Incorporating Critical Thinking into Lean Six Sigma

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The three value concepts of my new lean Six Sigma model are based on the Chinese terms shin, gunaxi, and zhi. The third term, zhi, means to know or understand. Confucius believed that for most people, learning was ongoing. One of the philosophies of Confucianism is that everything a person learns is subject to evaluation and reflection, and it is through this iteration process that people move toward righteousness.

Thus Confucius believed that only a “small man” would try to think without learning, or not reflect on what he has learned.

Critical reflection and thinking

In my model, the idea that learning is continuous and subject to evaluation isn’t significantly different from other quality management frameworks; however, the concept of reflection is significant. In particular, I focus on a concept referred to as “critical reflection,” which goes further than the normal definition of reflection. It includes the following four activities, as defined by Don Clark:

1. Assumption analysis. The idea is to think in a way that challenges our own beliefs, values, and social norms.

2. Contextual analysis. This is a realization that our assumptions are formed based on our personal beliefs and values.

3. Imaginative speculation. This is conducted by imagining alternative ways of thinking that challenge our beliefs and values.

4. Reflective skepticism. This is the ability to think about a subject in such a way that the evidence is temporarily rejected in order to prove its validity.

In any training or formal education, it is rare that reflection is taught in a way that instills deeper critical thinking. In the book I’m currently working on, I show how the concept of zhi and critical reflection can be utilized throughout an organization. For now, I will demonstrate, through a fictitious example, how to use critical reflection as part of continuous learning, improvement, and innovation.

Example of critical thinking in continuous improvement

Company XYZ has implemented continuous improvement throughout its organization. It has also implemented the core value of zhi and actively uses critical reflection as a way of solving problems. One day, the process owner of the financial management process sees that the order–to-cash process is trending upward beyond the set target of five days. In fact, the time from order initiation to cash in the bank has been steadily increasing beyond the normal ranges for a few weeks. The process owner determines that this problem can be best resolved by the quality excellence team. This team is composed of employees who work on areas throughout the process and are responsible for processing the payments.

The quality excellence team gathers to study the problem. A facilitator is assigned to the team to assist in critically thinking about the problem. First, the team brainstorms some possible root causes of the long processing times. The team may use a technique called the 5 Whys framework, in which the question “why” is asked up to five times to a problem when stated as a question. By the fifth why, it is expected that the group will have identified a root cause. An example of the 5 Whys technique is provided below:

1. Why do we have long processing times? Because we are making mistakes in processing.

2. Why are we making mistakes in processing? We are rushed.

3. Why are we rushed? We did not anticipate this large number of transactions.

4. Why did we not anticipate this number of transactions? Because we did not take into account that the company cut its prices by 30 percent.

5. Why did we not take into account that the company was cutting prices by 30 percent? We never read the memo sent out by communications.

The facilitator then asks probing questions of the quality excellence team to get them to think a little harder about the root cause. The facilitator asks questions such as, “Have you thought of why you don’t read the company’s memos?” “What if you did read the memo? Would you be able to forecast the level of demand accurately?” Through the questions, the facilitator seeks to encourage critical thinking and reflection. After carefully considering all the options, the group realizes that failing to read the memo was not actually the root cause; it was something else.

The quality excellence team then measures the baseline data to validate its claims or assumptions. The team continues to ask critical questions to challenge the data and the interpretation of the data, such as, “What if we considered X, Y and Z as well?” At the end of collecting the data, the quality excellence team will have critically considered all elements and be able to identify the root cause. The team will then consider initiatives or counter measures to eliminate the root causes; again, the team members will use critical thinking to clarify their ideas and how to implement them. They will then implement these ideas and measure the effect of the initiative on processing time, conduct the lessons learned, and report back to the process owner with their evaluation and recommendations.

Concluding thoughts

As you can see from the example, critical reflection and thinking enable the team to come up with new, better, and innovative ways to solve a problem. Critical thinking promotes a deeper learning experience and can dramatically enhance the results of an organization’s continuous improvement strategy.

About the Author:

Kyle Toppazzini is the president of Toppazzini and Lee (T&L) Consulting, and an international leader and consultant in lean Six Sigma. He publishes blogs and articles in Bloomberg Business Week, Digital Journal, Quality Digest Magazine and Social Media and is the author of the CFO Scorecard published in Exchange Magazine. (A global magazine produced by the Association of Financial Professionals). Kyle is currently working on a book that will bring new innovations in Lean Six Sigma and Quality Management.

Kyle is a six sigma master black belt and lean six sigma black belt receiving his training from the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College, a certified Balanced Scorecard Trainer, and a member of the Palladium Executive Group founded by David Norton founder of the Balanced.  

The following is the back link to the original article.

Contact Kyle at or tel. (613) 680–4333, ext. 2 or Web Site

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