Parts Is Parts?
©2020, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

The phrase ďparts is partsĒ was used in an advertising campaign which slammed an offering of a certain fast food chainís product for its allegedly suspect content. Lately, Iíve been reminded of the commercial which featured ďparts is partsĒ as a tag line when looking at an apparent divide between the practice of Lean Six Sigma for manufacturing versus service processes.

The argument could be made that the making of widgets is quite different than the delivery of services. Thereís truth to that: products are tangible, measurable in a physical sense, and can require very close tolerances. You probably donít want nuclear reactor, or aircraft, or military parts to be out of specification by even a fraction of a fraction. This is a place where even Six Sigma isnít good enough. Itís also relatively simpler to see a defect in a product than a service. And itís also easier to measure whether a product is correct or not, for example, whether a box of Zappies Cereal has the Net Weight of Eight Ounces or not, or a steel ball bearing is an exact sphere.

On the other hand, a service performed sometimes but not always depends on a softer metric, like Is The Customer Satisfied. Services like open heart surgery are not necessarily in this category! And we certainly hope that surgical procedures are better than Six Sigma as well. Determining whether a call taken by a Customer Service Representative is ďdefectiveĒ is likely measured by whether the caller is happy with the outcome. What if the representative did everything right but the caller still isnít happy?

The net of it is that Lean Six Sigma practitioners are sought out and classified based on their experience in product or service, sometimes a very specific product or service (a recent example: the somewhat oxymoronic ďfood manufacturingĒ). Although Iíll freely admit that I have much more knowledge of how the process works for, say approving a request for aspirin, versus how that aspirin is actually made, I think weíre missing any opportunity here.

In my view, itís simply this: ďprocess is process,Ē to twist the title phrase of this post. A good Lean Six Sigma Practitioner had better be able to understand how to develop and verify the how, when, who, and why regardless of whether itís an object made or a service delivered. Sure, specific knowledge is helpful, but I donít think itís a deal-breaker because a capable Black Belt needs to be able to learn quickly and accurately, to ask questions for understanding and clarity, and to ascertain and evaluate where and why the process isnít working optimally. Saying that a Black Belt in manufacturing canít cross over to handle a process improvement in the service industry is like saying you canít drive a Chevy because youíve always owned a Ford. The details may differ but the overall concepts are the same. (Well, Iíll leave out manual versus automatic transmission.) Practitioners canít, and managers shouldnít, stick Black Belts into boxes. In fact, Iíve found that the more broad my own experience became, the better I got at picking up processes outside my comfort zone. I donít think Iím a special case here.

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