Lean On Me: Applying Six Sigma in a Service Organization

Guest Blogger Steve Abercombie served as a Senior Technical Consultant at ORNL and managed the Process Improvement Program. After a 40-year career he now supports organizations as a Performance Excellence Consultant and assists Peak Performance in training and application of Lean Six Sigma.


Organizations strive for efficiency and continuous improvement in their business systems by applying the principles of Lean Six Sigma


Most of us, if not all, in the performance excellence community, know of examples where costs have been avoided or eliminated through applications of lean and six sigma. With its roots in manufacturing, often the examples we share illustrate waste reductions or process variation shifts in a product manufacturing line. Great examples and great successes that ultimately the consumer is the recipient of. Today’s US economy though is largely driven by service providers. Finance, healthcare, supply chain, hospitality, and others make up over 60% of the economy. Can lean and six sigma make a difference there?


Oak Ridge National Laboratory is the largest US Department of Energy science and energy laboratory that conducts basic and applied research. ORNL is located in Oak Ridge, TN, near Knoxville, TN. The site is comprised of over 4,700 staff members that includes scientists, engineers, and support staff and annually hosts 3,200 visiting guest scientists and users. To accommodate such, the Facilities and Operations Directorate (F&O) manages critical laboratory support services. Staff members provide facility operations, security, engineering and construction management, materials fabrication, site services, logistical support, and craft services to the scientific community. Each day these dedicated F&O employees play critical roles in the delivery of scientific research to our nation.


With such a diverse set of services to provide to the scientific community, how has F&O consistently met their customers’ needs? Over a decade ago, senior management inquired into the use of tools associated with lean and six sigma. Those tools appeared to support eliminating waste and minimizing variations to services. It was learned that a growing number of service providers were finding success in adopting this practice. A decision was made to train and equip a core group of employees with this skillset. Organizations could potentially appreciate short term and long-term benefits. Reduced unit costs, higher quality, elimination of wasteful practices, and increased employee engagement were benefits that contributed to the go forward decision.


How did it happen? Twelve select staff members were chosen to be trained by a recognized consultant to the level of Six Sigma Green Belt. Each were to be certified through the American Society of Quality. Time was dedicated to training, and while working with leadership improvement projects were selected to apply the newly acquired lean and six sigma skills. All the while, each trainee continued to perform their routine assignments. A great success, each staff member completed their training, passed the ASQ exam, and completed their project. Cost reductions and/or cost avoidances exceeded expectations. Projects addressed material flows, janitorial services, hospitality services, a major project in research laboratory clean-out, and others.


Subsequently, four staff members achieved Six Sigma Black Belt certification and the F&O Process Improvement Program was established. Six Sigma Green Belt training continued for a number of employees, and staff members at large were trained to the Six Sigma Yellow Belt level.


With all these staff members trained, expectations grew. Applying lean and six sigma tools to F&O’s Continuous Process Improvement projects, Black Belts and Green Belts helped the organizations realize the financial benefits. Each project met or exceeded targeted reductions in costs that aligned with increased measures of efficiency. These dedicated projects were chartered for completion within a specified time frame.


Use of lean and six sigma blossomed and a new wave of interest from staff also developed; how could a staff member take an action that would increase the efficiency of their product, without a full-scale lean six sigma project - if not necessary? Often, an employee has a process improvement idea that, when implemented, addresses a specific need in service deliveries to customers. Given the title as Lean-On-Me, many of these improvement ideas were identified and implemented, under the guidance of the Process Improvement Program.


With the core principles now included in a staff members’ vernacular, reducing waste and eliminating variation became inherent to F&O’s culture. Each staff member is trained to listen to their customer, pursue opportunities to improve their component of the service delivered and support the organizations’ performance excellence goals. Employees now are better equipped to contribute to the scientific community’s mission to deliver research.

Peak Performance offers several instructor led Lean and Six Sigma courses. Our instructors are ASQ certified and have extensive experience in the field. Peak Performance is now offering an on-line White Belt Six Sigma training course as an entry level course for any employee. You can check out these course offerings in the Peak Learning Center.

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