Continuous Improvement

What is Lean Six Sigma and Why Should You Care?

August 13, 2012

What is Lean Six Sigma?
Simply put: Lean Six Sigma is the marriage of two distinct philosophies: Lean and Six Sigma, which together create a common sense approach to continuous improvement.   Here’s how Lean and Six Sigma work together.

*Jargon Alert*
Before we go any further, let’s get one thing out of the way.  Jargon.  Lean Six Sigma has earned some well-deserved criticism (in my opinion) for its “jargony” language: yellow belts, black belts, 5S, Poka Yoke, muda.  Some would argue that the term “Lean Six Sigma,” itself, is jargon.  Jargon can be very off-putting, yet at the same time it serves a purpose.  Jargon is sort of like slang.  It’s a short-hand way for practitioners in particular profession to express frequently discussed ideas.  I’m not defending jargon, but as the French philosopher Condillac observed in the late 18th Century, “Every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas.”

The Curse of Knowledge

The problem with jargon is that once you understand it, you can’t remember what it was like not to understand it.  Can you remember not understanding terms like “interrogatories” or “ex parte” or “service of process” or “pro se” or “res judicata” or “motion in limine” or “the rule against perpetuities”?  OK, that last one wasn’t a fair question.  But you get my drift.  The Curse of Knowledge says: Once you know something, it’s impossible to remember what it was like not to know it.  We all suffer from the curse of knowledge at some level. (I first learned about The Curse of Knowledge in the book Made to Stick, by Chip & Dan Heath.)

You would never have abandoned the study of law because it forced you to learn a new language.  Like the practice of law, Lean Six Sigma brings with it its own language.  Don’t let the language of Lean Six Sigma dissuade you from learning more about it. That being said, I promise to use as little jargon as possible in these Lean Six Sigma Essentials blog posts, and I’ll explain every jargony term in plain English.

Back to: What is Lean Six Sigma?

Lean focuses on:
• Understanding exactly what the customer values.
• Understanding the process of how work gets done and identifying which steps in the process add value for the customer and which don’t. Those steps that don’t add value are waste. (“Waste” is jargon, but bear with me.  There is a lot of waste in your law firm. More about waste in an upcoming post.)
• Eliminating waste and consistently adding value for the customer.

Lean is all about improving speed and efficiency.  Think in terms of dramatically shortening the time it takes your office to turn around a contract or create an estate plan or analyze discovery.  By eliminating waste, you can increase your speed and efficiency.  Moreover, eliminating waste means, less cost and more profit.   Faster turn-around at a lower cost also means happier clients.

Six Sigma focuses on improving quality and measuring the improvement.  It uses a very specific approach called “DMAIC” (pronounced deh-may-ic) which is simply an acronym for: Define, Measure, Analyze Improve, and Control.   The DMAIC approach provides a systematic approach to improvement.  While Lean is focused on improving speed, Six Sigma is focused on improving quality.  Lean Six Sigma combines both strategies in a common sense approach to continuous improvement.

Why Should You Care?

The practice of law is not what it was ten years ago or five years ago or even three years ago. Pressures from an uncertain economy, the demands of clients, the phenomenal pace of technology and the never-ending search for more balance and more profits are creating the need for radical changes in how law firms are run.  Law firms that want to do more than merely survive in the years ahead should think seriously about how they operate.

But don’t take my word for it.

There is strong evidence that unprecedented changes in practice are producing a restructuring in the way legal services are delivered. These changes include widespread access to legal information, the routinization of many legal tasks, demands by clients for more control of legal service delivery, and the emergence of an increasingly competitive marketplace. This restructuring in the way legal services are delivered affects all law firms—regardless of size, geographic location, and substantive practice area—although it may impact different firms in different ways. Clients are seeking more efficient services, predictable fees, and increased responsiveness to their needs, and they are willing to replace their lawyers if they are not satisfied with the services they receive.

New York State Bar Association: Report of the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession, February 2011

You can reinvent your law firm for the 21st Century.  Lean Six Sigma can provide the tools you need.

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