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Author: Mike Morton

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Demystifying Lean Six Sigma

In today’s competitive global market, all companies are looking to make improvements that drive bottom line results. Many of these organizations are turning to process improvement methodologies such as Lean Six Sigma. While this is a great starting point, your first question may be, “What exactly is Lean Six Sigma and how is it different from Six Sigma or Lean?” Your next question may be, “If my company is not in manufacturing, would Lean Six Sigma even be applicable for my organization?” In this article, we will answer these questions by providing an overview of the fundamental framework of this methodology. We will also draw on our SEI experience and take a look at how companies are using Lean Six Sigma as well as some of the common pitfalls.

What is Lean Six Sigma?

The first point that is important to understand is that Lean, Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma are three different methodologies. All center on the fundamental concept of doing things better, faster and cheaper, but from different perspectives.

Lean Six Sigma is a natural evolution of the quality and process improvement disciplines that originated in the 1950s to improve manufacturing. It began with a focus on improving quality in order to decrease the cost of producing defective material. This evolved into applying similar principles to improve process efficiency on the factory floor through the elimination of wasted effort by only producing what was needed, when it was needed, instead of filling warehouses. Over time, other parts of the organization saw the opportunity to apply these same principles to business activities other than manufacturing. After all, nearly everything an organization does can be broken down into process form.

The Differences Between Lean, Six Sigma & Lean Six Sigma

Lean and Six Sigma are both disciplines for continuous improvement, but have differences in objectives and approach. Lean is a discipline in which the goal is to eliminate waste and increase process efficiency through a focus on improvements in speed and cost.MLDD1
Six Sigma, on the other hand, is a discipline in which the goal is to eliminate variation and reduce defects through a focus on improvements in quality.
Lean uses tools such as kaizen events, value stream mapping, work load balancing and 7 waste analysis. Six Sigma uses more analytical tools such as Pareto analysis, control charts, statistical analysis and defects per

million opportunities (DPMO) measurements.

Lean Six Sigma is a hybrid that brings both of these disciplines together. It takes a pragmatic view of process improvement with a focus on what is needed and important to the customer. It combines the time-focused strategy inherent in Lean with the analytical tools of Six Sigma, which allows for a flexible solution set to address the broadest set of problems.
DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) is the fundamental framework of Six Sigma and was adopted as such for Lean Six Sigma, specifically for projects aimed at improving existing business processes.

The DMAIC Framework

DMAIC is a project methodology comprised of 5 phases and is often deployed with specific deliverables identified for each stage.

How Companies Are Using Lean Six Sigma

We can say with certainty that while Lean Six Sigma has its origins in manufacturing, it has moved beyond the factory floor and is being applied across all parts of the organization. Today, companies are using the fact-based principles of Lean Six Sigma to:

• Drive cross-functional process improvement initiatives such as new hire onboarding
Streamline back office functions such as accounts payable
Identify new applications of existing products
• Reinvent functions to improve the quality of service delivery

The bottom line is companies are achieving success through Lean Six Sigma’s basic principle of identifying who the real customer is, determining what they perceive as value, and focusing on activities that help deliver that value while eliminating or reducing activities that do not.
A common underpinning of how companies implement Lean Six Sigma is the recognition of various “belts” as a measure of employees experience level. Industry standards define three common belts: Green Belt, Black Belt and Master Black Belt. Organizational approaches and the utilization of these belts, however, vary among companies.
Some companies take a top-down approach. They have a formal PMO (Program Management Office) with trained experts, such as Black Belts, deployed as internal consultants to drive improvement projects throughout the business. Other companies take a bottom-up approach. They have a formal program in which front-line employees, typically following a structured belt certification path, are formally trained and expected to drive process improvement projects. Both approaches offer strengths and challenges. Companies need to identify the best fit for their organization while managing the potential pitfalls.

Common Pitfalls

In its simplest form, Lean Six Sigma provides a methodology and a set of tools to drive continuous improvement through analysis based on facts and direct customer input. Far too often, however, this simplicity is lost in the zeal to achieve measureable results as fast as possible and companies fail to see success. Here are some of the common pitfalls we have seen:

Focusing on belt certification over business value

One of the most prevalent problems companies face in their implementation of Lean Six Sigma relates to the project requirements of belt certification. In order to become certified, Green and Black Belt candidates need to complete a formal project. This potentially creates an environment in which employees pursue projects to satisfy certification requirements as opposed to projects that have real business value.

Not balancing resource demands

Excessive focus on belt certification may lead to many belt candidates requesting the same few subject matters experts (SMEs) to participate in their projects. These key people get pulled into meeting after meeting and project after project until they finally put up a brick wall and stop contributing. Without input from these SMEs, it is difficult to properly define the problem and the opportunities for improvement

Gathering too much data or not letting the data talk

There can be a tendency to collect data for the sake of collecting data because Six Sigma is driven by data analysis. This can lead to poor data quality and analysis paralysis. Human nature can also lead people to enter the analyze phase with preconceived ideas on what the root causes are instead of letting the data tell the story to help define where the opportunity exists.

Implementing a rigid program focused on standardized templates

There is no one size fits all. Lean Six Sigma provides a framework and a set of tools. However, intelligence and experience still need to be applied to select the appropriate tools and techniques for the specific project. When companies impose an inflexible method, people start filling out the approved templates for the sake of complying with the corporate standards instead of garnering the intended value of the particular tool.

Deviating from the DMAIC process

The excitement of making improvements can lead organizations to jump right in and start implementing change without collecting or analyzing data (often because they come into the project with preconceived root causes and solutions in mind). While the end game is to implement improvements, organizations need to let the DMAIC process work in order to accurately identify the problem and the most effective improvements.

Assuming belt candidates have project management skills

For some reason, when it comes to Lean Six Sigma, fundamental project management is often ignored during the selection process for Green and Black Belt candidates. As a consequence, people lacking these basic project management skills may be tasked with leading projects. This may result in a situation wherein the effort is not properly managed and produces no tangible results. Since management has committed to embrace Lean Six Sigma, projects might still be praised as a success with no recognition of the mistakes or lessons learned.

Letting best get in the way of better

Lean Six Sigma is not a static methodology—it’s all about continuous process improvement. That is, continuously finding ways to make the process better, faster and cheaper. Many times, companies execute improvement projects with a vision of a perfect process and, as a result, spend too much time and dedicate too many resources to the initial effort.

Bringing It Together

You started with a simple question: “What exactly is Lean Six Sigma and how can it benefit my organization?” In this article, we provided an overview of Lean Six Sigma and how it integrates the efficiency focus of Lean with the analytical tools of Six Sigma to provide a flexible solution set. We also outlined Lean Six Sigma’s phased project methodology of DMAIC. In addition, we provided a perspective on how companies are approaching Lean Six Sigma and how they are using it to achieve bottom-line results. Finally, we identified some of the common pitfalls organizations have experienced in their efforts to instill a Lean Six Sigma culture.
We view Lean Six Sigma for what it is: a set of methodologies and tools that drive continuous improvement through analysis based on facts and direct customer input. We take a pragmatic approach and apply our experience as Lean Six Sigma practitioners to bring the appropriate tools to the project at hand rather than follow a prescriptive methodology.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below.

Michael Lilley, CPA, PMP, CIRM is a consultant with Systems Evolution Inc. ( with over 20 years of industry experience in the areas of Project Management, IT Program Management, Operations Management, Process Engineering, and Management Consulting. Mr. Lilley has played key roles in driving initiatives such as Sarbanes Oxley compliance, ISO9001, Six Sigma, Lean Manufacturing, Total Quality Management, Project Portfolio Management, and Shared Service Centers.

David DeCoste is a consultant with Systems Evolution Inc. ( with over 20 years of internal and external consulting experience. His background includes Strategic Project and Program Management, Process Improvement, Business Analysis, Program Development and Implementation, and Change Management. Mr. DeCoste is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt proficient in short-cycle improvement techniques, including Kaizen and Value Stream Mapping.

Want to Earn Six Figures? Become a Project Manager

NEWTOWN SQUARE, PA, 16 December 2011 — As employment continues to fluctuate, uncertainty about job stability and the economy is keeping people on high alert. Despite these uncertain times, there is a silver lining for those in one profession that continues to thrive. New research from the Project Management Institute confirms what businesses, job boards and the media have been proclaiming for the past two years: project management is one of the hottest professions out there.  According to the PMI Project Management Salary Survey, Seventh Edition, the salaries of project managers around the world continue to climb, indicating not only that project management professionals are in strong demand, but also that organizations are increasingly recognizing the value of trained project managers to their overall business goals.

Location and certification increase salaries

This year, 30,000 project management practitioners in 29 countries responded to the survey. The data was reported across all roles and experience levels.

·         The median annualized salary is US$92,000; in the U.S. it is USid=”mce_marker”05,000.

·         71% of respondents reported that their total compensation (including salary, bonus and other benefits) had increased over the previous 12 months.

·         Nearly 33% reported increases of at least 5% of total compensation in the last year.

Countries including the United States, Germany and Australia posted average salaries well above the median, each exceeding USid=”mce_marker”00,000. The highest project management salaries in 2011 are reported from Switzerland, where respondents averaged more than USid=”mce_marker”60,000. 

The 10 countries reporting the highest median salaries (reported below in US dollars) are:

·         Switzerland, id=”mce_marker”60,409

·         Australia, id=”mce_marker”39,497

·         Germany, id=”mce_marker”10,347

·         The Netherlands, id=”mce_marker”09,775

·         Belgium, id=”mce_marker”08,750

·         United States, id=”mce_marker”05,000

·         Ireland, id=”mce_marker”01,635

·         Canada, $98,517

·         United Kingdom, $96,384

·         New Zealand, $91,109

The survey shows that certification, as well as geography, positively affected salaries. Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential holders in the U.S. earned an average of 16% more (approximately USid=”mce_marker”4,500) than their non-credentialed peers in 2011.

Project management is increasingly important to organizations

“These numbers are great news for project managers who are looking to expand their careers with new skills, individuals who may be interested in a career change and those who are coming out of school or military service and considering what job would best suit their future goals,” said Mark A. Langley, President and CEO of Project Management Institute. “There is a very real benefit for those with the experience and training to pursue certification. In today’s volatile economy, organizations are increasingly recognizing project management as a professional competency that provides distinct competitive advantages – and they are willing to pay for top project management talent.”

Created and conducted by PMI’s market research team, the PMI Project Management Salary Survey, Seventh Edition, provides a comprehensive look at compensation in the global project management field, measuring salaries across eight major position description levels in 29 countries. The full report is available on


About Project Management Institute (PMI) PMI is the world’s largest project management member association, representing more than 600,000 practitioners in more than 185 countries. As a global thought leader and knowledge resource, PMI advances the profession through its global standards and credentials, collaborative chapters and virtual communities and academic research. When organizations invest in project management supported by PMI, executives have confidence that their important initiatives will deliver expected results, greater business value and competitive advantage. Visit us at, and on Twitter @PMInstitute.


Project Management – Why “Good Enough” is Often Enough

FeatureAug17thIt’s a phenomenon that I’ve witnessed sufficiently often that the evidence can no longer be termed “anecdotal”.  An organization wishes to improve their project management capabilities – through investments in process, staffing and/or technology they experience some initial successes.  But a few months in to the initiative, momentum and enthusiasm wane and focus shifts resulting in the capability improvement hitting a plateau or even worse back sliding to pre-improvement performance.

There are multiple triggers for this behavior, some of which I’ve covered in previous articles:

  • Lack of effective, committed sponsorship
  • Improvement initiative was not structured, planned or managed like a project
  • Lack of a multi-phase roadmap with SMART business objectives defined for each phase
  • Ineffective change management
  • Shifting priorities cannibalizing resources from improvement efforts

There’s an old saying “Anything worth doing is worth doing well”.  I’ve underlined the initial use of worth because it identifies a probable root cause – project management is considered a hygiene factor by many organizations as opposed to being the source of competitive advantage that associations like PMI have attempted to evangelize. 

For a typical organization, once critical project management issues have been addressed, the change effort involved to achieve a higher level of maturity can’t be justified and focus shifts to other priorities.  Hiring skilled project managers is often viewed as a simpler approach to addressing project predictability challenges.

This behavior tends to be common in industries where competitive pressures are low, service and product prices are high, or they have a captive market.  For example, a few years ago in the legal industry it was difficult to gain buy-in for capability improvement initiatives because most law firms were doing very well in spite of having low project management maturity levels. 

An analogy can be drawn to IT operations management – while there is significant knowledge about methodologies and best practices, most organizations are still choosing to operate at a low level of maturity.

Does this mean you shouldn’t try to champion or launch a PM capability improvement initiative?  No, but you should be realistic about expected outcomes, and focus on developing and implementing changes that will fit the culture of your organization.  “World class” project management capabilities do not make sense for all organizations.  As with any capability improvement initiative, it is crucial to balance the hard and soft costs against expected benefits when defining a target for improvement. 

Avoid gold plating – each change should have a demonstrable connection to a perceived business benefit.  The “engine” of improvement initiatives runs on the “fuel” of success so make sure to track and report all achievements.  And keep “soft-selling” the value of project management.  With persistence, planning and realistic expectations, managing your capability improvement initiative will not feel like a roller coaster ride!

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The World Has Lost a Good One

OllanIt is with deep sadness that we inform you that Ollan Delany, our long-time friend and dedicated editor of ProjectTimes and BA Times, passed away on Sunday of colon cancer. Ollan was 68.

Ollan was an easy going and happy person who excelled in the Publishing industry. He was integral in developing content since the inception of both ProjectTimes and BA Times.

Ollan developed outstanding relationships with many key thought leaders in the PM and BA community and is a big reason for our success in presenting, the larger PM & BA Community, with timely and relevant content.

Ollan joined our ProjectTimes team within the first two years of publication (1998). He knew nothing about project management but everything about the English language and the written word. It took him very little time to figure us out and in turn became indispensible to us.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and well wishes by posting a comment/message at this link. We would like to keep all of of our memorial comments in one location.

If you are interested in making a donation to The Cancer Society in Memoriam of Ollan, you can do so HERE.

Our deepest condolences to Ollan’s family. Farewell dear friend. We miss you already.

What Project Managers can Learn from Baseball

It may seem like a stretch to associate project management with baseball, especially when just giving it a passing thought.  However, a good baseball coach would likely share that if you are going to ‘play’ the game in a position that provides a nice correlation to what a project manager must carry out during the course of a project, it would be as a catcher.  This position requires a comprehensive understanding of the game’s strategic elements and is crucial to the real-time action occurring during the course of a game.

Let’s take a look at a number of the key factors involved during the monitor and control period of a project and how those factors stack up against the catcher’s job. 


A catcher has to handle a variety of pitchers, set defenses, and generally run the game during their team’s field possession.  Positioned behind home plate, the catcher can see the whole field and is in the best position to direct and lead the players on the field utilizing the necessary communication strategy that will work best for the given situation. The catcher must be aware of the pitchers’ skills and strengths and well as the batters’ strengths and weaknesses.  The catcher must wear protective gear to protect their face and throat from wild pitches, their knees from kneeling, and their chest and hands from 90 mile an hour throws.

As a project manager, it is necessary to continually watch the project components as the project unfolds; such as a catcher does during a game.  This is the renowned monitoring of a project, one of the primary responsibilities of a project manger.  You must have a good awareness of the skills, availability, and contributions of your ‘field’, your project team members, so that you are certain to best utilize these resources.  You must have constant attentiveness to the schedule and anything that may interfere with flow of the project.  It is vital to assure the project stays on track and to identify any problems without delay so they may be quickly mitigated.


The communication strategies that you and your team utilize will differ based on the audience.  It is important to adjust the message and delivery so you can maximize the message and assure that it is the best format for reaching the intended recipients.  We would not expect to see Carlos Ruiz, catcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, jumping up between each pitch to shout out his recommendation for the next pitch.  At the same time, his teammates would not want him to use hand-signals during the pre-game strategy meeting… and likely none of them would want him to send an e-mail message during the game with the hope his fellow team mates will get it before the next play progresses!

As a project manager, you must consider all methods of communication available, and which will be best suited for the situation.   A good communication plan that is well received can be one of the key contributors to success during a project.  Even during difficult projects, team members and stakeholders often report a more positive experience when they are kept properly informed.  And remember, properly informed does not mean over informed.


The project manager must be on top the forces that work against the project, the “opposing team”.  During the course of a game, the catcher may be required to block the path of an opponent running from third base to home or to nip a stolen base runner.  There is not time during the action to stop and think about the options; rather the catcher and his team have an understanding of how these risks will be dealt with if they arise. 

These forces can present themselves to a project manager in the way of technical issues, deadlines, resource commitments, or a variety of other factors that come up against every project.  Project managers must stay aware of potential risks so that if they do occur a plan is in place to deal with the situation and minimize any extra burden on the project. 


The responsibility to focus on the pitching, communication with the players, follow the quarks of the umpire, adjust for the batter, prevent stolen bases and runs scored seems overwhelming.  During an errant pitch, the catcher must react quickly to control the ball and prevent the ball from getting behind him.  This requires a keen alert level and any failure by the catcher could present dire consequences for his team.  

A project manager must also stay alert so to identify any arising issues.  They must assess the issue and assure that it is handled in a timely fashion while posing minimal impact to the project schedule and objectives.  They must maintain the same focus to assure that the project stays on track and tasks do not fall behind, particularly those that may impact the critical path.  As with the catcher, failure to ‘catch’ an issue could have dire consequences for the project.


If you have heard the expression ‘Tools of Ignorance’, it refers to the catcher’s vast equipment which is necessary considering the physical abuse endured by catchers. However, there is irony in this term as the catcher typically has the most thorough understanding of baseball tactics and strategies of any player on his team.  There is often a question of the level of wisdom attributed to a person who would take up this position; being that it is so demanding and places them such a vulnerable situation that they require much protective equipment. 

Many would agree the same holds true for a project manager; in fact project managers may overwhelmingly agree.  The skilled project manager must have the most comprehensive knowledge of project practices, methodologies, and processes.  They must make solid use of the tools available to minimize vulnerability. 

Not every baseball player could be a catcher, and not anyone can be a project manager.  It’s a unique blend of solid planning skills, the ability to monitor activities and adjust to changes to keep the ‘game’ on track while understanding all the players and possessing strong management skills. 

So go forth ye project manager, use your tools and skills for you know they serve to protect you and your project from harm.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Brenda Hallman has over 15 years of project management experience in the IT and healthcare arenas.  Presently she works for the PMO at Main Line Health.  Ms. Hallman holds Bachelors of Science Degree in Computer Science and Mathematics, an MBA, a Masters Certification in Project Management, and she is PMP certified.