Make that Lean and Mean!

It Takes a Leader

When you hear the words “lean manufacturing”, what springs to mind?

That you’re getting an inferior product because cost reduction efforts take precedence over customer satisfaction?

That a manufacturing facility is ill-equipped or else has obsolete machinery that no longer meet today’s standards?

That the product you just purchased came out of a plant that was stripped down to the bare minimum owing to rising prices in raw materials and expensive supplier contracts?

Lean manufacturing from the perspective of Six Sigma does not equate with inferior products. If lean manufacturing processes are managed by good leaders, a company can still delight its customers by exceeding their expectations of the product while at the same time keeping costs down.

By adopting the Six Sigma approach to lean manufacturing, the product comes out a winner. But it takes a leader to make that happen.

Here’s a Case…

This announcement was published in a Canadian newspaper recently. It may sound like your usual product recall, but pay special attention to the second sentence in the first paragraph:

“It has been brought to our attention that our Mother’s Day Gift with Purchase Tote Bag has been associated with causing minor skin irritations in a few cases. Initial testing has revealed elements found in the manufacturing of these bags may cause irritations.”

“The health and safety of our customers and staff are the highest priority…”

While it is commendable that the company announcement mentions the “health and safety” of their customers, note the second sentence that speaks of elements in the manufacturing process that caused skin irritations. That should raise the eyebrows of manufacturing experts who have been drilled in Six Sigma practices.  More specifically, they will question if those elements could have been easily avoided if Six Sigma was employed. This is where the first phase of DMAIC – define – looms large in the horizon. What was missing in the definition before these bags were sent to production?

A Leader’s Grasp of DMAIC in Lean Manufacturing

What is DMAIC?

DMAIC, as any Six Sigma leader will know, is the acronym for define,measureanalyzeimprove and control. Under each segment are certain components that must be considered before final decisions are taken.

Briefly therefore, leadership in lean manufacturing means that leaders:

  • define – they review the project in its entirety (scope, parameters, a charter if any), decide what financial benefits to aim for and select team members who will blend company objectives and customer needs;
  • measure – they compare key inputs and expected outputs, develop operational values and plan data collection
  • analyze – they evaluate potential causes of present and future problems, reduce these causes and estimate the impact
  • improve – they identify key processes, experiment with pilot solutions, come up with a list of realistic solutions and optimize these solutions
  • control – they develop standard operating procedures, training procedures and identify opportunities.


Leaders who promote lean manufacturing principles also recognize that DMAIC should be viewed as a toolkit and while it may involve time and expense, it serves a very useful purpose when the problem is complex and the solution risks are high (Michael George et al, Lean Six Sigma Pocket Toolbook, McGraw Hill, 2005).

The Magic Number: 3.4 Defects out of 1 Million Opportunities for Defects

Assuming that DMAIC is properly applied to achieve desired outcomes, the next phase for any leader who is working towards a lean manufacturing situation is to exert every possible effort to adhere to the Six Sigma standard of 3.4 defects. This, however, was the old definition that was common to manufacturing managers. What is more appropriate is that because Six Sigma is a disciplined and systematic data-driven approach to sustain continuous improvements on the factory floor, it can generate profitability for the company’s bottom line. Six Sigma maintains that if a leader can measure the number of defects in any given process, he could very well be capable of figuring out how to eliminate them, the ultimate goal being to have ZERO defects.
If we bear these principles in mind, we are not looking at a bare-bones product, but rather an outstanding product that will help reinforce customer loyalty and bring repeat business.

All Eyes on the Factory

Leadership in lean manufacturing also means that an astute leader is aware that most companies have a good factory and a fix-it factory. He uses this knowledge to build on the strengths of the production unit and remedy its weaknesses.

Just what exactly is a good factory and a fix-it factory?  Jay Arthur explains:

  • good factory – this is the factory that creates and delivers a company’s products or services.  For instance, in a printing company, the good factory is the press room; in a hospital it is the emergency room and in an automotive concern, it is the assembly line;
  • fix-it factory – this is the hidden factory, according to Jay Arthur. He says that it cleans up the mistakes and delays that occur in the main factory.


Effective leadership in lean manufacturing means a keen awareness of the dynamics inherent on the factory floor where the focus is not only on the end product or service, but also on the people, machines, and activities (processes, supplier relationships, transport and delivery) that make up the entire manufacturing arm of a business.

Peter Peterka is the President of 6Sigma.us. For information on Six Sigma trainingSix Sigma Certification or Master Black Belt programs contact Peter Peterka.

Author: Peter Peterka Google

Published 09/3/2008

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