The Three Major Approaches to Operational Excellence

The Three Major Approaches to Operational Excellence

Organizations that are interested in deploying Operational Excellence initiatives, including Lean, Six Sigma, or Lean Six Sigma, have many approaches available. Although some experts might say that one particular approach is best, the fact is that organizations differ in culture and past experience, and the best approach is the one that provides the best results in each unique environment. Here I will describe three typical approaches available for deploying initiatives that focus on creating operational excellence in business processes and throughout organizations.

Types of Operational Excellence Approaches

There are three fundamental approaches to Operational Excellence:

  1. “classic” Six Sigma,
  2. “classic” Lean, and
  3. “Learn-Do.”

Each methodology has its own unique advantages.

Six Sigma methodologies

The characteristics of “classic” Six Sigma deployments include the following:

  • A well-defined infrastructure that includes clear roles (i.e., Belts) and a formal project and problem-solving methodology (i.e., DMAIC and tollgate reviews).
  • Structured training that includes instructor-led training and project work leading to a certificate or certification.
  • Heavy emphasis on data-based analysis, and projects that often require months to perform properly.
  • Best applied to reduce variation in a process step.

Lean methodologies

The characteristics of “classic” Lean deployments include the following:

  • Application of Lean tools (based on the Toyota Production System) often through a series of Rapid Improvement Projects (aka, Kaizen Events), or model line transformation projects.
  • Often includes the launch of a Lean Improvement Office, a development center for Lean thinkers who facilitate Lean process improvement and prepare to return to an operating position.
  • Education, while important, is not as intensive as with “classic” Six Sigma, and more often includes learn-by-doing.
  • Best applied to improve process flow, balance work, and ensure process standards enable continuous improvement. (Classic Lean lacks the advanced problem solving tools of Six Sigma.)

Learn-Do methodologies

The characteristics of Learn-Do include the following:

  • Focus on developing managers and supervisors who coach and train improvement teams.
  • Routine and frequent application of the Scientific Method through simple problem solving analysis.
  • An emphasis on engaging everyone in continuous improvement and becoming a learning organization. This is how Toyota has developed its workforce.


While each approach has its advantages and success stories, they also have their own challenges. Classic Six Sigma has often resulted in significant effort spent on training and has suffered as projects drag on for six or more months so that the pace of improvement falls below expectations and the return on the training investment is low. Classic Lean deployments often have focused on the application of tools (i.e., continuous flow and standard work) to change work processes. Unfortunately, when the front-line leaders and workforce are insufficiently trained, the results backslide. The Learn-Do approach is harder to fully deploy and requires a greater commitment of time from managers.

Although there are wide differences in deployment approaches, a common approach simply is to provide Green Belt training and begin to launch projects. This provides for a relatively fast start; however, several problem issues surface rather quickly as well. One issue is that projects often are launched without a sufficiently strong link to business plans. This results in projects that drag on because the team assigned to the project often has higher priority work activities. Another issue occurs when an organization doesn’t have a strong foundation of basic stability that includes discipline around process standards and good management practices. In this situation, process improvement results often backslide. As organizations have matured, they have modified their approach to ensure tight linkage between business needs and projects, a strong initial emphasis on process stability, and other modifications that help improve the success rate of their improvement initiatives.

Today, best-practice organizations are using the best of each approach. And, importantly, the most successful companies develop their own way of doing business, often referred to as a Business Operating System or Production System. By using this eclectic and comprehensive type of strategy, businesses are more likely to achieve success within their own set of unique circumstances and environment.

Mike Bresko is president of Ascendigy Consulting, a firm dedicated to helping clients build excellence in management and process improvement. For more information about Mike Bresko and Ascendigy, visit or e-mail Mike at


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