HR’s Role in Delivering Lean Six Sigma Success

By Mike Boucher

As economic conditions cause organizations in many sectors to find ways to do more with less, a growing number are turning to an approach that is commonly called Lean Six Sigma.  This strategy began in the industrial sector, and has since spread to many other areas, including healthcare, education, government services, hospitality, and financial services.

Unfortunately, many of these initiatives fail to achieve sustained benefits.  While there can be numerous reasons for such failures, most are at least partially related to Human Resources issues.  By understanding what Lean Six Sigma requires of the workforce, HR professionals can contribute positively to such initiatives, and help their organizations increase their chances of success.


Lean Six Sigma actually represents two distinct production practices that are frequently used together. Six Sigma, made famous by corporations such as Motorola and General Electric, is a system for measuring and reducing variation and errors in products or services.

Lean, on the other hand, is a system pioneered by Toyota for improving quality while minimizing wasteful practices that don’t add value.  While Six Sigma helps diagnose and solve point problems, Lean provides a comprehensive system for making wide-ranging workplace improvements that reduce costs, decrease wait times, increase flexibility, improve working conditions, and raise quality and productivity levels.

Both methodologies use sets of process tools, but the differences are fundamental.  Six Sigma tools are relatively straightforward to apply in a standalone fashion to a variety of specific problems.  Lean tools, on the other hand, are designed to be used within the context of an enterprise-wide transformation.  Essentially, Lean requires that people change not only the way they work, but the way they think about their work.

This dichotomy also illustrates how Lean and Six Sigma go together.  Within the context of a Lean transformation, Six Sigma tools can be used in conjunction with Lean tools to measure and reduce defects, and improve quality.

Common Practices

Lean is often mistakenly applied as a collection of standalone tools and techniques, leading to short-term and ultimately unsustainable results. While paying lip service to the benefits of Lean that are widely-known, management typically delegates such efforts to a single department, such as a quality group, in the mistaken belief that they can forget about the issue but still get results.

To achieve the kind of Lean Six Sigma results that can turn an organization around, the initiative needs to be aligned with corporate goals and sponsored at the highest levels of the organization.  Change in a Lean organization happens not only on the shop floor level, but in management, support services, and eventually, the supply chain.  Lean requires a long-term, enterprise-level vision.

After working on dozens of Lean transformations, our Lean Advisors team are often surprised with the reluctance of so many managers to participate in such efforts, even when a Lean direction has been well established.   We also find it surprising, given the cultural issues involved, that the HR is rarely engaged in a productive way.

While HR is unlikely to have the final say in committing the organization to Lean, HR professionals should keep an eye on Lean Six Sigma initiatives and ensure that the bases are covered from an HR perspective.  Here are the key touchpoints:

Value Streams and Cross-Functional Teams

Rather than pursue and measure results by department or workgroup, Lean organizations look at what is called a value stream.  This consists of the end-to-end chain of activity to create an entire product or service – a chain that typically crosses a number of departments or workgroups.  Through a process called Value Stream Mapping, teams chart all of the activities and outlays involved in a value stream, and then identify which of these contribute directly to the value received by the customer, and which do not.

For example, in an automotive plant, attaching a bumper to a car adds value to it.  Walking across the plant to retrieve a tool does not.  A hospital nurse adds value when attending to a patient, but not when walking miles a day retrieving equipment or supplies or searching for missing information.  Value Stream Mapping, essentially, creates roadmaps for eliminating as much of this non-value activity, or waste, as possible and consequently, for improving efficiency and quality simultaneously.

Because value streams cross many departments, Value Stream Mapping and the changes that it initiates must be carried out by cross-functional teams.  Such teams must include people from all levels of the organization, and they must all work together side by side.  HR can play a key role in bringing these different groups together, and ensuring that the appropriate expertise is represented on each team.

The Worker as Change Leader

In contrast to the top-down approach used in many management systems, Lean calls on the direct workforce to generate and implement ideas for improvement.  Using the results of the Value Stream Mapping exercise as a roadmap, cross-functional teams of 4 to 8 workers assemble in brief focused sessions of 5 days or less – called Kaizen (continuous improvement) events –  and apply Lean process tools to develop and test ways to eliminate waste.   Typically, the implemented are incremental improvements that require little or no investment.

A key stumbling block here is that most managers are not accustomed to thinking of the front line worker as a critical element in leading change, and will be resistant to releasing staff for hours let alone days at a time.

Another is a reliance on the consultant or internal champion to single-handedly identify problems and provide solutions. Successful organizations engage a champion at the outset of their Lean journey to provide Lean expertise while facilitating teams to problem solve and develop solutions that the team can own and support.

HR can play a critical role in helping remove organizational barriers to scheduling staff for Lean events, and facilitating the change in roles that comes with Lean.

Building a Lean Culture

The most difficult element in any Lean Six Sigma transformation is also the most powerful –  the engagement of staff at all levels. Because these initiatives usually happen when companies are under pressure, workers and their managers are likely to feel that they are already working at 100%, and will see major change initiative as the last straw.  At the early stages, resistance goes with the territory.

Patience, persistence, good communication, and strong leadership are all essential in getting through the Lean Six Sigma’s initial growing pains.  Resistance must be addressed at all levels.  Workers and supervisors have to learn that the “old way” is not necessarily the best way.  Managers need to learn to let go and let their teams lead change.  Senior managers must learn to be mentors, and to set an example for the rest of the organization by doing as well as saying.  And finally, workers in all departments have to learn to discard their organizational differences and cooperate in the interest of the customer.

Here, HR can make its most important contribution.  The principles behind Lean thinking must be ever-present in a Lean organization – more pervasive than any green awareness campaign, branding exercise, or other cultural initiative.  HR is usually one of the last groups considered for training when organizations set a Lean Six Sigma course.  Given the culture change that Lean Six Sigma requires, they should probably be among the first.

Mike Boucher is Vice President, Client Services, for Lean Advisors Inc.  He can be reached at [email protected].

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