The Future of Lean and Six Sigma: A Vendor’s Perspective
As a premier vendor of cloud project and portfolio management software for operational excellence or continuous process improvement (CPI) initiatives, we often get asked ‘what’s happening with Six Sigma?’ or ‘whatever happened to Six Sigma?’ Implicit in the tone of the question is that Lean and Six Sigma are dying a slow death as a strategic initiative or corporate religion.
Given our own more recent emphasis on supporting IT PPM, enterprise PMO, new product development and other project-intensive environments, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that we are abandoning this market segment in favor of greener pastures. But, that is simply not the case. Our process excellence business continues to be strong and chugs along as we continue to add new process excellence customers in all industries and geographies (e.g. Verizon, Singtel, NCR).
Our relative increased focus on other PPM environments such as IT PPM has more to do with our continued belief in the “Enterprise PPM” trend and our strong position in the market for Enterprise PPM solutions. We define Enterprise PPM as the practice of taking a more integrated and top-down approach to managing all project-intensive work and resources across the enterprise. This contrasts with the more common approach of building separate functional and technology silos to manage IT, new product development, process improvement and other enterprise initiatives, programs and project management offices (PMOs).
Even in the days when customers purchased our solution primarily to manage their process improvement initiatives, it was always our strategy to “land” in the operational excellence environment and eventually “expand” into other project-intensive environments. The difference is today we are landing in multiple environments, and sometimes simultaneously, and expanding from there. Our multi-year Enterprise PPM strategy and vision is being realized and this has taken some of the spotlight away from our strong process excellence heritage.
So, that is the lens from which we view the future of Lean and Six Sigma from a vendor perspective. Taking the question a little more head on, I would say that Lean and Six Sigma have reached the slow but steady stage of its growth and evolution. Borrowing “Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies,” Lean and Six Sigma are past the early high-growth stage, past the “peak of inflated expectations” and past the “trough of disillusionment” stage. And, depending on the organization, Lean and Six Sigma may be either scaling the "slope of enlightenment" or traversing the “plateau of productivity.” Its future relevance depends on realizing and appreciating the following:
(1) As long as there is variation and waste in an organization there will be a need for process excellence tools. Lean and Six Sigma when applied appropriately are excellent tools to keep on-hand in your toolbox and almost every organization should have these tools at their disposal, but they are not the only tools.
(2) A key problem in the past has been to make the top-down strategic initiative synonymous with the tool or methodology (i.e., “The Corporate Lean Six Sigma Program”). Again, Lean and Six Sigma are just tools and often not the right tool for the job. Top-down initiatives need to be tool agnostic and focus on the outcome (e.g., “World-class Business Excellence” in the case of our client DuPont).
(3) You will know you are on a path to "enlightenment” and "productivity" when (a) nobody talks about Lean or Six Sigma outside of the context of a specific waste or variation challenge, (b) there is no top-down initiative since the skills and tools are embedded in the line-of-business culture, and (c) using the tools of continuous process improvement and operational excellence is the way you do business when nobody is looking.
Here’s an excellent discussion on this topic that inspired me to weigh in on the matter written by Alan Nicol.
The Six Sigma Maturity Model is another potentially interesting reference in this regard.