Choosing Between Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma for your Ball and Roller Bearing Manufacturing Operation

June 30, 2016 / , , , ,

At this point, most high production manufacturers know that continuous improvement (CI) is imperative to their success. However, knowing where to start can often be both intimidating and frustrating. Active change takes time and costs money, so managers need to be sure they are strategically choosing the right methods to achieve their operational goals.

For many companies, achieving CI includes applying some type of formal methodology.  Two of the most widely used tools are lean manufacturing and Six Sigma. While both of these methods can be used to improve productivity and profitability, their approaches are not the same. Understanding the difference between these two methods is important not only for managers trying to choose the right organizational improvement program, but for those who are considering combining the two.

To help ball and roller bearing manufacturers make the right choice, the following is a quick primer on lean manufacturing and Six Sigma:

Lean Manufacturing
Over the last ten years, the term “lean” has moved beyond an industry buzzword to an industry expectation. As stated in the eBook, Five Performance-Boosting Best Practices for Your Industrial Metal-Cutting Company, most manufacturers have incorporated some form of lean principles into their operations. From ball and roller bearing manufacturers like Timken and CPM Bearing to manufacturing giants like Toyota and Nike, leaders are applying lean principles to every aspect of their business to achieve productivity and agility.

But what does it mean to be “lean?” According to, lean manufacturing is “a collection of tips, tools, and techniques that have been proven effective for driving waste out of the manufacturing process.” Toyota is credited for developing it in the 1980s, and over the years it has been used by manufacturers worldwide to improve all facets of the manufacturing business, from quality assurance to human resources.

Below are some key attributes of lean manufacturing, as defined here by The Process Excellence Network:

Six Sigma
Although not as popular as lean manufacturing, Six Sigma has been successfully used by several big-name manufacturing leaders, including 3M and General Electric.

iSixSigma defines Six Sigma as “a disciplined, data-driven approach and methodology for eliminating defects in any process, from manufacturing to transactional and from product to service.” It was developed in the mid-1980s by Motorola engineers who were unhappy with traditional quality metrics. In response, they developed a new standard, as well as the methodology and needed cultural change associated with it. Six Sigma gained popularity in the 1990s after General Electric adopted it as part of its business strategy.

Below are some key attributes of Six Sigma, as defined by The Process Excellence Network:

The above is just a brief overview of two of the most widely used improvement methodologies and only touches on some of their main characteristics. For some industry perspectives on the pros and cons of each method, read this series of editorials published by the American Society of Quality (ASQ). For information on how managers can strategically utilize lean and Six Sigma methods together, check out the recent article, “Lean and Six Sigma: Synergy at Work,” from Modern Machine Shop.

How are you applying lean manufacturing or Six Sigma tools in your manufacturing operation?