Is There a Difference Between 6 Sigma, Lean, Kaizen, BPM, Continuous Improvement, and Reengineering?

General Article

Anyone new to process work can easily become confused by so many different terms that seem to mean the same thing. I wonder sometimes why we keep adding new terms to what basically comes down to “quality.” All these techniques have the same goal — to achieve improvements in delivering a product or service to the customer. “Improvement” may follow the form of more efficiency for the business or more effectiveness for the customer. All methods have a connection to the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement promoted by gurus such as W. Edwards Deming and Joseph M. Juran, among others. Some offer a more philosophical approach than a specific set of tools.

With so many techniques to choose from, do you select the newest, the trendiest, or perhaps the tried and true method? Do you have to choose one technique? Why not take the best from all and call it something else that works in your culture. You can simply call your technique Business Process Improvement, Continuous Improvement, or something similar that works in your organization. The name you decide to use makes a difference in the acceptance rate at your company because as we all know “culture trumps process all the time.”

You may find my simplified explanation of the various terms (in alphabetical order) helpful:

  • Business Process Management (BPM): A recent term that denotes process management software. It comes from the IT world and companies that have software to sell, promote this technique. It attempts to continuously improve processes by promoting business efficiency, effectiveness, flexibility, and integration with technology. I view it simply as a new spin on using technology for process improvement…not a bad thing, but did we need another term?
  • Continuous Improvement: A more philosophical concept than a technique, CI strives to constantly improve processes. It promotes a culture of innovation and constant improvement.
  • Hoshin Kanri: A strategic planning method that uses the collective thinking power of all employees to help a company rise to the top in their field. The concept of including “all” is key to Hoshin Kanri, so that the company focuses on a shared goal. “Hoshin” means compass and “Kanri” means management (or control).
  • Kaizen: The Japanese word for continuous improvement. “Kai” means continuous and “zen” means improvement. It is not another technique, but a philosophy that denotes incremental, constant, repeatable improvement.
  • Lean: Focuses on the flow of value to the customer – anything else is considered wasteful. Companies who follow Lean have the goal of reducing the time between a customer order and shipment by eliminating waste. When you think of Toyota, you think of Lean.
  • Lean Six Sigma: Sometimes viewed as the best approach, since it combines Lean and Six Sigma, this technique merges the “process variation” aspect of Six Sigma with the “process flow” aspect of Lean, both important concepts. However, the term seems more like a sales term to me.
  • Re-engineering: Focuses on the radial redesign of end-to-end processes. It ignores the current business process and starts by designing a new process from scratch based on customer needs. While popular in the mid-1990s, it did not see much long-term success because of the lack of focus on the change management or governance process.
  • Six Sigma: A statistical method (coined by Motorola) that looks to reduce variation in process performance and strives for near perfection. The “six” refers to six standard deviations. Walter Shewhart’s work in the 1920s showed that processes required correction when they reached three sigma from the mean. With the introduction of “belts” (credited to GE), it sometimes seems like Six Sigma is the best method, and while it does focus on preventing defects and helping you to understand process complexity, I do not believe that it alone is enough. If you use this technique, remember the cultural effect of any process changes.

In summary, all techniques focus on improvement; all have the customer at the core; and all want to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and adaptability of the business. As you read more about these techniques, you may notice what seems like territorial wars between some of the methods – e.g., lean vs. six sigma, or continuous improvement vs. reengineering. While you will find some differences (evolutionary or revolutionary, ongoing or one time, specific tools), you will see more similarity than differences.

In the end, simply think process improvement and spend time defining what “quality” means to your organization.

Copyright 2011 Susan Page