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Telling the Difference: Six Sigma, Lean, or Kaizen

Not sure of the project you’re working on? Uncertain what separates waste from variation? Don’t know your process improvement from your continuous improvement? Lean Six Sigma practitioners need to know the difference between each of these three methodologies. While they each share similarities, they all work in different ways, and toward different goals. As such, it’s essential, and highly advantageous, to understand their individual philosophies. Today, we ask the all-important question about Six Sigma, Lean, and Kaizen: which is which?

Six Sigma

Six Sigma is the world’s most trusted process improvement methodology. But what does it entail? Six Sigma’s primary aim is to reduce variation, to create greater quality and efficiency in the workplace. Like any science, Six Sigma uses statistics to validate hypotheses, with practitioners using data to justify their decisions and predict future problems. Furthermore, your mastery of Six Sigma depends on belt color, as different belts require different levels of training. Yellow Belts, for instance, have a basic understanding of Six Sigma and can conduct simple data analysis. Master Black Belts, on the other hand, are just that – masters of Six Sigma knowledge and technique. They utilize tools like DMAIC, hypothesis testing, statistical process control, root cause analysis, and Pareto charts. With these key skills, practitioners make lasting process and quality improvements in industries like manufacturing.


Lean shares many similarities with both Six Sigma, each complementing the other, giving rise to a hybrid methodology: Lean Six Sigma. LSS combines the best qualities of both improvement approaches to create even greater efficiency. But Lean alone takes a different approach. In Lean terms, anything that does not add value is a threat to production. Utilizing in-depth analytical techniques to identify waste, Lean allows you to eliminate it at the source. Below are the eight types of waste (Muda) that occur in the workplace.

  1. Transport. Movement of people, products or information to different locations.
  2. Inventory. Unnecessary storage of parts, pieces or documentation.
  3. Motion. Any extraneous human motion or action. E.g. bending down, turning around, reaching, lifting, or walking.
  4. Waiting. Needless waiting for parts, instructions, information or equipment.
  5. Overproduction. Producing more product than your current demand due to human error. g. producing fifty batches of mobile phones when the customer only wanted ten.
  6. Over-processing. Maintaining overly strict procedures or excessively high-grade materials than you need.
  7. Defect. Variation, defective products, reworking, repeating tasks, incorrect documentation.
  8. Skills. Failure to utilize talented employees appropriately. Delegating tasks to those unqualified to perform them.


Kaizen is a Japanese word, also known as continuous improvement, though its literal meaning is “good change.” As such, any positive change to a business’s production processes, quality, efficiency or productivity is Kaizen. There is some overlap with both Lean and Six Sigma, but, the difference between them is that Kaizen is not a practice. Kaizen is a culture, an attitude towards work, that you must cultivate to see positive change. You can use Lean and Six Sigma to build a continuous improvement culture at work. Moreover, the key is in the word “continuous,” in that there is no end. Therefore, Kaizen is not a single practice but a way of thinking. The aim of which is to create a sustained and continuous effort to maximize your business’s productivity and efficiency.

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