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Making problems visible

Lean Six Sigma is a continuous improvement philosophy for improving an organization’s performance. The method helps to systematically visualize problems in processes and then improve these. Shop floor personnel are engaged at length as part of this effort. After all, they know better than anyone how their work can be done smarter and better. The term ‘six sigma’ comes from statistics and indicates a quantity of errors. Six sigma means there is ‘near perfection’ because the number of defects per million possibilities amounts to no more than just over three. Lean Six Sigma was first introduced at Motorola in the 1980s as a solution for problems with customer satisfaction.Lean Six Sigma professionals work at different levels, which are designated by ‘Belts’: Yellow Belt, Green Belt, Black Belt and Master Black Belt. The Yellow Belt is familiar with the basic principles of Lean Six Sigma. The Green Belt works part time on optimizing the day-to-day activities in his or her work environment using the DMAIC project structure. The Black Belt is the project manager for improvement programs. They know and apply the tools of the DMAIC methodology. The Master Black Belt is an expert in large-scale and multidisciplinary process improvements and trains Black Belts and Green Belts.
Lean six sigma black belt and project manager Oscar Smit is enthusiastic about Lean Six Sigma. He started in 2003 with his Green Belt training, followed by Black Belt training. Since the time, he has been using Lean Six Sigma at Black Belt level. ‘You can actually look at “Lean" and “Six Sigma” as two separate programs’, he explains. ‘They are two different ways of implementing improvements. Six Sigma mainly concerns getting processes under control by minimising all the variables that have an influence on the process. "Lean" is based on creating flow and eliminating waste from the process.’

Oscar also emphasizes the power of employee engagement. ‘We talk a great deal with the people who do the work. Not from a conference room with flip-charts, but where the real action happens. The Japanese call that gemba, or “the place where it happens”. If something goes wrong somewhere, you have to go to the shop floor to see on location what went wrong and why. When you go see in person, it becomes clear what the problem actually is and you can make a start on identifying root causes and work on solutions. You will never manage to do that if you try to do this from behind a desk.’

‘Lean operations management’ or ‘Visual management’ is an important part of Lean, according to Oscar. ‘Many businesses work with lists in Excel. Although the information is in the file, it is not clear at first sight what the status of the process or the area is. "Lean operations management" or “visual management” provides the metrics or KPI’s that are relevant for the area.’A crucial part of Lean operations management is the good organization of a day-to-day communication and escalation model. Oscar: ‘The manager is on the shop floor regularly, for example daily. Managers have to be present in person at the place where the value is added to the product, to allow process owners to report the status of the process or KPI to their managers. If a problem arises that cannot be resolved with the participants in the meeting, the problem can be escalated within hours at a higher level to other functions or even to Management Team level. A problem can be escalated and returned – including direction – to the place where it was raised – within hours. With this escalation model you create visibility of senior managers on the shop floor and a rapid high-frequency feedback loop from and to higher management.’

‘Lean, was never intended as a reorganization instrument.’
Oscar wants to point out that ‘Lean’ is often wrongly associated with ‘redundancies’ and ‘reorganizations’. ‘That was never what “Lean” was intended for. It is intended to enable people to work smarter and better. The result of the method is that an employee requires less time for his or her work and therefore has time left over to take on other tasks. That is the idea behind "Lean". It was never intended as a reorganization instrument. The great thing about Lean Six Sigma is that you get employees involved in the improvement program quite easily. That is because it appeals to our common sense and the changes are clearly logical and sensible, and that is because we invite employees themselves to contribute ideas. They are listened to and are given the chance to finally make the improvements they have long seen to be possible.

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