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Just-In-Time Cafe Podcast, Episode 1 - The Battle of the Fixes -

Welcome to the Just-In-Time Cafe Podcast! In this episode, we’ll share how each methodology is different and which methodology is better: Lean or Six Sigma.

Our entire team at is thrilled to announce our new podcast: The Just-In-Time Cafe! Join our hosts and experts, Tracy O’Rourke and Elisabeth Swan, as they chat with you and share the latest Lean Six Sigma news, application tips, how-tos, interviews with thought leaders and success stories from professionals like you! Enjoy your coffee!

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  • 00:00 Podcast Introduction
  • 00:30 Lean or Six Sigma? Which is best?
  • 01:30 Where do these methods come from? But first, coffee…
  • 2:00 Lean and Six Sigma background – it goes back as far as 450 BC!
  • 2:30 Henry Ford, Toyota Production System and Motorola
  • 3:00 Lean and Six Sigma both fall under the Process Improvement umbrella
  • 3:30 Lean stands for “Less employees are needed”?
  • 4:00 It’s really all about getting rid of waste and improving flow
  • 4:30 What’s waste and DMAIC?
  • 5:30 Everyone loves McDonalds! They are the masters of reducing variation
  • 6:30 What’s good about Lean?
  • 7:00 Change your organization’s mindset and culture and respect your people
  • 8:00 Back to DMAIC
  • 8:30 Lean and Six Sigma pros and what success looks like
  • 10:30 What’s with the belts?
  • 11:00 Dreaming of a Black Belt? Gauge where you want to go!
  • 11:30 Lean and Six Sigma cons
  • 13:00 Create a structured approach
  • 13:30 “I don’t know how to speak Japanese!”
  • 15:00 Don’t forget to respect your people
  • 15:30 Promote the culture and lead the path
  • 17:00 The cons continue…
  • 17:30 Six Sigma reputation
  • 18:00 Why do they call it Six Sigma? Isn’t it just Process Improvement?
  • 19:00 Team Lean or Team Six Sigma?
  • 20:00 And the winner is…

Podcast Transcript

Welcome to the Just-In-Time Cafe,’s official podcast, where we help you build your problem solving muscles. We share best practices from over 20 years of success helping organizations from the Fortune 500, to small and medium size business, to government achieve their goals using Lean Six Sigma.


Tracy:  Hey, Elisabeth!

Elisabeth:  Hey, Tracy!

Tracy:  How’s it going?

Elisabeth:  It’s good. I’m psyched. I’m psyched here at the café.

Tracy:  Me too. Hey, welcome everybody to the Just-In-Time Café. We are so busy in here, though. Let’s go in the dining room so we could chat.

Elisabeth:  OK. I’m grabbing a menu.

Tracy:  Cool because I’m hungry too. So what’s on the menu today, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth:  Today, Tracy, rest yourself. Get ready because we are going to serve up the Battle of the Fixes, right? We want to know what is better, Lean or Six Sigma? We have two process improvement approaches and we—you and I—have got to decide once and for all which of these is better.

Tracy:  You know what I like about this café is we get a chance to really talk about some of the stuff that we hear all the time. We’re master black belts. We’re content developers at and, you know, we’re always working. So it’s really nice to just hang out in the café, have a cup of coffee and talk about some of these things that interest us.

Elisabeth:  Alright. Let me get a refill and then let’s dive in. What do you got for me, Tracy?

Tracy:  So, Elisabeth, tell me, where do these two methods — Lean and Six Sigma — come from anyway?

Elisabeth:  Well, while I tell everybody, you go get me a cup of coffee and I’ll start the background.

Tracy:  Okay.

Elisabeth:  So, Lean, you could go as far back as 450 BC where the Chinese mass-produced bronze crossbows, right? So you could go way back and see the kind of methods that are involved in Lean. You could also go to Ford. He is the first one that came up with the conveyorized assembly line, right? So the belt move, and that is around 1910. But, what most people associate Lean with is the Toyota Production System. So that’s the 1950s. You’ve got Sakichi Toyoda, the head of Toyota, and most of this really comes from Taiichi Ohno, the head engineer at Toyota. And he’s credited with the Toyota Production System and he’s credited with that turning into what is Lean manufacturing. So that’s Lean.

If you go to Six Sigma side, it’s one man again. It’s the 1980s and credit goes to Bill Smith at Motorola. So he was basically—they were improving their pager process trying to get it to near perfection. And just like Lean, you could go back and say that Six Sigma really is based on the scientific method. So both of them have long roots. Both of them really got teed up by one or two people in particular.

Tracy:  Yes.

Elisabeth:  Anything you want to add on that?

Tracy:  Yeah, sure. I’ll just say that—I like to say that Lean and Six Sigma both fall under this process improvement umbrella, let’s call it, and they’re two methodologies that help us improve processes. And, you know, there’s different tools in each of these methodologies and I think sometimes people don’t even know what Lean and Six Sigma—why we would use it, but that’s really why we’re using it. Everything we do is a process and if you’re trying to improve or streamline processes, you can select Lean tools, you can select Six Sigma tools, and that’s really the category or the umbrella that it belongs in. So hopefully that helps.

Elisabeth:  That’s great. So that’s basically the—do you want to do anything more on the definition of Lean?  

Tracy:  Well, you know, I would just say that a lot of people think Lean stands for, “Less employees are needed,” and that is so not what Lean or Six Sigma is about. It’s not about eliminating heads. It’s about eliminating wastes. And often what happens is people are wasted on wasteful activities, and so it really is just how do you streamline the process. It’s not about getting rid of the people. So I just always like to remind people that that’s really what it is.

A lot of people think Lean stands for, “Less employees are needed,” and that is so not what Lean or Six Sigma is about. It’s not about eliminating heads. It’s about eliminating wastes.

Lean is really more about getting rid of that waste and flow, how do we improve flow of a process, you know. We think about standing in line at any restaurant or at a carnival, what-have-you, and sometimes we say, you know, “They could’ve laid out the flow better,” and that’s really all the tools in Lean are for improving flow or reducing waste. What would you say about the definition of Six Sigma, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth:  I would say that what differentiates it from Lean is that it’s this very concrete 5-step method, right? You have something called DMAIC which is define, then measure, then you analyze, then you improve then you control, so once again, based on a scientific method and it’s a systematic approach to problem-solving that focuses on reducing variation, right? So you have people working in a process. Everyone does something slightly different or maybe really differently, but you basically are looking at how do we solve this problem, reduce defects, reduce variation and then control the gains, right? This last step of control which is maintaining what you just improved. So it’s this very step-by-step method. I think it’s still just like Lean in that they’re both focused on what does the customer want, like what’s the voice of the customer tell us but it’s very different in its systematic approach.

Tracy:  Yes.

Elisabeth:  Do you want to add anything to that?

Tracy:  Yeah. And I’ve heard many people say, Lean is about reducing waste and Six Sigma is about reducing variability or variation. You’ve probably heard a lot of people say that too.

Lean is about reducing waste and Six Sigma is about reducing variability or variation.

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  My favorite example of that is McDonalds, you know. I always ask people when we have classes, you know, why do you go to McDonalds? They say, “Because they have the best hamburger in the world.” And I say, “No.” You know? No, that’s not why we go. Why do we go? When do we go? Well, we go when we don’t have time. We go when we’re in a hurry. Exactly. And why do we go to McDonalds? Because they are masters at reduction of variation. We know what we’re going to get. We know how long it’s going to take, and they have perfected that process. We don’t go to McDonalds because of the food. We go to McDonalds because of little variation. When people think about that, they’re kind of amazed. They’re like, “You’re right! That’s why we go!” Billions served because of low variability. Isn’t that crazy?

Elisabeth:  Yeah. No, absolutely. So, what do you think is good about Lean?

Tracy:  So, you know, we get this question a lot. And I really like Lean because it’s simple and easy to understand. I think—unfortunately, there have been organizations that started with something very complex and it was too confusing for people. They didn’t understand it. Lean is very easy. The tools are easy to understand. It’s easy to implement. And the other thing I really like about Lean is it does really focus on changing mindsets and cultures. It’s not necessarily about just implementing tools. It encourages organizations to focus on how do we create a culture of continuous improvement. I think that’s really important. What do you think?

Lean is not necessarily about just implementing tools. It encourages organizations to focus on how do we create a culture of continuous improvement.

Elisabeth:  No, I’m with you. I think those are—the culture aspect especially is a great pro for Lean, a great built-in piece that really is all about respecting your people because that’s where your solutions come from. And I think Lean does a great job of using that respect to really build—you know, we call it building the problem-solving muscles of the organization. But that is a way of both empowering your people and, you know, creating better processes, getting where you want to go, helping the company achieve its mission, its vision. So it’s a really—when it’s done right, it is a wonderful all-in-one piece.

Tracy:  Definitely.

Elisabeth:  I think—yeah. I think if I look—if I think about what’s great about Six Sigma, back to that 5-step method, I love the fact that you have this very prescribed step-by-step nicely outlined flow from definition of what it is you’re dealing with all the way to maintaining the gains of whatever you improved. And, each step, there are very standard tools, standard templates. It’s a very prescribed course. It’s comfortable. It feels like I know where I’m going and I like that aspect.

Tracy:  I would agree.

Elisabeth:  So I like that clarity.

Tracy:  Yeah. I would definitely agree. The rigor of DMAIC can help people learn exactly what they’re doing. I really do like it. It does create more steps or structure in order to apply the tools and I find that could be very helpful for people especially when they’re just starting out.

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  And there is more statistical rigor in Six Sigma than Lean and when that is needed, that is great. And what I’ve—

Elisabeth:  Yeah, you could have something that’s not easily detected, right? Is this really good? Is it really bad? And you need those statistics to get in there and have that rigor.

Tracy:  Yes.

Elisabeth:  I think another thing I like about it is that they—you know, in terms of quality efforts from the past, we often lacked a really good definition stage upfront. What exactly are we looking to solve? What is the problem? What process? What’s the scope? Let’s be very clear about what success looks like. So getting that really good sense of boundaries upfront, that define phase, that differentiated DMAIC from earlier quality efforts, I think that’s a huge bonus. You know, that and the really good rigor around voice of the customer.

And then the last piece, you know, the end of it which is that control piece also is something that was missing in terms of, you know, you’ve did this improvement, you’ve made these incredible gains, you could measure it, and then everyone went, “Great! Back to work,” and slowly the gains disappear and slowly the old system—I don’t know if it came down from the rafters. But, you know, it was suddenly you were slipping in the game. So I think the addition of both of that define the frontend and the backend of control were really great advancements in terms of quality efforts that have been going on for, you know, a long time, long before Lean and Six Sigma.

I think the addition of both of that define the frontend and the backend of control were really great advancements in terms of quality efforts.

Tracy:  Definitely. And I’ll just add the one last thing about the pro of Six Sigma before we move on is that I really like the rigor of the belts as well in terms of learning and education. You know, a lot of people say, “Well, what’s the white belt and the yellow belt and the green belt and the black belt? Why do they do that?” But what I really like is it does really clearly outline a path to improve your knowledge. And, there’s not a lot of unfortunately programs out there that do that. And I think it can really help people see, “Okay, this is how I’m going to learn.” People don’t know what they don’t know. And so—

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  having that clear outline or path I think can be really helpful for people to kind of gauge where they want to go.

Elisabeth:  Yeah, and it’s also great for hiring if you’re looking at candidates for a particular position. If you say you’re a black belt and you’ve been running projects, people know what you got in terms of your background. You know, there’s a lot of difference between the different sets of requirements sort of across the Lean Six Sigma world or the Six Sigma world. But, you know, if you say, “Well, I got trained as a green belt,” or, “I’ve got yellow belt,” if you’ve got some kind of overview, you understand the terms but you haven’t really been running any projects. So it’s helpful for people in the position of hiring Lean Six Sigma experts to know exactly what the belt level they’ve got.

Tracy:  Yes.

Elisabeth:  Which is great.

Tracy:  Yes.

Elisabeth:  So, what about—let’s see. What’s good about—

Tracy:  Or how about the cons of Lean? Because we just—

Elisabeth:  Yeah, yeah.

Tracy:  We just covered the pros of Lean and the pros of Six Sigma, so what are some of the cons of these now? And so, what do you think? What are some of the cons that you think have happened in Lean, Elisabeth?

Elisabeth:  So, I think in some ways it’s the flip of what we just talked about, that you don’t really have a clear path. I sometimes feel like I have a lot of tools at my disposal but it’s up to me when to use them. And that’s a lot of freedom but sometimes I like to say structure sets you free. So, I’d like a little more structure in terms of what happens first, what happens second, what’s a really good progression depending on what it is you’re trying to fix. Do you feel like that with Lean sometimes?

Tracy:  Yeah, I do. I find that because there isn’t a clear path and they’re not big fans of belts and I don’t know what it is. I think people that are in the Lean camp, if you will, they’re anti-belt because they think it might drive people to just go after their belts and get certification and training on their belts and not really apply it. Well, sure, yeah. That could happen. But, I think it is needed to have sort of a more structured approach to learning more about Lean and identifying how much people know about Lean. You really don’t know what people know about Lean until you start talking to them really. So, I think that is a con of Lean.

The other thing I have found as well in working with a lot of organizations in the United States is there’s lots of Japanese words in Lean because of where it came from, Toyota. And although I like it and I like understanding and I have appreciation and respect for those words, it could be off-putting to learners because it just feels jargony. It feels like “I don’t know. I don’t speak Japanese,” people might say. “I don’t know what that means,” and it’s just another barrier. People might see it as a barrier to learning and understanding because we have to do the translation.

Elisabeth:  And you know what’s funny? Is that Lean itself would say that translation was a wasted step, you know. Like why do I have to wave through this translation to get at the meaning? Just tell me what you mean. What’s gemba? It’s a process walk. Okay. Gemba, a process walk. Tell me it’s a process walk.

You know what’s funny? Is that Lean itself would say that translation was a wasted step, you know. Like why do I have to wave through this translation to get at the meaning? Just tell me what you mean.

Tracy:  I’m really glad—

Elisabeth:  The other thing—

Tracy:  I’ll just say I’m really glad that we took all the Japanese words out of the material that we have because although we pay a nod to it, we do really say, “Okay, you know, this is a rapid improvement event versus a Kaizen,” because people don’t—aren’t going to know necessarily what a Kaizen is. Go ahead.

Elisabeth:  But we keep the terms, right?

Tracy:  Yes.

Elisabeth:  We keep them in there so they know there’s alternate terms in there because you may end up talking to someone who, you know, is a sensei and really wants to go by the book. The other thing that I find can happen in Lean is that it can be about some very simplistic tools. So people, they lose that culture aspect that you talked about, which is such a powerful piece of Lean, that respect for people and suddenly it’s all about you’re just doing a 5S.

Tracy:  Yes.

Elisabeth: You’re just looking at 8 Wastes and you have this tool focus that loses the people.

Tracy:  True.

Elisabeth:  And I feel like back to that, you know, rapid improvement, that’s like one of these incredibly powerful pieces of Lean and if done right, you have this immediate fix and involving people which is that respect and you’re using just the tools you need, right? It’s Lean. So I think that’s something that can happen. People don’t use the full package of Lean.

Tracy:  Yes. I would absolutely agree with that. I think although Lean does promote culture more than Six Sigma has in the past, I haven’t seen a clear path to how to change culture that comes out of that. So I think it’s interesting. Besides some of the leaders saying their work pieces, but it’s not very well-known what the path is there. And I agree with you. I think there are lots of tools and if you lay them out, if you lay out Lean tools across the DMAIC process, a lot of them are in improved. So—

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  I don’t necessarily know if it’s a con per se, but it’s just interesting that a lot of the solutions or a lot of the tools in Lean are under the improved phase, you know, like work-sells and Kaizen and those kinds of things or mistake-proofing. So, I think—it’s just an observation.

Elisabeth:  Yeah. And some of—yeah, it is actually—that’s a good observation, but then I find some of them are really many methods in themselves, like if you think about changeover reduction, that’s in the improved phase and yet changeover reduction involves, you know, analysis, what’s internal, what’s external. You know, each of these tools can be broken down into kind of many improvement methods, which these things are self-contained which is a pro. I like that.

Tracy:  Yes, definitely. So, what about the cons of Six Sigma, Elisabeth? What are your thinking—what’s your thinking around some of the disadvantages? Are we ready to talk about that?

Elisabeth: Yeah, yeah. No, I think the funny—the joke that I remember going around years ago was there was this Six Sigma team. Their cars were in the parking lot, but no one has seen them for a year, you know. These processes—these projects could just take so long and you just wouldn’t see these people. And that has a lot of fall-out. You’ve got lack of momentum. You have people that are getting into the weeds, you know, back to one of its pluses that might provide this great statistical rigor that you need. But, maybe you’re applying statistical rigor when it really was, “Hey, should this be A or B? And pick one.” So, do you really need to spend that kind of time?

So I think one of the disadvantages and the reputation it got was “Oh my God, we’re not doing a Six Sigma project. It’s going to take a year,” right? So—and Lean, true to its name, got the rep for, “Hey, we can knock this out in a week.” So I think it doesn’t have to be that way, but it is a downside that, “Hey, we got to march through all these phases of DMAIC.” And I think people have varying degrees of adhering to the high-level process like, “Okay, you have to go through a toll gate.” Whereas other organizations are much looser and say, “Yeah, it looks like you’re done with define. You start to measure. Those two phases kind of meld a little bit anyways so, you know, keep rolling.” But I think that that’s one of the big downsides.

Tracy:  Yes. And I would just say being in process improvement for the last 18 years, I actually still wonder why they decided to call it Six Sigma because immediately it causes confusion. It immediately is off-putting except for the people that want to sound like they know more than people, right? So it’s like, “Oh, I’m Six Sigma.” I mean it’s—and if you think about it, if you think about the people that were naturally drawn to Six Sigma early on, it’s those people that are savvy in statistics, when they talk, equations fly out their mouth anyway. So—

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  It’s sort of like—you know, it was sort of set up to fail in terms of like the name of it. People still say, “What does that mean?”

Elisabeth:  Yeah. But tell me this, Tracy. If you had to choose, which would it be?

Tracy:  Well, you know, what’s funny is I get this a lot and you hear a lot of consultants in one camp or the other—Lean camp or Six Sigma camp—and I am of the place that it doesn’t matter which camp you’re in. It’s really around what problem are you facing and you should be pulling from both toolkits—

It doesn’t matter which camp you’re in. It’s really around what problem are you facing and you should be pulling from both toolkits.

Elisabeth:  Yes.

Tracy:  –to apply it.

Elisabeth:  I’m with you.

Tracy:  And so, I get really sort of annoyed when people say, “No, you have to do Lean. No, you have to do Six Sigma,” beaches it’s not about that.

Elisabeth:  Why restrict yourself, right?

Tracy:  Yeah.

Elisabeth:  Why restrict yourself?

Tracy:  Why restrict yourself?

Elisabeth:  Yeah, you should have the whole toolkit.

Tracy:  Yes.

Elisabeth:  I’m with you.

Tracy:  And I’m saying that—I will just say as a last comment that I actually do prefer to start with Lean in a lot of organizations just because they are a little easier to understand and they can get big, huge staggering improvements or results with simple tools. So, I have often started with Lean, but I am not opposed to starting with Six Sigma if I feel like an organization is ready.

Elisabeth:  Yeah.

Tracy:  You have—what did you say?

Elisabeth:  I just feel like—I just feel like you should have the whole batch. I want all the tools and I want to be able to use what’s right for the task at hand. So, I think they’re both, you know. No one is going to be happy with us not declaring a true winner, but hey, that’s a reality.

Tracy:  True.

Elisabeth:  So I’m going to wrap it up here at our café. I just want to say thanks to everyone for joining us here. Consider this an appetizer. Visit to share your feedback. We’d love to hear from you. Also, please listen to more podcasts by subscribing to Just-In-Time Café on iTunes. Thanks, everybody.

Tracy:  Thank you!

Elisabeth:  Bye now.

Tracy:  Bye-bye.

Thanks for Listening!

We’d love to hear your feedback! Please comment below or leave your reviews on iTunes.

Which tools do you seem to apply most? Lean or Six Sigma? Please let us know in the comments below!

Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.

Elisabeth Swan

Elisabeth is a Managing Partner at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. For over 25 years, she's helped leading organizations like Amazon, Charles Schwab and Starwood Hotels & Resorts build problem-solving muscles with Lean Six Sigma to achieve their goals.