by maintaining a load of work at that step. Again, this mentality is often due to a management goal to optimize a single operation or area instead of the overall system. Sometimes batching is done as a matter of convenience. One of my customers liked to batch their incoming customer orders for 2-3 hours at a small call center before handing them off to the next step in the process. The ultimate goal in Lean is one-piece flow, and this is true whether the process is producing lawnmowers or purchase orders.

Product Focus - How could a product focus be bad? The problem here is that if firms only measure the product, then they are waiting too late to catch a problem. A fundamental tenet of both Lean and Six Sigma is that good processes will yield good products. In other words, a process focus is recommended. You must measure the process in addition to the product. In Six Sigma terms, measure the Xs (process measures) and not just the Ys (output measures). The challenge is to find good process measures. Such measures are leading indicators, which can be monitored to assess the health of the process. Put differently, a product focus means you are always monitoring lagging indicators. That's akin to driving a car while only checking the rearview mirror.

End-of-Month Goal - Sometimes seen as an end-of-week or end-of-quarter goal, this mentality is common in firms both large and small. It can result in the "hockey stick effect" where an artificially high amount of work occurs at the end of the month (or week or quarter) to achieve a goal established by management. One of my customers manufactured dog food and always experienced this in the form of quarterly sales goals. They pushed product out to the marketplace at the end of each quarter in order to achieve their quarterly sales goals. But do dogs really eat more food the last few weeks in a quarter? Of course not! Such goals cause organizations to manipulate their processes to satisfy internal goals--and not true customer needs. These manipulations often take the form of overproduction, expediting, rushing, pushing, and other non-Lean behavior.

For more information, contact Russ.Aikman [at] tmac.org


Russ Aikman has more than 30 years of experience in Continuous Improvement. He has worked with both manufacturing and service companies, from smaller enterprises to Fortune 500 firms. His expertise is primarily in implementation of Lean Six Sigma, a structured methodology for Continuous Improvement. Russ is the Program Manager for Lean Six Sigma (LSS) at The University of Texas at Arlington. Prior to his focus on Lean Six Sigma, Russ worked with over a dozen different companies in the development of their ISO 9000 Quality Management System. He also worked with a variety of firms on Lean Enterprise projects including value stream mapping, setup reduction, cellular manufacturing, Kaizen events, and pull systems.