Achieving Lean Six Sigma: The journey to excellence

Tuesday February 18, 2014
Written by Samuel Silva
In a highly competitive, globalized economy, manufacturing and fabrication firms no longer have room for errors or defects. We must relentlessly look for ways to meet and exceed customer expectations while growing the bottom line.

Of all of the methodologies and tools that companies may consider, in my opinion there is no better solution than Lean Six Sigma to increase quality and production excellence, promote customer service, and keep waste in check.

For those who haven’t reviewed the definition recently, Lean Six Sigma is about making work better (using Six Sigma) and making work faster (using Lean principles). This highly disciplined process helps companies develop high-quality products by identifying and eliminating waste and quality problems. 

Hipower Systems, a generator manufacturer based in Kansas, has undertaken a Lean Six Sigma initiative, and our persistence is paying off. We began our journey in May 2013, and we are on track to realize the goal of ISO-9001 certification by mid-2014. In this article, I’ll share some of the successes and strategies that have propelled us on our journey.

Excellence in action

There are many reasons an organization may decide to implement Lean Six Sigma. Hipower Systems’ impetus was our rapid growth. We knew that without taking conscious steps to streamline our processes, product quality could begin to suffer.

We divided our Lean Six Sigma initiative into its two natural halves: Lean manufacturing for waste reduction, and Six Sigma (DMAIC) for process improvement.

Lean manufacturing and Six Sigma are dramatic advances, but they are accomplished not through quantum leaps, but rather through measured, sequential modifications in an ongoing series of individual efforts. For each process or service transformation, Hipower Systems measures the occurrence or situation being addressed and then analyses the problem and works on eliminating it through a specific action. Once we have made the improvement, we figure out how we can control the process and ensure the improvement “sticks.”

So far, the changes we have made to various disciplines of the business have netted us improvements in the following areas: on-time delivery; first-pass yield; lower days sales outstanding (DSO); and decrease in customer complaints.

Although we are making big strides on the production floor, the increase in customer satisfaction hasn’t come just through reduced delivery times or product quality. One of our initiatives is to address the customer directly - working with them on their concerns, keeping them better informed about the process and status of their orders, and more.

Quality doesn’t stop at the shop floor. To become a true Lean Six Sigma shop, companies must address quality issues at all levels of the organization, both in the back of the house and out front, with the customer.

Beginning the journey

Every organization’s culture is different, and not every organization is ready to undertake the discipline and commitment required by Lean Six Sigma. Management often thinks the process to Lean Six Sigma will be a sprint and not a journey. The importance of effort and patience in achieving full implementation of this powerful methodology cannot be understated. Some of the underlying concepts and requirements that companies need to embrace, in my experience, include:

1. Companies must agree that Lean Six Sigma is a specialized way for them to view and approach both their operations and their product or service offerings.

2. Organizations must have a compelling reason for implementing Lean Six Sigma.

3. Senior management must be leading the charge for, and 100 per cent invested in, achieving Lean Six Sigma.  

4. Companies undertaking Lean Six Sigma must be willing to invest in qualified resources for the effort, whether those resources are employees, materials, technologies or a combination of the three.

5. Stakeholders and participants must be able to work together as a team and must be empowered to carry out initiatives.

6. Training is crucial to realization of a Lean Six Sigma initiative. It cannot be an afterthought. Yet, training can take a long time, so companies must be committed to spending the time and money to achieve a good result.

7. While it is tempting to grab the “low-hanging fruit” to show rapid progress, companies should prioritize activities not on how quickly they can effect a change, but on how much they can improve the processes that are critical to quality.

8. Lean Six Sigma is a “feedback-loop” methodology. Governance and continual improvement let companies reap significant achievements from Lean Six Sigma long after their initial projects are complete.

Moving forward

Our growth rate was our initial impetus, but now growth and quality are feeding each other. Lean Six Sigma is allowing us to increase our revenue and continue to grow. On the other side of the coin, our growth is giving us opportunities to propel our Lean Six Sigma efforts.

We recently purchased a new building, which allowed us to relocate the warehouse and increase manufacturing production. The extra space gives us room to have more discipline for our Lean Six Sigma efforts. Now, when units walk out of load testing, there is a designated parking cell so the next person working with those units knows right where they are going to be.

In other words, our growth got us into Lean Six Sigma, but now the growth is fueling it. Companies that can identify synergies like this shouldn’t have a problem finding a compelling reason to implement Lean Six Sigma. That’s good, because having a compelling reason for the effort is vital for success. Good luck in your own efforts!


Samuel Silva is the chief operating officer of Hipower Systems.

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