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Six Sigma Consulting For The Manufacturing Sector

In China
Jan 05, 2016 By Renaud Anjoran Consulting Method 0 Comments

The Lean approach to improvement has worked well for many factories all over the world,
including in China. Yet some companies and some consultants favor a competing approach
to improvement: running Six Sigma projects.
What are the differences? When does Six Sigma make the most sense? What have we
learned through our projects with Chinese factories?
In this article we compare these two approaches.

The Lean movement in North America started in the late 1980s as the application of the
Toyota Production System (TPS) to other companies, and progressively in many
other industries. TPS includes principles and tools that were borrowed from Henry Ford
(flow), from German manufacturers (takt time), and many other sources.
Many well-documented case stories outside of Toyota and even outside the auto industry
indicate that this approach can help a company reduce costs, cut lead times, and improve
quality at the same time, while freeing up cash and requiring very little investment.
The Six Sigma approach was born at Motorola in the 1980s in an effort to apply a rigorous
improvement framework as well as advanced statistical tools in the pursuit for higher quality.
It became mainstream in North America after General Electric (which is widely admired for
its management systems) made it the subject of a strategic initiative in the 1990s.
Six Sigma spread rapidly in the 1990s, through certifications at several levels (black belts,
green belts, etc.) and a package project approach (DMAIC). The branding and the
distribution of this movement were excellent. However, its positive impact on organizations is
debated. Motorola no longer teaches it. GE and other high-profile companies that made it a
priority have partly abandoned it.
My interpretation is that Six Sigma can bring strong benefits in the short run, but it does not
promote long-term continuous improvement as Lean does.

Fundamental goal
My understanding is that Six Sigma, at the time it was developed at Motorola in the 1980s,
had basically the same objectives as Lean to be the cheapest, a process needs to be the
fastest; if it is the fastest it will also have the highest quality (through improvements based
on quick feedback).
Over time, Six Sigma has become synonymous with reducing variation, with a strong focus
on improving the capability of a process to be within specifications (see illustration below).
This is a pretty narrow view of improvements.

The basic framework for improvement

The PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle approach is very solid but the Plan phase is not
sufficiently detailed. That first phase is critical; without it the wrong problems are tackled
and/or the corrective actions are not effective. Both Lean and Six Sigma do a good job of
providing a step-by-step method.

Toyotas practical problem solving framework broke Plan into 5 steps

(clarify the problem, break it down and address only 1 problem at time, set
a target for improvement, analyze the root cause, think of
countermeasures). Jon Miller recorded an excellent overview of these
steps on the Gemba Podcast.

The DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) framework breaks

the Plan phase into three (Define, Measure, Analyze), and each phase is
abundantly documented in the many Six Sigma manuals.

I found this nice summary on the internet:

The Lean toolbox is full of technical solutions for reducing inventory, connecting processes,
leveling the workload, facilitating daily management and communication, etc. Rather than
identifying the right control variables and conducting statistical experiments/observations,
the operators and team leaders are encouraged to run small experiments and learn from the
Six Sigma places a lot of emphasis on project management tools (planning, forming a good
team, change management, etc.) that are valuable, and on advanced statistical tools that
can be useful in some cases only.
Why do I write in some cases only? Based on our experience in Chinese factories, most
production processes here are relatively simple and low-tech. Most of the equipment doesnt
calculate its own capability, or detect abnormalities, in an automatic manner. The priority is
to apply the simple tools that are often taken for granted in Western factories.
The 7 basic quality tools, which have been in use for more than 50 years, are part of the
body of knowledge of Lean, Six Sigma, Project Management, and so on. According to Dr

Ishikawa, they can help solve 95% of problems when used correctly. I believe thats true in
todays Chinese manufacturing environment.
When it comes to improving quality and reducing cost in a fast and easily demonstrable
manner (a condition to get buy-in from Chinese managers), the Lean tools are quite useful.
Connecting processes and reducing inventory, while cutting costs and lead times, helps a
lot with quality. When defects appear, the trail is still hot. It is easier to find the source and
apply the right countermeasures.
This is MUCH more powerful than statistics, except for the most complex problems. When a
set of physical and chemical processes interact, advanced statistics can help a lot.

Changing the culture vs. running projects

Most important in Lean are the basic principles involving everybody in the organization in
continuous improvement. This is hard to do, but we have succeeded in engaging employees
and promoting training at all levels, and it reduced staff turnover by more than 60% in
several Chinese factories.
The Six Sigma approach to improvement is based on projects that are run by a few Six
Sigma specialists. This is very different. An expert is required to drive a project.
Improvement is the responsibility of a few individuals.
To be fair, our consulting approach borrows a bit from both Lean and Six Sigma. Chinese
managers are very pragmatic and want to see a business case. A project approach is very
applicable. We typically start our projects with some training but also by immediately
applying some tools in a small area. Thats very Six-Sigma.
Once the positive results of improvements are visible, people become more open to the new
concepts and, if the companys culture is right, we can truly engage the operators and team
leaders and get their ideas. We only coach them and guide them gently, while keeping
things as simple as possible. Thats very Lean.
The benefit of this latter approach is clear: the factory can make changes and keep them in
place in the long term. Since the team members came up with the ideas and the
implementation, they will usually not revert to the old ways.

To conclude
There is a place for Six Sigma and its project driven by a few specialists approach. Thats
closer to what many Chinese factory owners expect from consultants.
However, the SPC 2.0 statistical tools will seldom justify their use. And, if long term
improvement and a deep organizational transformation is the goal, Lean is best choice.
Fortunately we often transition from one approach to the other along the course of a project.


Problem Solving Challenges In Chinese Factories

Nov 26, 2015 By Vince Leskowich Uncategorized 0 Comments

One fundamental difference between Westerners and Chinese that leads to challenges
in the work place is the method of solving technical problems.
The Chinese education system is based on rote memorization. They are not trained to
develop analytical thinking and problem solving skills. They study the answers to pass
the test. Knowing WHAT the answer is, is sufficient to pass the test with 100%; not
WHY or HOW to derive the correct answer.
Once they leave university and enter the real world, they do not have the skills to
analyze and determine the root cause of the problem and select the appropriate
This often leads to a shotgun approach for problem solving, where trying something
and trying to get a lucky hit is better than doing nothing. The problem is compounded
when they get a false positive during the process and incorrectly think the problem
has been solved, when in actuality it has not.
Here is an example:

We have a plastic material cracking problem.

We changed the mold dimensions. Still cracked.
We changed the molding process parameters. Still cracked.
We changed the assembly method. Still cracked.
We annealed the parts after molding. Still cracked.
We changed the material. No cracks. It must be the material!

(But this old material has been used for the previous 5 years without a cracking
problem. Nobody asks, what changed? Why are cracks starting NOW after 5 years of
running fine?)
The reality is, the material was perfectly fine. It was just that it had not been dried
correctly before use.
When the new/good material also shows cracks because it ALSO has not been dried
correctly, the shotgun process starts all over. This is because a root cause analysis to
find the REAL problem is rarely conducted and corrective actions are not substantiated
to prove the problem has been solved.
This carries over to the design and development of new products. As the Chinese
education system does not foster and develop the creative side of the brain, many
Chinese have difficulty in thinking out of the box and coming up with new and
innovative product designs or creative solutions.
Instead of focusing on improving internal developments, they look to the West for
the new technology and product ideas and attempt to copy the designs without
knowing and understanding the design intent. The external appearance of the product
could be identical, but the function is flawed. This can lead to dangerous and
potentially deadly outcomes.
For example, some of the chemotherapy drugs that are used for treating cancer
patients have very aggressive chemical compounds that can cause plastic materials to
become brittle and crack. In the West, this is a commonly known design feature and
(more expensive) materials are selected because of their crack resistant properties.
In China, this risk is often overlooked and (cheaper) plastic materials that are
inappropriate for the design are selected, leading to product failures where patients
and caregivers are exposed to hazardous drugs.
In many cases, as the development of medical devices in China is still at the fledgling
stages. These type of basic mistakes are commonplace and will continue to happen
until they have established a broader knowledge base to which they develop new
products. This can only happen over time by learning from mistakes, a costly and

dangerous process (as we have seen numerous times in the toy, food and pharma
industries) or by investing in foreign talent to teach and educate on these potential

1. Process control and SPC

Before thinking of inspection and testing methods at the end of the line, the focus
should be to operate processes in a way that minimizes quality issues. Process control
is the first step to focus on when equipment is involved (e.g. temperature, pressure,
and time for molding) or when changes in components can impact quality (e.g.
humidity, color, and viscosity for glueing).
We help factories identify the process control parameters that are critical in their
operations, we collect data and consult suppliers in order to decide on these
parameters acceptable levels, and we teach the production staff to make good use of
an SPC (Statistical Process Control) system.

2. Mistake proofing manual operations (poka yoke)

We also need to reduce human mistakes. This is not easy but in many cases there is a
way to error-proof operations with a mix of creativity (e.g. a pin in the right place on a
fixture) and technology (e.g. sensors). It makes sense to focus on the sources of
mistakes that have the highest impact on the finished products quality.
This is typically the industrial engineers and the process engineers job. Unfortunately,
most people in Chinese factories consider human mistakes unavoidable. This is the
wrong attitude!

3. Quality system
This is primarily an information management system. Operators should know as early
as possible if they are not producing quality parts. This feedback loop is crucial not only
for immediate containment of the bad parts, but also for proper corrective actions to
be put in place. The goal is to solve issues once and for all.

A good quality system also ensures feedback from customers is well correlated with
the issues detected by internal inspections and internal audits. If you are regularly
surprised by customer complaints, your system is not set up properly.

4. Supplier quality
Your suppliers have a direct impact on your own products quality. As our consultants
often say, your suppliers quality is your quality. Yet this is often neglected by
manufacturers. We often see failure rates to the tune of 20% on some incoming QC
reports, and yet most of these batches are released to production.
Helping suppliers with process control, mistake proofing, and quality systems might be
the priority. A good complement is putting in place a strong supplier management
system that pushes your purchasing department to improve your supplier pool over

5. Product design
One source of quality problems might be the product design. It might not be conducive
to good manufacturability, and in turn that might affect quality. In some cases we can
work with the production and the design departments to make changes without losing
the original design and engineering intents of the design.
With these five elements in place, there is no reason the factory cant make high quality
products. In China, most factories can be coached into reaching a Cpk of 1.33. Reaching
a Six Sigma quality level (Cpk above 1.5, and if possible of 2.0) is much more
challenging and usually requires very deep changes.