DD# 69: Japan, Lean, Six Sigma

DD# 69: Japan, Lean, Six Sigma

I spent the second week of July in Japan, providing US Cost Success Estimator training to NAVFAC engineers at the Yokosuka Naval Base.  Located on the south end of Tokyo Bay, the base is the headquarters for the US Pacific Fleet in Asia.  I had the good fortune  to work with Derek and Mark, talented civilian American expatriates currently assigned to the Navy’s IT and Management operations in Yokosuka, (pronounced “Yo-kus-ka”).  Derek is the equivalent of CTO for the base, and Mark works with Derek on business / project management operations.  Over lunch one day, Mark explained his Six Sigma background and approach to projects, and the Navy’s efforts to adapt industry best practices to its project management and business operations.

“The problem”, Mark said, “is that while we are often handed a good software system to implement, its selection based on a set of assumptions that are incorrect from the start, even irrelevant to the problem at hand. So we burn up a bunch of time and money, and never get close to fixing the problem that we set out to solve to begin with. Then, after months of effort and often hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s evident that adopting the software didn’t fix the problem, and the project is canned.

“The primary mistake,” Mark reiterated, “is starting with assumptions, instead of an open mind.  We should begin the projects with pure discovery, with no assumptions whatsoever.”  It sounded familiar and applicable to our business as well.

All too often construction consulting projects are conceived, designed, and implemented in the same flawed way, based on predefined assumptions. Shakespeare would remind us, “To assume is to make an ass of you and me.”   The point is not to approach a complex business problem with a canned set of preconceived conclusions, but an open mind, receptive to the actual situation and unique set of circumstances and conditions that define the project.

Coincidentally, or perhaps prophetically, I encountered Six Sigma and Lean methodologies a mere week later.  My Vistage International group’s program defined first the value of – and then the similarities and differences between – the methods.

  • Lean focuses on eliminating waste, by reducing any effort that doesn’t benefit the customer directly (e.g. for all the pride we take in good management and efficient organization, they’re not the actual products we sell, they’re only a means to an end).
  • Six Sigma’s focus is in reducing the “distribution” (the differing variables and results), that deviate from the goal or intended end result of the project.

Both Lean and Six Sigma are about developing a different perspective on the way we approach our business.  The methodologies  push the practitioner to look for waste and inefficiency in every area, and seek improvements, some probably”the way we’ve always done it”.  And since in the beginning both represent only a change in perspective, they can be virtually “free” to initiate.  Sometimes it is that small shift in focus that leads to bigger, more profitable, results.