Helping to save Lives and Cut Costs: Why Your Business Needs Lean Six Sigma

By Gemma Creagh - Last update


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Kaizen is the Japanese word for ‘improvement’; back in the 1950s Toyota implemented a revolutionary approach to Process Improvement which would eventually become Lean Six Sigma. Almost seven decades later, this Programme is used in industries across the globe. Here in Ireland, it’s not only common practice in tech and manufacturing but across organisations big and small; for example, local authorities have used it to improve the time scales surrounding housing needs assessment, or many companies have reduced their energy costs or waste output. If you have a project, Lean Six Sigma can help you

Éamon Ó Béarra has been implementing Lean Six Sigma Process Improvement since the nineties and is now the principal tutor for the Greenbelt Program for SQT’s public courses. Éamon has decades of experience in manufacturing and management, as well as a Degree in Manufacturing Technology, a Diploma in Quality Assurance and a Masters in Quality and Operations. He’s a certified Master Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma, and he’s seen it all in his 55 years – well, almost.

So, Éamon first up, what is Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma is, at its most basic level, improving what you do and how you do it, focusing first and foremost improving those processes which are core to your business

This Programme involves identifying suitable projects; putting together cross-functional teams; following a logical methodology; and, most importantly, the use of data to baseline the current performance of those processes and to then compare the new improved performance of the Process post project. The Projects involve what they term ‘breakthrough improvement’, making big advances as opposed to small incremental ones.

Data Planning, Collection and Analysis are key elements of the Training provided using a user friendly software. Essentially, it’s all about delivering tangible, real-life benefits and improvements to the organisation. These projects can take a couple of weeks at their most fundamental (Yellow Belt Projects), but typically they take months (Green Belt Projects)

How does that differ from project management?

Project management deals with the task at hand, whether it’s upgrading an IT system or rolling out a new HR programme. The focus is more on implementation while Lean Six Sigma is about understanding and discovery. In Lean Six Sigma typically, there are no easy solutions; you must first characterise a problem, investigate and analyse your data and derive a Solution. There are a lot of unknowns and that’s reflected in the methodology. Whilst there is a certain element of basic project management involved in our program traditional Project Management is specifically about managing the implementation or deployment of a set of tasks or actions that are known in advance.

What’s your own background in Lean Six Sigma?

I would have mostly worked in the Quality and Engineering sector in Australia, the US and Ireland and I have worked with a lot of multinationals across different industrial sectors and levels of management over the years. I was working in America in the mid ‘90s at the time when I was chosen as a candidate to train as a Black Belt. (This is the practitioner level in the language of Lean Six Sigma. You also have a Green Belt and a Yellow Belt level)

What are the industries and businesses that would benefit from implementing Lean Six Sigma?

It would have started off in the manufacturing sector at its genesis. However, in the last 10 years, it’s been adapted by a variety of other sectors most notably, the pharmaceutical, food and drinks, hospitality, financial services, telecommunications and technology sectors. The Services Sector are coming late to the game and is primarily due to the different structure of these businesses. For example, in a manufacturing environment organisation, a customer would typically at different intervals visit their suppliers on site, do line audits and other assessments of their processes. This would be considered their ‘back office’, so it’s important this area is effective and efficient. They really don’t have a choice in the matter. Likewise, Customers would also assess and evaluate their Supplier’s ‘front office’ which is the likes of their Sales, Design and Customer Service functions. This differs from, say, a telecommunications company or the banking sector where, typically, the only interaction you’d have as a customer would be at the front office i.e. the counter in the bank or Shop. You never see their back office which is effectively behind closed doors. But what is happening behind the closed doors and in that very same back office is of critical importance in delivering value to the Customer. This Sector is now recognising this and belatedly adopting Lean Six Sigma to address this oversight. and are as mentioned coming late to the Programme

They could be up to all sorts back there!

Exactly. because customers never see the back office, they don’t ask those questions. There’s been no pressure on them to look at these processes, assess or improve them until now. In manufacturing this was always the case. The only sector that aren’t using it to the extent they should be is the public sector.

Why is this, do you think?

Some Government Departments, isolated parts of the HSE and a handful of local authorities have started to adopt Lean Six Sigma in the past couple years but its deployment is very limited. To improve a process there is change involved. You are asking people to do things differently on a Monday morning that they wouldn’t have done the previous Monday. If the individuals and the Organisation are not open to change, well, then you are going to struggle.

Big versus Small – how would a large Organisation deploy this Program versus say a small family business?

It wouldn’t be that radically different. Irrespective of the industry you would be looking at training, mentoring and supervising projects in either scenario and it’s all project driven, project by project. Obviously, you would have a wider and bigger menu of projects for the large Organisation versus the small family business, the larger Organisation would be able to train more practitioners, deploy more resources in its rollout and engage outside Experts to aid them whereas this would be more challenging for the smaller outfit.

If you implement Lean Six Sigma, how will it help your business?

It will improve the utilisation of your resources, both the infrastructural resources but more importantly, your human resources .i.e. your people. You will have a better understanding of your customer requirements and what they consider of value in what you are offering in either your product or services. Lean is about eliminating those non-value activities (wastes) that people are engaged in, that when you really question and assess these activities are not adding any value to what you are delivering to the customer, or indeed any value to what you’re doing internally.

Ultimately, you are going to be able to do more with less.

Is there a set way of going about this?

Absolutely. There is a standard Methodology used. Firstly, you must
• ‘Define’ what the problem is.
• You then ‘Measure’ how you currently do it i.e., what is the current process? What does the data say?
• At the ‘Analysis’ Stage, you’re finding out what the hell is wrong with this process and prioritising what you tackle and focus on in the Improve Phase.
• In the ‘Improve’ phase, you implement a solution to address the issues emanating from the Analysis Phase
• Finally, in the Control Phase, you validate with data (evidence) that what you have targeted for improvement including cost savings you have delivered on….did I do what I said I was going to do and can I prove it?

What would be some additional benefits that people would get from this Program?

At its core Lean Six Sigma is about delivering cost saving projects, but it is also about developing people and improving an organisation’s capabilities to boot. As a manager, when someone comes into your Office with a major work problem, the one thing you want to discourage is them jumping to ‘a solution’ without understanding what the problem is to begin with. This Programme is about avoiding knee-jerk reactions to issues. When someone is trained in Lean Six Sigma they will work the issue through the DMAIC Methodology, involving a Team approach and derive a solution in a logical and disciplined way as described above.

Ultimately when you decide as a team what a given solution is going to be, that same Team is all the more likely to work to that solution because it’ll be their idea and they were involved in its design and rollout. Contrast that with the boss coming in and saying do this, do that or do the other differently with little or no discussion or consultation. You are empowering people to improve their own working life which is a refreshing approach.

The other major benefit is that we deliver an accredited program. From a ‘what’s in for me’ perspective you will receive a Level 7 Certificate in Process Engineering. The levels refer to the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) with a Level 5 being a Leaving Certificate, a Degree being a Level 8 and a Level 10 being a PhD. Our Black Belt course is a Level 8, which is the equivalent of a Postgraduate certificate. This is a valuable commodity if you want to progress within your own organisation or even if you decide you want to move on, as it the qualification is most sought after and in some industries an entry level requirement for technical jobs like Engineering, Quality, Validation, etc.

What are some examples of these processes being implemented? Are you allowed to tell us?

One that grabs attention would be a Green Belt Project for the Mater Hospital.
Roughly 7,000 people are hospitalised due to stroke annually in Ireland. The death toll of just below 2,000 makes stroke Ireland’s third biggest killer disease after cancer and heart disease. Using Lean Six Sigma, the Acute Stroke Service in the Mater Hospital developed a streamlined stroke thrombolysis pathway to shorten ‘door to needle’ time for acute stroke thrombolysis. This means reducing the time it takes for patients to be treated, which increases their chances of survival dramatically.

The project was originally established by Professor Sean Murphy and a multidisciplinary team, with the original goal of reducing the ‘Door to Needle’ time in the Mater Hospital Emergency Department from 80 minutes to 60 minutes. They’ve managed to exceed this, and since 2013 there has been a drop in the average Door to needle time from 80 minutes to 45 minutes, an improvement of 44% in the thrombolysis administration time. Also, the average door to CT time has decreased from 47 to 15 minutes, an improvement of 66%. These results are very close to international best in class, but the real results are lives saved.

Any more?

Other notable examples (outside the usual suspects in the Manufacturing Sector) are
• the reduction in the annuity claims process cycle time on claimed benefits in the Pension Sector
• a reduction in the time taken by a Local Authority deliver on housing needs assessments. The objective was to reduce the time from the initial audit of house to the magic moment when the keys are handed over to a new client. The Team managed to reduce this by just under 50%.
• Companies are now using Lean Six Sigma to reduce their energy costs, which typically wouldn’t have been the main focus of projects like these in the past.

What’s one piece of advice, all businesses can take on board?

In this highly competitive era the days of assuming that doing things the way you have always done them will suffice to survive into the future is a naïve one. Continually challenging and improving your Processes to my mind is not a choice anymore and if you don’t do this, you’re asking for trouble. That is the single most important piece of advice I would give.

What’s the workload involved for the individual on the courses you deliver?

Our core course is the Green Belt Program and typically this runs over a couple of months in 2 modules (Define Measure for Module 1 and Analyse Improve and Control for Module 2). The simple motto we use is of ‘you learn, you apply’. To this end specific deliverables are agreed with all candidates for completion before Module 2 and discussed by the Tutor on the morning of Module 2. The Project might take a half or more of a day per week on top of your other day-to-day responsibilities. Delivering process improvements and cost savings is a must and the results need to be presented in a formal report which is submitted within 6 months of the formal training. You are given help and support along the way, and finally the Project Report is graded as a pass/fail.

What’s the most important element you need to be successful Lean Six Sigma, or even just in business in general?

There are three ingredients to delivering on a successful programme. These are
1. picking the right projects;
2. picking the right person to deliver these projects;
3. management support and for the projects.
If you get these 3 right, you won’t go far wrong!!

Find out more about Lean Six Sigma’s excellent programmes at SQT Training.


Gemma Creagh

Learn on the Job: Earn a Postgrad Qualification while you work
Postgraduate Training in Dentistry


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