Misinterpretations of Lean vs. Six Sigma

I had a conversation recently with a very smart and talented consultant.  He is a Lean Six Sigma consultant.  He knows the tools of lean and Six Sigma backwards and forwards.  The consultant also talked ab out the importance of having leadership buy-in from the top all the way to the bottom to be the most successful at both lean and Six Sigma. Overall, he was a very astute about both lean and Six Sigma.

During his presentation, there were two misinterpretations that stuck out to me.  I found them to be quite a difference in thinking.

1. Six Sigma is focused on the customer while lean is focused on elimination of waste.  I find this to be a significant difference in thinking.  Lean’s #1 tenant is to focus on the Customer first and foremost.  By focusing on the customer, an organization can learn what the customer finds of value.  What is not of value can be considered non-value added (waste) or non-value added but necessary (government regulations).  These should be eliminated or at least reduced.

Most people focus on the elimination of waste and miss why eliminating the waste is important.  It is because it is of no value to the customer which is the main focus.  Once the waste is eliminated it frees up resources allowing an organization to grow the business without having to invest in more resources.

Thanks to Mark Graban. This picture was borrowed from the Lean Blog.

2. Six Sigma focuses on making the product right while lean just focuses on making the product.  The consultant mentioned the 7 types of wastes.  One of the 7 types of wastes is directly solely at making the product right.  That is the waste of defects. Not to mention the concept of building in quality (jidoka).

As mentioned above, when a company focuses on the customer first it will recognize quality is very important.  This is why building in quality is one of the two pillars of the Toyota Production System.

After the presentation, the consultant and I had a very good discussion on these points.  I admitted to being raised in the Lean House.  I wasn’t arguing that Six Sigma was wrong or companies can’t benefit from it.  Just that I have a different perspective of lean on the points mentioned above.

Posted on April 26, 2012, in Customer Focus, Growth, Quality, Tools, Waste and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Matt,

    Very interesting. It seems that there are as many opinions on the differences between Lean Manufacturing & Six Sigma as there are people – at least those who know enough to have an opinion. I don’t profess to be an expert on the differences but find much benefit from the Toyota Lean approach as well as the Six Sigma approach. What I find interesting is that the more I look at the two, the more similarities I find. One example is the DMAIC process itself which has its roots in the Deming PDCA cycle. This post discusses the similarities:


    Thanks for sharing.

    • Christian, you are right. There seems to be a ton of opinions on lean and Six Sigma. You mentioned one large similarity that I did a lot of work around also. At one company that was learning lean but was very strong in Six Sigma, I had to translate PDCA to DMAIC. It helped the organization see that we weren’t piling on more things. We were enhancing what they already had.

  2. I’d say that consultant has his terms mixed up. What about six sigma is customer focused other than defect reduction (the reason it was utilized)? What about six sigma ensures the right product is made? Personally, I believe Lean is much more encompassing. If you go back to your last post about Lean as a problem solving methodology then you focus on your opportunities and apply the right countermeasures. For me six sigma in not a problem solving methodology but rather a way to solve a problem.
    Another good post.

  3. Matt, I always struggled with people making the distinction, aren’t they so intertwined that it is foolish to try and distinguish between them?


  4. My two cents… Six Sigma is a Problem Solving approach that has grown into a “kind” of business system. My point is DMAIC, DMADV & DFSS are all approaches to solve different types of problems…DMAIC-for known problems, DMADV-for designing new processes/machines, DFSS-for new machines or products.
    “kind” of business system – the Six Sigma Approach (in my opinion) works well in businesses that tend to have highly measured outputs. In a lot respects it should be called the Motorola or GE Way.

    Contrast this with LEAN or Lean Thinking or a Lean Business System…
    Most Lean ventures were never implemented with a cohesive Problem Solving Approach. As of late, more people understand the A3/PDCA cycle and the uses for problem solving within a Lean Business System. When the A3/PDCA is not being utilized or married to the Lean Business System another problem solving approach is required…thus enters a Six Sigma approach, Shanin Red X or some other problem solving approach…as many know this is where Lean Six Sigma comes from, as do the misperceptions of what Lean or Lean Six Sigma or Six Sigma are…

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