Lean or Six Sigma: Which is More in Demand?

Lean and Six Sigma techniques are lauded for driving out waste and reducing variation in many business processes. But which skill-set is in higher demand?

In Stiles Associates LLC's spring 2009 Lean Leadership Survey, the majority of 524 senior operations leaders credited operational improvement initiatives for helping them respond to the recent economic and market downturn.

Among the perennial most popular operational-improvement methodologies: lean, which, in its simplest form, means minimizing waste and adding value in every area of production to produce more with less; and Six Sigma, which is meant to improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of "defects" (errors) and minimizing variability in processes.

Lean and Six Sigma, when practiced together, can be a highly effective combination for operational and quality improvement. Separately, each methodology is lauded for driving out waste and reducing variation in many business processes. But which is in higher demand?

According to two 2009 polls by Medical Edge, 79 percent of the medical-device design and manufacturing publication's readers said their companies practiced lean manufacturing as a way to wring out waste from the manufacturing stream. Forty-eight percent of readers said they were applying Six Sigma tools and methods.

In 2010, fewer corporations are seeking employees with Six Sigma experience, but demand for lean talent continues to increase, a new report from The Avery Point Group has concluded. The executive search firm helps companies identify and recruit talent with a focus in the areas of Six Sigma and lean.

According to the recruiting firm's sixth annual Lean & Six Sigma Talent Demand Study, lean now dominates Six Sigma as the preferred continuous-improvement methodology among organizations.

The study of approximately 3,500 recent online job postings shows that demand for talent with a lean skill set has surpassed demand for Six Sigma pros by nearly 35 percent, up from an 11 percent margin in last year's study. This marks "a dramatic shift" from The Avery Point Group's 2005 inaugural study, which showed Six Sigma talent demand exceeded lean skill sets by more than 50 percent.

Of the companies seeking lean talent, only 41 percent expect candidates to possess Six Sigma knowledge as well, "a requirement that has continued to decline in The Avery Point Group's more recent talent demand studies," the latest findings show. For those companies seeking Six Sigma talent, however, almost 55 percent now require candidates to possess lean knowledge as well, "a requirement that has steadily grown in its previous talent demand studies."

In addition to these findings, the 2010 Avery Point Group study looked at how requirements for certifications play into job specifications for lean and Six Sigma talent. This year's research concludes that companies seeking Six Sigma talent are almost 50 percent more likely to require some form of certification versus those companies seeking lean talent.

"For companies seeking lean practitioners, these results may be signaling a possible trend toward a decoupling of lean and Six Sigma, or at the very least a de-emphasis on Six Sigma as a core job requirement for lean talent," Tim Noble, managing principal of The Avery Point Group, explains. "It may also indicate that companies are instead opting to consolidate their limited resources around lean as a hedge against the steep challenges of today's economic climate, which they feel may be better served by lean's more immediate and practical focus on waste, flow and flexibility."

Noble makes clear that this trend does not suggest the beginning of the end for Six Sigma, but rather that "Six Sigma may find itself taking a back seat to a broader lean deployment, with Six Sigma applied when and where its heavy emphasis on statistics and variation reduction is best suited."

Of course, neither implementing a lean initiative nor rolling out Six Sigma practices is a silver bullet. Continuous improvement is not about using tools and techniques or organizing "improvement" teams. However, applying a continual process of analysis and realistic steps toward improvement can work wonders in every area of the supply chain.


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