About Lean Six Sigma and Sustainability

Lean Six Sigma

As human beings, we tend to frame the world’s history within our own lifetime.  Just as it is unimaginable for a 20-year old to conceive of a world where vinyl records and Princess phones are cutting edge, there are those who think that Six Sigma was invented by GE just a few years ago.  In reality, some fine folks at Motorola came up with the concept of ”six sigma quality levels” in the early 1990′s; leaders in the quality field (Dr. Mikel Harry, for instance) merged that concept with current quality improvement methodologies, such as those taught by Deming, Juran, and Crosby.  General Electric was the first major corporation to embrace this newest approach to business process excellence.

Today, there is a great deal of debate over just how Six Sigma, Lean, and Total Quality Management all fit together.  Depending upon which “expert” defines the terms, one term tends to be the master while the others are dismissed as subsets or lesser tools.  It is a matter of  semantics – an academic debate.  No tool does it all nor is one superior to all others.  Tools are just that: tools.  As long as you use them with careful thought and knowledge, you’ll get to where you wanted to be.  Let’s spend our time doing – not debating – guided by these simple definitions:

Six Sigma is (any or all of these):

  • Striving for near perfection
  • A disciplined methodology: such as DMAIC
  • Measured by < 3.4 defects per million opportunities (DPMO)
  • Measure-based / Data-drivenIncremental improvement over time
  • The difference between “Good” and “Great”

Lean is:

  • The Reduction of Wasted Time, Space, Motion, and/or Resources (both natural and human-made)

Ergo, Lean Six Sigma is:

A Rigorous Problem Solving Process + Statistical Data Analysis Tools + Lean Efficiency Tools
all within the Context of a Quality Managmement System


Sustainability is a word that has found its way into everyday language, along with “green”.  But what is it?  The debate over what it is and how it should be measured continues.  There are those who offer certification in sustainability and those who argue that it can’t be certified.

Wikipedia defines Sustainability as “the capacity to endure”. In other words, do you use the same or less than you produce of whatever it is that you need to survive?  It can be calories that you consume vs. what you burn.  It can be money that you earn vs. what you spend. Sleep that you get vs. sleep that you need… Is your lifestyle sustainable?

In the context of business, sustainability is a measure of whether the negative impact of your business on the environment is “worth it” compared to the value of the goods and services you produce.  Sure, you could close your doors and reduce your ecological footprint to zero, but that has to be weighed against:

  • What will be the cascading effect of the loss of your business on your community?
  • Will customers need or be able to obtain these goods and services elsewhere?
  • Will the new providers have an even greater impact on the environment than your process has?

The objective is less to measure your impact than to be aware of it and strive to reduce it in every way possible.  This is not a simple concept by any means and to think of it as such is pure folly.  That is not an excuse, however, to dismiss it.

Whatever your business is – whatever you produce and sell – you impact the environment by being in business.  Even if your business is small and “clean”, you can still improve.  You might be able to reduce your “footprint” by powering down computer equipment, by allowing and helping your employees to work from home, by offering eLearning instead of face-to-face training, by insulating your warehouse, or turning off the water fountain in the lobby.  Lean production methods will help you reduce waste, which will reduce your impact on the environment as well as improving your bottom line.

You can learn more about Sustainability by starting with these links and going from there:

  • Wikipedia entry, which discusses the three pillars of sustainability and much of the debate surrounding the concept itself.
  • IFC (World Bank Group) Policy on Social and Environmental Sustainability, downloadable in multiple languages.
  • ISO 20121, Sustainable Event standard (will be applied to the 2012 Olympics, but why not apply it to your business training and conference events, too?)
  • Albany Analytical’s Leave a Legacy…Not a Footprint, where you will find footprint calculations and links to many green-focused sites.
  • If you are building or renovating a facility, adhere to the US Green Building Council’s LEED practices.  Hire LEED certified architects, interior designers, landscape architects.  There are even realtors who are LEED certified!

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