The History of Lean Six Sigma

Lean Six Sigma serves as one of the world’s most effective process improvement tools. At its heart, Lean Six Sigma is an expression of our need to pursue perfection and refine the work we perform. Getting to the current version of Lean Six Sigma has been a process several hundred years in the making. The history of Lean Six Sigma is broad and varied, but the modern iteration has its roots in some of the world’s biggest companies. To understand why Lean Six Sigma continues to be a popular tool in the modern business world, we want to take a look at history and see where process improvement began.


Process Improvement Throughout History

Humans are industrious by nature. For as long as we have been making things, people have been looking for ways to streamline and improve their work. 

While the history of Lean can be traced as far back as the 15th century, it was the Industrial Revolution that sped along process improvement research. The true beginning of process improvement is often attributed to Eli Whitney’s championing of interchangeable parts in the early 1800s. An inventor and manufacturer, Whitney saw the value in the standardisation of parts, and became a key proponent of the technique.

As manufacturing continued to advance and standardised parts became the norm, other inventors and manufacturing companies sought their own improvements. A seminal work is the 1911 publication The Principles of Scientific Management by Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor’s work was among the first detailed accounts of the benefits of coordinating each part of an enterprise to improve efficiency and productivity.


The Toyota Production System

The Lean Manufacturing system is famously based on a model developed by Toyota. The Toyota Production System (TPS) was one of the first and best-realised process improvement frameworks. When creating their TPS, Toyota drew inspiration from many sources, including both Taylor’s work and the advancements made by automaker Ford. 

Ford’s work on production efficiency drew the attention of Toyota’s executives in the 1950s. Following World War II, Toyota’s business was struggling, and they were unable to keep up with the large-batch manufacturing that was common in other parts of the world. Wanting to expand their business, Toyota’s directors visited American carmakers, including Ford, to learn from their successful systems and power the future of their own company. Toyota developed their TPS following that visit.

The Toyota Production System (which, in 1988, became known to the rest of the world as Lean) was underpinned by simple concepts. At its core, TPS was designed to reduce organisational waste, limit production defects and produce vehicles more efficiently. Much of the TPS is built into the principles taught to modern Lean Six Sigma practitioners.


Motorola’s Six Sigma Concept

Around the same time the Toyota Production System was becoming known, Motorola developed their own system, dubbed Six Sigma. In 1986, an employee of Motorola developed Six Sigma as a way to improve the quality of manufactured goods by identifying and eliminating the cause of defects.

At the time Six Sigma was developed, Motorola was one of the world’s leading manufacturers of microprocessors. Producing high-precision computer components put Motorola at the forefront of a burgeoning industry, but it required them to develop some of the world’s most accurate manufacturing processes. The name Six Sigma came about from the level of precision it aspired to achieve. Motorola’s system dictated that a Six Sigma process was one in which 99.99966% of process steps were without defect.

To achieve such highly controlled manufacturing accuracy, Motorola’s Six Sigma proposed the central DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control) principles that are still used in Lean Six Sigma today. Using DMAIC, Motorola’s process improvement teams reported savings of more than $2.2 billion in the first four years after implementing Six Sigma. The process was so popular that several other major manufacturers – including General Electric and Honeywell – were quick to adopt the system and report their own large-scale successes.


Modern Lean Six Sigma

Although they have separate origins, Lean and Six Sigma were combined in the early 2000s. Dubbed Lean Six Sigma, the new system is an amalgamation of its predecessors. Lean Six Sigma emerged as a way for manufacturers to reduce both defects and organisational waste, improving product quality, production lifecycle and the satisfaction of customers. Modern Lean Six Sigma incorporates all the best tools, practices and processes that came before it, delivering a process improvement system that now sees use all over the world.


Want to See How Lean Six Sigma Works? Speak to Thornley Group Today!

The Lean Six Sigma system we are familiar with has its roots in hundreds of years of human development. While our business processes have advanced significantly, Lean and Six Sigma methodologies continue to make meaningful improvements to organisations across the world. Boosting efficiency and reducing waste is the ultimate goal for all Lean Six Sigma training with Thornley Group. Our instructors conduct a range of training programs that are suitable for all members of an organisation, from the workshop to the boardroom. If you are interested in Lean Six Sigma training, get in touch with us for more information or to book a course.

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