Lean and Six Sigma in R&D and Service Delivery – opportunities and challenges

I’ve just finished reading Michael George’s “Lean and Six Sigma for Service”1, a very useful refresher on many of the key concepts of Lean and Six Sigma, as well as a useful perspective on the challenges and opportunities for applying the tools and methodologies in non-manufacturing environments.

Learning from books like these is always helpful to enrich long-term projects with clients such as RiverRhee Consulting’s current work with a Pharmaceutical Contract Research Organisation (CRO), for conference workshops and presentations such as those coming up with IQPC2,3, and for our growing portfolio of training courses involving Lean and Six Sigma for Library and Information professionals and others4!

Here are some key themes from the book which readers of this blog might find helpful.

Lean and Six Sigma can be applied to R&D and to Services.

Although this is now a fairly well accepted fact, Lean and Six Sigma practitioners will still find people reticent to adopt the methodologies and tools with the argument that they are not manufacturing, not producing ‘goods’ and that their work is not translatable to standardized processes.

George clearly demonstrates with case studies from such sectors as banking and hospitals that Lean and Six Sigma clearly can be applied to services, and that information and people are the key components in their processes.

The same is true in R&D, with perhaps more emphasis on information (and data and knowledge).  Indeed, in my days as an Information Manager, we often talked about information flow, and information mapping of both internal and external (published) information as inputs and outputs of the R&D process.

Just as in manufacturing, Lean and Six Sigma in services and R&D will help us to address:

  • Customer focus
  • Reduction or elimination of defects and wasted time, effort and money
  • Improving speed
  • Reducing complexity (more about this later)
  • All levels of organisations and processes

There are some very real challenges in applying Lean and Six Sigma to Services and R&D

Processes in a service or R&D environment, other than those required for legal, regulatory or safety reasons are much less visible than in manufacturing.  And yet once a discussion is opened on these, it’s likely that many variations on carrying out the same piece of work, and the opportunities and benefits of identifying and implementing best practices will be discovered.

There is a tradition of people valuing and perhaps being rewarded for their individual and creative problem solving approach, and a fear that standardizing ways of doing things might threaten that.  The value of standardizing approaches to free up creativity is something I’ve talked about elsewhere5.

The lack of (meaningful) data around service delivery and service and R&D process performance can be a real challenge, although for Library and Information professionals this is something they are increasingly conscious of – see for example a recent article in CILIP’s Gazette6.

‘Waste’ in services and R&D is also less tangible than in manufacturing, but certainly the experience of RiverRhee Consulting’s clients is that you only need to start paying attention to the way you are doing your work to discover lots of exciting opportunities for improvement!

How to not treat customers as inventory

This is a great concept for Services to consider with respect to their end-users, and for R&D (and Service) organisations to consider with their internal customers (or “process partners” as George suggests as alternative terminology).

I was reminded of the value of his suggested approach whilst queuing to go through passport control in the Paris Eurostar terminal.  It’s an approach that is also used (not always in an enjoyable way for us end-users) by Call Centres.

Rather than letting your customers (or their requests, issues etc.) pile up as ‘work in process’ and adversely affect the average processing time, George suggests using a triage system.  That way, the straight-forward customers e.g. those going through passport control with no visa issues, criminal records etc. can be waived through in less than a minute.  Specialised staff can be on-hand to deal with customers, requests or issues needing more detailed attention.

This is an approach that Medical Information Services for instance have chosen to adopt, with front-line staff (or generalists) dealing with more routine queries, and internal more specialised staff available to deal with the others.

The importance of addressing complexity

George’s description of why and how to address complexity is well worth reading in detail.  Put simply this is about recognizing that people and processes will be less productive if they are:

  1. Having to deal with many different ways of doing things
  2. Juggling too many things at once

So for instance if a Pharmaceutical R&D environment has many different assays, but only 20% of them are being used to meet 80% of their internal or external customer needs, then they need to reconsider the value (or return on investment) of that wider range of assays.  The challenge for their staff, and potentially their processes is the greater set-up time and learning needed to deal with less familiar assays.

Similarly, a Library and Information Service providing a wide range of choices to end-users, might want to set the expense and skills needed to maintain that choice against the number of customers using them and the value to them or any form of revenue generated.

Additionally, any form of standardization that can be introduced in the intermediate process steps involved to deliver the wider choice for internal and external customers, will cut down on the additional expertise, learning and time needed for routine activities, speed them up, and free people up to devote that time and expertise to being creative, innovative and contributing even more value to customers!

By the way, this is also something that Stephen Covey talks about7.

Achieving successful implementation of Lean and Six Sigma

George gives a very useful step-wise set of guidelines, amply illustrated by case studies on planning and preparing for implementation (readiness), making sure that all the key players are excited about and asking for the change (engagement), putting the infrastructure in place (mobilization), and actually implementing, monitoring and learning from the results (performance and control).

How to successfully implement change is a perennial challenge, in Service and R&D organisations as elsewhere.  It’s one that we touched on in our recent RiverRhee Consulting newsletter8, and it’s one that I will be speaking about at IQPC’s conference in April3.


  1. Lean and Six Sigma in Service, by Michael L George, McGraw-Hill, 2003
  2. Applying knowledge management to operational excellence in a laboratory environment,  Smart Lab Exchange, 28 February – 2 March, 2011, Marriott Hotel, Berlin http://www.smartlabexchange.com/Event.aspx?id=369178
  3. Business Process Excellence for Pharma, Biotech and Medical Devices, 6th-8th April 2011, London, UK http://www.bpe-pharma.com/Event.aspx?id=441160
  4. RiverRhee Consulting training programme – http://www.riverrhee.com/Training-and-Development-110.html
  5. How Lean can bring real benefits to innovation in Pharmaceutical Research Six Sigma & Process Excellence IQ, 8th January 2010, http://www.sixsigmaiq.com/article.cfm?externalID=1720
  6. Penny Bailey.  Fighting cuts with facts and figures, Gazette, 30 September – 13 October 2010, p 10
  7. “Predictable results in unpredictable times”, by Stephen R. Covey, Bob Whitman and Breck England. FranklinCovey Publishing, 2009.
  8. Effectively engaging customers in change management and day-to-day work, RiverRhee Consulting Newsletter, December 2010 http://wp.me/p1jPm6-d