Most Wanted: Lean or Six Sigma Skills?

Demand for continuous-improvement talent continues to grow, fueled by a recovering economy. But which skill set is in higher demand: Six Sigma or lean?

The recovering economy is driving demand for continuous-improvement talent, new findings from the Avery Point Group indicate.

Based on a survey of nearly 7,100 recent online job postings, the executive recruiting firm's eighth annual Lean & Six Sigma Talent Demand Study indicates that the combined demand for lean and Six Sigma talent has risen more than 103 percent over 2010 recessionary levels and 6 percent ahead of last year's strong demand levels.

Among the perennially 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.

When practiced together, lean and Six Sigma 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 skill set is in higher demand?

According to the Avery Point Group's latest findings, published last week, the desire for lean skills is easily outpacing that for Six Sigma expertise.

In fact, demand for lean talent has accelerated at its fastest year-over-year pace in the eight-year history of the study as the more desired skill set over Six Sigma. The 2012 findings show that lean talent demand now exceeds Six Sigma by nearly 68 percent, almost doubling its lead over last year's results, which showed a 35 percent edge for lean over Six Sigma.

As recently as 2005, the demand for Six Sigma talent exceeded lean's by more than 50 percent. In 2007, a video by the recruiting firm notes, the two gained parity. Since then, lean talent demand has been rising further above Six Sigma demand.

"[W]e are beginning to see a very clear and accelerated trend in the demand for lean skills versus Six Sigma that may also indicate a decoupling of the two initiatives in relation to job requirements," Tim Noble, managing principal and partner of the Avery Point Group, said in a statement.

Moreover, this year's findings indicate that job postings looking exclusively for Six Sigma talent, with no mention of lean in the job specification, dropped to only 20 percent of the postings reviewed. This marks the lowest level for those job postings in the study's history. The 2012 study is an even further departure from the Avery Point Group's 2005 inaugural study that showed Six Sigma talent demand exceeding lean by more than 50 percent.

A deeper review of this year's findings shows that Six Sigma is also becoming less of an additional skill requirement within lean-related job postings. Whereas more than 50 percent of the lean jobs posted in 2007 sought candidates that also had a Six Sigma skill set, today that requirement has dropped to less than 34 percent, its lowest level in the study's history.

Noble highlights three key factors that may be driving these trends:

  1. Companies are balancing their stable of continuous-improvement talent by adding lean expertise rather than Six Sigma talent that may already be prevalent in their organizations.

  2. Companies are focusing more on hiring candidates with "purer" lean skill sets rather than hires who are Six Sigma-focused with lean as a secondary skill.

  3. Companies are consolidating their limited resources around lean's more practical focus on waste, flow and flexibility to hedge against current economic uncertainty.

While the continued rise in talent demand for lean bodes well for candidates who possess these skills, ultimately "the real winner is any company that successfully engages in some form of continuous improvement, regardless of whether it is lean, Six Sigma or some other well-executed approach," the Avery Point Group says.

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