Lean, Six Sigma and Project Management together

I attended my first PMI UK Chapter meeting recently and the topic was Lean Six Sigma and Project Management: A Marriage Made in Heaven?

I’m not sure what marriage had to do with it, but the presenter, Ishai Perelman, PMP®, Master Black Belt and a senior managing consultant with Pcubed, certainly pointed out the links between the approaches. I did my Six Sigma training a long time ago, but it did all start to come back as Ishai talked.

“Value engineering is a holistic approach to do strategic transformations of big organisations,” he said. “You ask customers where they want to be in the future.” Getting to the future state involves:

  • Professional resources;
  • Lean and Six Sigma principles; and
  • A PMO to provide project management structures and governance.

That last point is the bit missing from ‘traditional’ Lean or Six Sigma methodologies.

Lean is a way of reviewing processes to eliminate non-value adding activities. Six Sigma reduces the variability in the process to provide a better quality outcome. Used together, Ishai explained, you arrive at a better quality result faster. First you take out the non-value adding tasks. You’re left with the things you have to do, but probably still an inefficient process. Then you use Six Sigma to improve the efficiency. The end process is now faster, cheaper, better quality and with reduced risk. “Every time you do something, there’s an opportunity to make it wrong,” he said. “If you do less, there’s less opportunity to make it wrong.”

Ishai explained that process improvement projects have certain pitfalls – and they are pretty much the same as other types of project. You’ll come unstuck if you:

  • Don’t have a committed team or sponsor
  • Have a target of arbitrary headcount reduction.
  • Have poor input from the wrong people.
  • Spend too much time doing analysis and not enough time delivering change.
  • Send out mixed messages and have a poor communications plan.
  • Expect there to be a silver bullet which will solve all your problems.
  • Don’t plan.

I thought his discussion of why you shouldn’t aim to cut heads was interesting. He suggested that you should move people around instead of firing them. The stronger manager should have more people, and the weaker manager gets less. Optimising the process often means moving people around, not getting rid of them altogether.

During the explanation of the steps involved in Six Sigma I switched off a bit as my feet were really hurting from wearing ridiculous shoes all day and then having to walk from a tube station that was further away from the venue than I was expecting.

I had never questioned the role that project management plays in a Six Sigma process improvement project before. I was a project management and PRINCE2® trained before I started learning the Six Sigma approach. When I ran Six Sigma projects, I did them as projects, albeit under the banner of Six Sigma. It never occurred to me that other Six Sigma people may be struggling with the implementation of change as the method really doesn’t cover much on how you actually get things done. Instead, it helps you analyse the problem. I remember spending hours learning how to use Minitab and getting very excited when I got the statistical results from my tests. Useful in their own way, but not very useful in the ‘doing’ of making improvements.

Ishai explained that Six Sigma practitioners are not often that good at the ‘doing’. “It’s difficult for them to transfer the idea into implementation,” he said. Lean and Six Sigma don’t have the answers for the issue of managing complexity. Projects managed with those toolkits tend to be done in PowerPoint or maybe on spreadsheets, so adding a layer of professional project management into the equation gives the change an extra chance at being successful. It also adds a governance framework which is missing in the other approaches. Basically, a good grounding in project management will help you if you want to adopt standard ways of doing process improvement.

I’m sure you would have worked that one out yourself! The way Ishai told it, it seems as if people who do process improvement and use Lean and Six Sigma haven’t worked it out yet, which is a pity. Both techniques are about ending up with a better product, and good project management would underpin all that, and make the end result even better.