Lean or Six Sigma

Lean Management (Lean) and Six Sigma are getting more and more popular. These methods were developed in the industry, but have proven to be very powerful for service organizations as well. They use the approaches and instruments to systematically work on process and quality improvement. With the large challenges many service organizations face (cost cuts, quality issues, increasing customer demands) these improvements are more than welcome. But which method is best?

Like always, this depends… Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a look at the methods from an ‘instrumental’ point of view:

An important strength of Lean is the fast implementation. Lean aims at standard solutions to standard problems. Lean is focused at customer value and waste. By applying Lean best practices organizations can quickly streamline their processes and remove waste. Quick results can work as a catalyst for further Lean implementations and Lean successes.
But what if your problems are no standard problems? In this case Lean won’t (completely) resolve them. You might need ‘something stronger’.

Six Sigma is a method for analyzing and resolving complex problems. Based on measured facts, a dedicated improvement team will use powerful (statistical) techniques to really understand the specific problems. Symptoms, problems and causes are identified, enabling the team to fundamentally improve processes.
But Six Sigma comes at a cost. Setting up the program and training the team members is expensive. Also, the method achieves improvements by resolving ‘problem by problem’. With a typical Six Sigma project taking about three months, it will take a lot of time (and costs) to come to a big impact for the organization.

So both Lean and Six Sigma are powerful. It all depends on the problems you have and the fit of the techniques with your organization. If we look at service organizations, we usually see lots of opportunities for improvement. They all face challenges like customer focus, quality and processing speed. Lean offers easy-to-use, common sense techniques to tackle these issues. Six Sigma is powerful as well, but for many organizations a bridge too far. The complexity of the method could draw away the attention from what it should be all about: improving processes and achieving results. Many organizations that experimented with Lean and Sigma also came to this conclusion: initially remove waste and streamline processes with Lean; secondly use Six Sigma for specific complex problems.

Besides the instrumental viewpoint on Lean (and Six Sigma) there is also a cultural viewpoint that might be even more important. Organizations that are successful in systematically improving processes don’t only use the techniques, but they ‘live them’. There is a drive to ‘do the work every day a little bit better’. Lean becomes part of the culture.


An incredibly high percentage of changes introduced in business organizations do not reach their full potential—that is, do not reach full implementation or do not produce the benefits envisioned by their sponsors.
Changes that fail usually do not fail because of technical reasons— something inherently flawed about the change itself. They usually fail because of human reasons—the promoters of the change did not attend to the healthy, real, and predictable reactions of normal people to disturbances in their routines.


These failures create large losses of time, productivity, and morale. They also undercut the legitimate business objectives that the change was meant to engender. For example, one manufacturer attempted to replace several disjointed software systems with one integrated enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Because of poor project management, the user community was insufficiently involved in the planning stages, and the project failed dramatically. Opponents then said, “Told you, we just can’t do an ERP in our business.” In fact, having an ERP was a great idea. The project failed because of poor change management practices, and it took years for the organization to recover and install an ERP successfully.

This human tendency to want consistency—to resist change—is actually healthy, in the balance. Without consistency, life would fall out of control and into chaos. We would be unable to predict people’s behaviors or establish our own routines and positive behavioral patterns. Thank goodness for the steadying force of our own behavioral inertia.

However, this same steadying force can work against us when we try to introduce a change. People tend not to want to deviate from behaviors that work for them.

Why do they not want to change when the need for change is so clear to you? It is precisely because the need for change is not clear to them. It is often said that people don’t resist change so much as they resist being changed. So your job is clear: in a nutshell, you have to explain why the affected people should want to change. You have to convey the same understanding and enthusiasm that you and your team have.

You have to cultivate readiness, not resistance.