Lean or Six Sigma?


In his article “Putting Six Sigma in Perspective”[1], Michael Hammer uses the mantra:”Use the right tool for the right problem”. An excerpt that summarizes what he means (he uses the term “process redesign”, which in this context is synonymous with Lean):

“Process redesign leads to a new mode of operation rather than correct execution of the existing mode; it has stretch rather than incremental goals; it centers on creative invention rather than structured problem-solving; it entails a small number of large projects rather than a large number of small ones; and perhaps most significantly it leads to major rather than minor organizational change.

“Six Sigma offers “small bore solutions to small bore problems.This is not said pejoratively.Most problems that enterprises encounter are small bore, and having a tool that will consistently find the right solution for them is a significant achievement.

“But not all business problems are small bore.Some cannot be traced to a narrow and well-defined defect.These problems result from fundamental flaws in the overall design of a process, not from minor flaws in its execution.Six Sigma can isolate and solve problems within an existing framework, but it is powerless to create an alternative framework.”

We sometimes use the chart below as a discussion guide while helping clients choose the right tool.


Six Sigma



Specific, localized solution

Pervasive cultural transformation


Narrowly defined problem

(“final test pass variation”)


(“call-to-cash”, “time-to-market”)


Hard to diagnose, easy to fix

Easy to define, hard to achieve and sustain


Within existing framework

Challenges current thinking


“What” and “How”

“Why” and “Why not”


DMAIC thought process

PDCA scientific method


Operations or Quality

Senior leadership


“Experts”-Black belts, IEs

Champions inspiring “everyone, everyday”


One time improvement

“Kaikaku”- rapid, radical change followed by

“Kaizen”- continuous, incremental improvement

[1] “Putting Six Sigma in Perspective”, by Michael Hammer.First published October 2001 in Quality Magazine.Full article available at www.hammerandco.com .

Please check out my main blog page at www.leanblog.orgThe RSS feed content you are reading is copyrighted by the author, Mark Graban.

, , , on the author's copyright.

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleChicago Auto Supplier Lean Example In The News
Next articleFlexibility vs. Simplicity
Mark Edmondson
Mark Edmondson is passionate about achieving rapid, breakthrough results during a company’s lean transformation. With 30 years of front-line experience while working with over 80 companies, Mr. Edmondson developed a philosophy of helping companies create a culture that sustains operational excellence through low cost yet transformative changes.


  1. That’s a nice chart, but my concern would be showing this to people who do not understand lean. (I’m coming at this from a project/software development perspective). While the chart may be realistic in some respects, the chart makes the cost of lean look immense and someone predisposed to the folly of cost optimization will gravitate toward 6 sigma.

    First off, six sigma is a great tool when used pragmatically and based upon need. However, six sigma also allows novices and outside people feel like they can communicate with project at some deeper level. Here is where it always breaks down.

    Six Sigma often leads to “standardized metrics” that all projects must follow. Or, a novice manager steps in asking for metrics that take time, but offer no real benefit to the project.

    Taken further in a standardized method on software you always see two problems emerge – (1) cost (sub)optimization which always kills throughput and (2) comparing numbers of unrelated projects which means you are often times fooling yourself into thinking the numbers have meaning when they really don’t.

    I worked for a company that had ISO and Six Sigma for Software – what a joke. They complained they didn’t have enough programming resources and projects were always way beyond their due date. The funny thing is that programmer utilization was ridiculously low. If they just looked up from their minitab spreadsheets…

    As I heard one person in the company say… “Six sigma – implemented by tools for tools.”

  2. I like the chart and don’t read it the same way Steve.

    I’m glad there is a chart that shows the proper place for both approaches.

    We constantly find ourselves promoting Lean for big and sustained changes and 6 Sigma for highly focused specific remedies; generally on the higher-tech end.

    Mostly I think people now realize it doesn’t have to be an either or world.

    Regards to all,


  3. I don’t think “either/or” or compare/contrast analysis is as helpful as understanding the commonality and synergy between lean and six sigma thinking. I’ve seen six sigma black belts err on the side of “We better collect more data” instead of just fixing the problem, as lean people would tend to do, I think.

  4. Those are great points that I certainly agree with. I’ve seen six sigma crowds that see themselves as “a little bit more standardized, injected process” away from continuous improvement. I’ll pass this chart around and see what their reaction is.

    Thank you,


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.