kanban and lean six sigma

Increasing productivity and improving process flow are the main goals of every project manager. Eliminating unnecessary and repetitive tasks while reducing waste are two additional goals on their checklists. The ultimate goal, of course, is to plan and execute projects more accurately and more efficiently.

Luckily, there is a plethora of tools and methodologies out there for project managers to choose from and achieve these goals. Most PMs go for one methodology or another. But we believe that to get the most out of your team (and organization), you should be a bit bolder. Take the best out of two tried and tested methodologies and put it together. You guessed it – we are talking about combining Kanban with Lean Six Sigma.

So how should you go about it? Read on and learn!

Similarities between Kanban and Lean Six Sigma

Kanban and Lean Six Sigma are lean project management methodologies. Both concerned with creating a more efficient workflow, optimal use of resources and timely identification and elimination of problems.

Kanban does that by visualizing the workflow and using a Kanban board populated with Kanban cards. The board provides a better overview of the overall work and progress. That also helps the team spot any bottlenecks or impediments that might negatively affect the workflow. Therefore, resolve the problems which hinder progress. Kanban also encourages making gradual changes based on real data. Then, monitor process (improvements) before introducing new changes.

Lean Six Sigma, on the other hand, uses data and statistical analysis to detect problems and defects. It aims to reduce and eliminate variations and repetitive tasks, and with that, eliminate waste. It aims to streamline processes, reduce costs, and improve quality of work. Most importantly, introduce continuous improvements to the processed through understanding customers’ needs.

In their core, both methodologies have the same objective – improve efficiency.

Similarly, the principles of both methodologies address almost the same issues, and advice similar steps and actions. The main difference is that Kanban uses visualization as the main tool for spotting and eliminating problems, while Lean Six Sigma relies on statistical data and analysis. Additionally, Kanban focuses on the (working) team and is process-oriented. And Lean Six Sigma is customer-focused and process-oriented.

Kanban and Lean Six Sigma Project Management

Combining Kanban practices with Lean Six Sigma

Whether your organization uses Kanban, Lean Six Sigma, or a completely different project management approach that helps you get things done, applying Kanban and Lean Six Sigma on top of it is fairly simple. The nature of the two methodologies is such that you can easily merge them with other PM approaches and reach pick productivity of your teams.

Visualize Your Lean Six Sigma

Both methodologies suggest you take the process as it is. And both methodologies have a predefined system that yields results. That gives teams an excellent basis for successful implementation.

Kanban suggests you visualize your process on a Kanban Board, separating different stages at different columns. Similarly, Lean Six Sigma, suggests you start with Lean practices streamline and reduce waste. If you wish to merge and implement both methodologies at the same time, you can use Lean practices [sort, order, tidy up and standardize your workflow and make it sustainable] to create the columns and swim lanes on the Kanban board.

When using Lean Six Sigma, you can choose from the two different methods – DMAIC and DMADV. In fact, their already defined processes can be the basis for your Kanban board. With each step representing a separate column on the board.

It’s a good practice though to use DMAIC [Define, Measure, Analyze, Implement, Control] for existing products and processes. And when you are working on new products and processes, use DFSS – Design for Six Sigma. Or formerly known as DMADV [Design, Measure, Analyze, Design, Control].

Portfolio Kanban - Reduce Overburden - Improve Flow

Create Kanban Cards and Eliminate Waste

Once you set up your visualization board, you can begin populating it with Kanban cards. Break down the work into user stories and tasks. But beware not to include anything you identified as ‘waste’ using Six Sigma. Make sure your board depicts the process accurately. Then place the cards in the correct column and assign them to the right person.

Set Calculated WIP Limits

The next step for both methodologies are setting Work-in-progress limits to the Kanban board, and applying Six Sigma’s fine-tuning to Lean. While Kanban uses arbitrary estimations to set limits, Lean Six Sigma applies a statistical approach to eliminate process waste. Combine the two approaches to set more accurate, yet reasonable WIP limits to each column and swim lane.

Track Progress and Introduce Change

Now that your process is all set up on the Kanban board, you are ready to begin. As you go through your normal workflow, continue using the benefits of the process and work visualization to spot any potential bottlenecks. And try to eliminate them before they cause a delay or stop the work completely. Combine data gathered from the Kanban boards, such as throughput, lead times and cycle times; with Lean Six Sigma analysis tools, such as Kaizen, 5 Whys, value stream mapping, to measure and monitor progress. Then, based on actionable data identify where and how you can cut waste, introduce changes and improve the process flow.

Why Does this Work?

Lean project management is the foundation for Kanban and Lean Six Sigma. So it’s no surprise they share a common goal – improving efficiency through smarter use of resources and eliminating bottlenecks (waste).

Each one of these methodologies is very efficient on its own. But very often, using one methodology or the other is not enough, and it feels like something’s missing. Something that can make processes more transparent, more efficient, and better organized. And that gut-feeling is not wrong. The key to achieving amazing results is taking the best out of two tried and tested methodologies and putting them together.

When you use Kanban to visualize the whole process and tasks’ progress, it’s much easier to understand it better. It also makes spotting any potential problems and eliminating waste much easier. The team can’t overwork because they have set WIP limits for each stage. Thus, they won’t do any unnecessary work or create surplus inventory. Defects will be easier to spot and resolve. Transportation and waiting times are shorter because the workflow will be simplified and only necessary steps taken.

All the while, the whole work is monitored, measured and analyzed. And the team can make relevant and gradual changes to resolve problems and ultimately, improve the process to perfection.

Are you still questioning whether Kanban and Lean Six Sigma are really a match made in productivity heaven and the key to stellar project management? Why not try it for yourself with our digital Kanban board and experience the benefits? Our team will be here to support you and guide you all the way!

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Once you start visualizing your work in Kanban Zone, you will be surprised how much faster it gets done!

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About the Author: Ivana Sarandeska

Ivana Sarandeska is a digital marketer, creative writer and master procrastinator. An Agile enthusiast and a firm believer that thorough planning is key to good execution and even better improvisation. She has a soft spot for technology, so most of her full-time jobs were in IT companies where she was introduced to Agile and Scrum. After she got her Scrum Basics certification she started actively using these methodologies and their main principles. Learning how to organize her time and tasks better has motivated her to dive deeper into these methodologies. Now, she is an avid advocate of Agile and Scrum and happily shares her knowledge and experience to fellow procrastinators.