Effective leaders seek to make their teams more efficient, more cost-effective, and more consistent in the quality of their products. For newly placed leaders or those trying to break from the status quo for the first time, a complete process overhaul can be overwhelming. Starting from scratch is a daunting task

Luckily, it’s not necessary and not the most efficient way to see results. Lean Six Sigma is a philosophy and improvement framework that companies use to upgrade their processes without scrapping the foundation they’ve built. It’s a holistic approach to process improvement that blends the Lean and Six Sigma methods.

What is A Lean Business?

The goal of a lean business is to improve efficiency and increase profit by eliminating waste through a method called kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese word meaning “continuous improvement”, and in lean business refers to subtle, gradual improvements that are made over time.

Rather than looking for a million-dollar idea, kaizen followers believe in the power of a million one-dollar ideas. The tenets of lean are based on the original seven wastes (or “muda”) developed by Taiichi Ohno, Chief Engineer at Toyota, as part of the Toyota Production System.

Lean processing recognizes eight types of waste remembered with the acronym DOWNTIME (Defect, Overproduction, Waiting, Non-utilized talent, Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra-processing).

The Eight Types of Lean Waste (DOWNTIME)


Defect waste occurs when a product fails to meet customer standards and must be destroyed. To combat waste, identify your product’s most common defect and focus on finding a solution. Then, design a process for detecting this defect and preventing abnormal products from passing through production. Redesign and standardize the process to prevent future defects.


Overproduction is wasted products or materials because more was produced than there is demand for. To prevent overproduction, use a takt time to ensure that the rate of manufacturing between stations is consistent.


Waiting refers to time and labor wasted waiting for the next process step. This includes both people and machines. To prevent waiting, standardize the workload distribution and redesign your work process to ensure a steady flow.

Non-utilized Talent

Non-utilized talent refers to unused potential in your workers and often occurs when businesses separate the role of management and employees. Daily workers are the most likely to encounter and identify problems and are often the most qualified to develop solutions for them. You can prevent non-utilized talent by bringing front-line employees into the problem-solving process.


Transportation waste refers to time, resources, and dollars spent unnecessarily moving products and materials. For a lean transportation process, try developing a U-shaped production line or creating flow between processes.


Inventory waste results from excess materials that aren’t processed. It may feel counterintuitive to think of excess inventory as waste, but it can lead to problems including product defects, damaged materials, and increased lead times in production. To prevent inventory waste, purchase raw materials only when needed and only in the amount needed. You can also integrate a queue system to prevent overproduction.


Motion refers to wasted energy related to unnecessary movements by people and equipment. This could be walking, lifting, or reaching. To reduce motion waste, re-organize workspaces, move equipment closer to the production spot, and place work materials ergonomically.


Extra-processing is waste related to working more or at a higher quality than is required by the customer. Always consider the customer before and during the production process and create products at the quality the customer desires the quantity the customer needs.

What is Six Sigma?

Six Sigma’s primary goal is quality improvement and control by reducing variation in product output, with the goal of only 3.4 defects per million opportunities. To get there, practitioners follow a five-step path to problem-solving and long-term work process improvements called the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) Method.

The DMAIC Method


Define the problem or opportunity being missed.


Measure your company’s current performance and limitations.


Analyze to identify the root cause of the problem.


Brainstorm solutions and implement them.


Measure the results of your improvement and tweak for effectiveness. Standardize the solution for control of the process.

Levels of Six Sigma Experts

Much like martial arts, Six Sigma utilizes a belt ranking system to establish a project hierarchy. The belts range from a white belt—someone who works on problem-solving teams and supports overall projects—to a master black belt, a trainer and coach for lower belts who make strategic decisions on a program level.