Horrible Misinformation about Lean from Minitab


Hat tip to Kevin Meyer for sending me a link to this ridiculous post from the website of Minitab, the maker of statistical software that's used by Six Sigma belts: Lean, Six Sigma, or Lean Six Sigma? I'm sure my comment there won't be published, so I'll share my thoughts here.

There's often a lot of misinformation spread about Lean, often by those who got just a smidge of Lean training during their green belt or black belt classes. It's one thing to have a different opinion… it's another to be factually wrong.

The blog post starts off on an odd note:

Some companies call their quality programs “process excellence initiatives” or “continuous quality improvement,” while others refer to their programs as “Lean” or “Lean Six Sigma.” Others subtract ‘lean' from their program titles altogether, and refer to their efforts simply as “Six Sigma.”

Lean and Six Sigma are distinct, yet related, methodologies. The terms, along with Lean Sigma or Lean Six Sigma, are not just synonyms or alternate terms for the same thing. Lean is essentially the Toyota Production System. Six Sigma comes from Motorola and G.E. There are some shared roots in Total Quality Management, perhaps. They can be used together, but Lean and Six Sigma are not the same.

Toyota doesn't use formal Six Sigma, as they primarily use just the seven basic Q.C. tools, without the formality of belts (I've heard this first-hand from Toyota people at their plants).

The post asks:

Are there really any differences, or is all of this terminology just jargon for ‘process improvement?'

Yes, there are differences. Not, it's not just interchangeable jargon.

The short answer to that question is that it all means process improvement, but there are some key differences to be aware of.

No, it's not just different terms for P.I. Yes, there are some key differences. For one, I think Lean is more of a holistic management approach, as opposed to an improvement methodology (Six Sigma). Lean is more inclusive and allows everybody to participate in improvement, while Six Sigma is expert-driven (the belts). Lean uses what many would use “common sense” improvements (although that's a loaded term), while Six Sigma uses more complex methods that generally wouldn't be included in Lean (but could be used in a Lean culture).

The post is then actually OK for a bit:

Both methodologies seek to make processes and the business as a whole more efficient by removing defects or waste through focused efforts that likely involve a project-based approach.

I can't disagree with that. The statement is more correct than the commonly-used falsehood of “Lean is for efficiency and Six Sigma is for quality.”

Then, it gets weird again.

However, Lean refers to activities that are meant to be quick and efficient while Six Sigma projects are meant to be thorough and permanent.

Sigh, Lean improvements are not thorough or permanent? That's wrong.

 Some Lean tools, such as  SIPOC  and  FMEA, have become strongly tied to specific DMAIC phases.

SIPOC is primarily a Six Sigma thing. I wouldn't call that a “Lean tool.” FMEA is a method that predates both Lean and Six Sigma and I've certainly used FMEA in the context of Lean work.

Regardless of what you call your quality improvement endeavor, keep an open mind and rely on data analysis to drive improvements. Personally, I think Lean and Six Sigma are like peanut butter and jelly, or even  Laverne and Shirley. You certainly can't have one without the other!

I agree we should have an open mind and that there's a place for the complex statistical analysis of Six Sigma.

You certainly CAN have one (Lean) without the other (Six Sigma).

As I've said before — I'm not opposed to Six Sigma. I'm opposed to Six Sigma people spreading misinformation about Lean. Minitab should stick to blog posts about statistics or Six Sigma.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Perhaps I have an unusual view but Six Sigma does not require the use of difficult math. On the contrary we have a large toolbox and should pick the tool that is most appropriate. It also does not exclude participation but does have leaders who it is assumed will assist in picking the best (simple) tool that will get the job done.

    In fact before using statistical tools (nuclear weapons) you should build knowledge and infrastructure. Doing this often solves the issue without bringing out the nuclear option.

    Lean is an assortment of tools that the black belt should know and understand so that the appropriate tool can be used.

    • You’re right, a histogram might be considered a Six Sigma tool and it’s not complicated.

      Viewing Lean as simply a tool for the improvement “toolbox” is a very self-limiting view. It’s sad and unfortunate that anybody would view Lean as just a bunch of tools.

      It seems the typical “Lean Sigma” training spreads the idea that Lean is tools?

  2. Mark, I like the overall thrust of your post. Nothing frustrates me more than those who lump all improvement techniques into a single bucket and because they do SOMETHING, tout themselves as doing it all (i.e. Lean, Lean/Six Sigma, Process Excellence, Operational Excellence, etc.). Most, IMHO, do not have the WILL to do ANY methodology with the rigor it deserves. And, therefore, settle for the “Lite” edition. When they don’t get Class A results for their Class D implementation efforts, they blame the methodology. Again, a poor workman blames his/her tools.

    Also, I disagree a little with your characterization of SIPOC as mostly a Six Sigma things. I have used it for over 20 years in TQM, Six Sigma, Lean, and strategic planning efforts. It is one of my favorite tools and lays a wonderful foundation for developing critical to quality (CTQ) understanding as well as service level agreements between suppliers, performers, customers, and process stakeholders.

  3. Mark, thanks for sharing this. Minitab did post your comment on the blog page, and I added to it. Let’s hope their readership is either small or better informed than the author because anyone who hasn’t learned lean from a decent coach would clearly get the wrong idea. The comparisons are poorly constructed and written. Saying one is about “quick and efficient” and the other about “thorough and permanent” is like saying one tastes like oranges and the other is for tall people. I agree, shame on Minitab.

    I’ve been reading George Koenisaeker’s book “Leading the Lean Enterprise Transformation” recently in which he mentions in chapter 1 his conversations with Toyota about this question of their use of Six Sigma and the response was along the lines of “of course we use such quality tools” so it’s more assumed in their approach but also separate from the TPS.

  4. I read this article a few days ago and was frustrated myself when I read it. I find I get some good tips from the Minitab Newsletter but this article was disappointing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, helps me know I am not out to lunch!

  5. Hi Mark, hope you’re well.

    I do agree the Minitab article is flawed… but it seems the author of the article genuinely attempted to get your help in her follow-up comments.

    Perhaps this is a good opportunity for you to practice the respect for people side of lean we so often preach and take her up on her offer and share some of your wisdom with the Minitab community.

    In the end, I’m not sure calling them out on your blog and in their comments helps the overall situation. Lord knows there is enough negativity in the world as it is.

    Just my two cents… for what it’s worth.

    • Hey Ron – I don’t think it’s disrespectful to call out a company when they are spouting things that are incorrect on their blog. Spreading misinformation about Lean isn’t respectful to their customers/readers.

      The way I see it, Minitab is probably putting the blogger in a bad position, if she’s not really that experienced with Lean or Six Sigma (respect for people?).

      Lord knows there’s enough factually incorrect stuff spread about Lean in the world…

  6. It’s interesting how much effort and resources are used to further the culture of tools as a solution as most literature / websites / consultant do. More specifically that MY tools are the solution. This debate does little to further any real dialogue on or progress towards continuous improvement; ironically, it generates a lot of waste. Articles like the one on Minitab’s website used to bother me – now they’re easy to ignore as they provide no value (to me).

    Anyone that seeks a culture of continuous improvement should beware of any claim that (insert tools/method) is THE way. Would it be better to surround yourself with wisdom from experienced and trusted leaders who are humble enough and respect you enough not to assume they have THE answer?

    • I don’t see this as a debate about lean or six sigma. There’s room for both.

      Chemistry and biology are both valid sciences. There’s even “biochem,” right? But it a biologist was saying things that were factually incorrect about chemistry, wouldn’t a chemist try to correct the record??

  7. Mark, thank you for doing this. Yes I do support both but having practiced & lived Lean. I get frustrated when it’s assumed that the few pages about Lean in 6 Sigma training manuals is all what Lean is about. Lean runs deeper than memorizing few principles and sentences for a certification test. Lean is practiced, lived and ingrained. Lean is a culture, 6 Sigma is not. Respect for people is one of the pillars of Lean yet 6 Sigma as amazing as it is, doesn’t talk about people. Lean 6 Sigma is a ying-yang used in balance, not one over powering the other.

  8. Re: Ryan’s comment, “It’s interesting how much effort and resources are used to further the culture of tools as a solution as most literature / websites / consultant do.”

    That’s because management tools have always sold far better than management systems. The market wants tools; more tools, new tools, re-issued tools – any tool to help get out of today’s jam. It’s another way of saying: “I don’t want to think. Just give me the answer!” And lots of people are willing to oblige.

    Some, though, want a new system. They realize that everything needs to be improved, much more than what any tool (or tools) can do.

    • Tomorrow’s blog post will be my notes from Art Byrne’s talk at the AME spring conference.

      One great line:

      “I’ve always done [Lean] as CEO and it’s always been a business strategy. Why do people think this is a bunch of tools? That never occurred to me that Lean is tools.”

      Art is lucky that he had good mentors and teachers, not just a 4-hour green belt module on Lean tools!

  9. Thanks for your thoughts. In my organization we don’t get hung up in branding our program as Lean or Six Sigma. We simply use proven tools from both methods to reduce variation and eliminate waste. It’s not a Lean, or Six Sigma culture, it’s simply our culture. It’s how we work!

    • Thanks for sharing this, Mark. I was recently introduced to your blog, and as a self-proclaimed Lean novice I am excited to read through your other materials.
      I agree with David’s post…there are times when either can be useful, and in the end the organization’s culture will dictate which technique will be most useful, or whether strategies from both will make an impact. However, Mark makes a great point when he says that Lean is more inclusive and allows everybody to participate in improvement, while Six Sigma is expert-driven. I think it drives straight to the heart of the quality improvement issue in healthcare, and the relative ineffectiveness of creating a silo out of the QI Department. Quality is personal. It’s not a project or a expert division, although both can be helpful as facilitators. Lean works separately from Six Sigma because its goals are consistent with empowering all levels of an organization to feel driven enough to achieve excellence.

  10. Great article and yes it’s interesting to hear precisely these types of assertions about Lean and Six Sigma (or my favorite twist of the tongue just to make it trendy ‘Lean Sigma’). I’ve heard many perspectives ranging from Black Belts to C-Suites. You couldn’t have said it better. Lean is permanent and ongoing if approached correctly. If I were to make quick distinctions between the two I would say Lean is about creating a culture in which leaders empower front line staff to create value and eliminate waste through continuous “process improvement”; Six Sigma…more about “problem solving” using data to reduce variation. Personally, I feel Lean is and will continue to be the answer. Applying statistical process control to help us solve difficult problems is always a bonus. But, six sigma and Lean are different, with overlap of course. But I have yet to see a purely Six Sigma approach produce the same results I’ve seen with a basic Lean approach; the old trusty TPS.

  11. I’m a student & lss black belt ..doing lean six sigma research… in my study i will refer lean six sigma as six sigma evolution (refer lean as tools)… and nothing do with Lean Manufacturing/Enterprise..any thought after 2 years

    • Yes, “Lean Six Sigma” is basically just Six Sigma with a few Lean tools tacked on. That’s probably accurate.

      It would be better if people embraced a fuller set of Lean Enterprise principles and not just Lean tools.


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