Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing: What are the Important Differences?

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Can you believe that major corporations like General Electric and Motorola have pocketed billions of dollars in savings through the application of six sigma and lean manufacturing? These two methodologies, both aimed at enhancing business efficiency, have completely transformed industrial operations across the globe.

In this article, we’ll explore the unique aspects of six sigma and lean manufacturing, helping you understand their differences and determine which could be the most beneficial for your business.

What is Six Sigma?

Six sigma is a methodical, data-driven approach that aims to eliminate defects and reduce variation in any business process – from manufacturing to transactional, and from product to service. The core objective of six sigma is to implement a measurement-based strategy that focuses on process improvement and variation reduction, using statistical analysis to achieve sustainable business growth and enhanced customer satisfaction.

The six sigma methodology is typically implemented through two distinct 5-step approaches: DMAIC and DMADV.

DMAIC, an acronym for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control, is primarily used to optimize existing processes. It starts with defining the problem or process improvement goals, followed by measuring the current process and collecting relevant data. This data is then analyzed to determine root causes of defects. Once the issues are understood, improvements are made and finally, control mechanisms are put in place to sustain the improved process and prevent regression.

On the other hand, DMADV, which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, and Verify, is used when creating new processes or products. Similar to DMAIC, it begins with defining the goals, measuring and analyzing to identify requirements. However, instead of improving an existing process, DMADV focuses on designing an optimal process that meets the newly understood needs, and verifying that the design performance meets customer expectations.

What is Lean Manufacturing?

Lean manufacturing, also known as lean production, is a systematic approach to waste reduction and efficiency improvement in the manufacturing process. It is derived from the Toyota Production System (TPS) and is centered around creating more value with less work.

The primary goal of lean manufacturing is to eliminate waste, where waste is defined as any activity that does not add value to the final product. This includes unnecessary movement of materials or people, overproduction, waiting time, defective products, and so on.

The Lean methodology is based on five key principles:

  1. Identify Value: The first step in lean thinking is to understand what value the customer places on your products and services. This allows you to determine what is waste.
  2. Map the Value Stream: This involves mapping out every single step of the production process, from raw material to finished product. This helps identify where waste is occurring.
  3. Create Flow: Once the waste has been removed from the value stream, the next step is to ensure that the product flows smoothly through the production line without interruptions, detours, or waiting.
  4. Establish Pull: This means that you only produce what is needed by the customer. This way, you don’t create unnecessary inventory and waste.
  5. Pursue Perfection: Lean is not a one-time thing. It’s a continuous process of improvement. The idea is to incorporate lean thinking into the entire organization and continually find ways to improve.
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What are the Differences Between Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing?

Take a closer look at the key differences between six sigma and lean manufacturing in the context of manufacturing:


  • Lean Manufacturing: Aims to eliminate waste from the manufacturing process. Waste can be anything that doesn’t add value to the end customer.
  • Six Sigma: Focuses on reducing process variability and defects. Its goal is to improve quality by identifying and removing causes of defects.


  • Lean Manufacturing: Uses methods like continuous flow and pull systems to streamline operations. It’s about working smarter, not harder.
  • Six Sigma: Follows a more statistical approach, using the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology to make processes more uniform and predictable.

Leadership Styles

  • Lean Manufacturing: Lean encourages a flexible approach to leadership. It wants everyone, from team members to managers, to think big and tackle larger organizational problems. It works best in companies where teamwork across departments and levels is encouraged.
  • Six Sigma: Follows a more organized and step-by-step leadership style. This works well for structured companies. It trains people to handle specific roles in their organization, starting with solving small problems and eventually leading to handling bigger challenges and leading teams.


  • Lean Manufacturing: Employs tools such as Kaizen, 5S, Kanban, and Value Stream Mapping.
  • Six Sigma: Uses statistical tools like control charts, regression analysis, and hypothesis testing.


  • Lean Manufacturing: Typically results in faster processes, reduced lead times, and less waste.
  • Six Sigma: Generally leads to fewer defects, higher quality, and more predictable outcomes.

Implementation Speed

  • Lean Manufacturing: Can often be implemented more quickly for immediate improvements.
  • Six Sigma: Usually requires a longer implementation period due to its in-depth statistical analysis.

While six sigma and lean manufacturing both aim to improve efficiency and effectiveness, they do so through different focuses and techniques. Many companies use a combined approach known as Lean Six Sigma to utilize the strengths of both methodologies.

What You Should do Next

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