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Lean Six Sigma and Projects

Lean Six SigmaWhen faced with a nail a screwdriver is useless.

When the job is to drive home the screw a hammer is a fast, if crude abuse of a tool whose solution shifts consequences into the future. The consequences won’t always matter.

In Admonition of The Lean Band Wagon

The history of project management methods and tools is one of gradual absorption of useful ideas from adjacent disciplines.

Six Sigma process improvement is a great example. My standard description is that Six Sigma is a magpie.

Why a magpie?

Six Sigma (6σ ) comes in two parts; a guide giving the procedure by which we work. This guidance comes in just 5 letters (Define, Measure, Analysis, Improve, Control). Part two is a collection of shiny objects – just like those shiny objects magpies seem to like so much –  that is 5,000 pages of tool descriptions. Ideas such as run charts, SIPOC and flow-charts  – collected from where-ever the glint of something useful caught a 6σ person’s eye.

6σ is a process improvement method; at least that is where it started. Projects are, by and large either process improvement (all those ICT projects from 1960 to 2000) or process creation (all the ICT projects from 2000 to date and every engineering project from 2000BCE to date).

If your tool kit is 6σ then your results are to reduce the variation in process performance. Pretty rapidly the additional challenge thrown your way will be to also shift the mean (x-bar) to a lower value; reduce the overall time/ cost/ waste – lean – as well as reduce variation – 6σ.

When the world of Lean opens,  it exposes a new, rich field of shiny objects for the 6σ person to add to their 5,000 pages of ‘toys’.


But let’s also analyse the screwdriver versus the hammer analogy.

Lean in Projects is A Double Edged Sword

Now, before you get me all wrong I’m all in favour of a hammer to drive a screw IF YOU UNDERSTAND THE CONSEQUENCES. Likewise I value the Lean Six Sigma tool-kit.

My council to you is to be open-eyed about the contradiction between most projects and Lean (with or without 6σ).

To some degree every project is a voyage into an uncertain world. After a project the world will be different. The need before the project was likely a gradual build-up of opportunity and threat factors that reached some hysteresis and took our resolve over a tipping point.

In the resulting unprecedented situation our ability to predict is reduced; perhaps even eliminated.

Flexibility, adaptability, nimbleness, agility are significant enablers of success in a project, exploratory territory. These all need richness, ‘requisite variety’ (see WR Ashby) to provide interactions and enable solution determination from decision-making under uncertainty.

In fact decision-making, particularly under uncertainty, requires that most unlean characteristic – emotion!

Lean’s central purpose is the removal of waste. Every ounce of waste removed decreases flexibility by a pound. At the absolute limits of optimisation every gram of waste removal decreases creativity by a tonne.

Long ago I was taught Jackson’s rules of optimisation. Rule one of [Program] Optimization: Don’t do it. The Second Rule of Optimization (for experts only!): Don’t do it yet.” — Michael A. Jackson

In Praise of Waste

I’m not in favour of waste but I am in favour of opportunity and these two live at opposite ends of a shared spectrum.

If lean creates perfect repetition then there will never be variety and all improvement is a variance from the status quo. Ultimately perfection in lean kills progress. Great (maybe) in production operations but to be treated carefully in project contexts.

In uncertain environments unforeseen interactions lead to new discovery. The phenomenon is called emergence. It’s the engine of evolution. A perfectly lean world is efficient and stagnant. Every interaction known and optimised.

Ultimate optimisation is elimination.

Lean in Operations But Emergence for Projects

A project’s management processes should (perhaps) arguably be lean. A project’s design phase within the product development processes should be close to chaotic. Chaordic is a phrase some use. It is ‘wasteful’ but it is also the territory of breakthrough.

The average venture capitalist looks for investments with a 1,000% potential return and has the expectation that 80% will fail. One then pays back the failures and one makes the VC’er much richer to begin the cycle again.

So it is with the successful project manager.

DO NOT seek to make your development teams lean. Recognise lean is the enemy. It is impossible to be efficient when you have not achieved effectiveness.

Projects create effect, deliver that to operations where a new regime employs Lean Six Sigma to conduct CPI (Continuous Process Improvement).

It is in operations that the drive for efficient repetition is a must have.

Here is where ROCE (Return on Capital Employed) is maximised in a wholly different way to the Venture Capitalist’s maximisation of ROCE. Of course you should use and abuse all the Lean 6σ tools situationally for best advantage.

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About Simon Harris

Simon Harris
Simon is a project management veteran with 30 plus years experience of projects gained mostly within large-scale blue-chip environments across finance and banking IT, defence engineering, oil & gas, government and not for profit. Simon has set-up and run PMO for several programmes and organisations. Simon’s passion is to improve the state-of-the-art in organisation’s ability to cope with change. His thinking rests on the observation that organisations have to balance Run the Organisation with Change the Organisation. Project management is necessary but insufficient. Organisations need a broader and deeper response to change whether discretionary, gradual, irresistible or sudden. Simon welcomes Linkedin connections and you can find out more about Simon from his own website - Logical Model

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