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Meet the editor of... the International Journal of Lean Six Sigma

An interview with: Professor Jiju Antony
Interview by: Margaret Adolphus

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Photo: Jiju Antony.Professor Jiju Antony is director of knowledge exchange and director of the Centre for Research in Six Sigma and Process Excellence in the Department of Design, Manufacture and Engineering Management at the University of Strathclyde, UK. In his 14-year research career, Professor Antony has published more than 180 refereed papers and five textbooks in the areas of reliability engineering, design of experiments, Taguchi methods, Six Sigma, total quality management and statistical process control.

Professor Antony has been invited several times as a keynote speaker to national conferences on Six Sigma in China, South Africa, the Netherlands, India, Greece, New Zealand, South Africa and Poland. He has also chaired the first, second and third International Conferences on Six Sigma and first and second European Research Conferences on Lean Six Sigma and Continuous Improvement.

As a leading authority on Six Sigma and quality management, he has worked on various quality and process improvement projects for many blue chip companies and organizations in the UK, including Thales Optronics Ltd, Scottish Power, Bosch, Nokia, Rolls-Royce, GE Domestic Appliances, Scottish Widows, 3M, Philips, Triplex Components, Siemens and the Royal Navy. Professor Antony also provides lean Six Sigma yellow belt training, fast track lean Six Sigma green belt training and one-day executive overviews of lean Six Sigma.

He is on the editorial board of over eight, and a regular reviewer for five, leading international journals in quality, operations and production management. He was recently invited to the Scottish Parliament to deliver a talk on "Process and quality thinking for creating world-class business leaders in Scotland by 2020". He has been considered for Who's Who in the World in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

About the journal

Launched in April 2010, and publishing four issues a year, the International Journal of Lean Six Sigma (IJLSS) is the first peer reviewed journal to cover the combined methodologies of lean thinking and Six Sigma, which are widely used in industry.

Background

Can you explain what is meant by the terms lean Six Sigma, how the two concepts became one, and what is different, and special, about this particular method?

I need first to explain the two terms separately and then the reason for the integrated approach. Lean thinking, or lean production system, arose out of Toyota's production system in Japan. The idea is to separate out the known value-added activities or steps, and create value to customers. It involves looking at "vital time", the whole sequence of processes from start to finish.

Take a hospital visit for example. The clock starts the moment you actually enter the hospital and stops when you are discharged. But in between there are a number of processes, for example going from the reception to see a nurse, the nurse referring you to a doctor, then on to an x-ray room, and then perhaps surgery.

All these are processes, and the idea of lean thinking is to separate out the known value-added steps so that you eliminate those that are not necessary and get to the end of the whole process faster.

Six Sigma on the other hand was developed by Motorola around 25 years ago and is a business improvement methodology. Its object is to find and eliminate causes of defects or mistakes in processes by focusing on outputs. Every process has the potential for error, and the idea is to look at all the ways in which things can go wrong, especially in the eyes of the customer, and try and eliminate the defects.

Take for example the business of applying for car insurance. The process begins with your first call to the insurance company. Various things can go wrong: you can be placed in a queue and have an unacceptably long wait, you can be passed between departments, or when you receive the document you notice that your details have been recorded incorrectly or that you are being charged a higher amount than you were quoted in the phone call.

Six Sigma also looks at "excessive variation in processes" – for example, the same x-ray on the same machine with the same operator may take 15 minutes one day and 21 minutes the next. Why? How can we reduce this variation?

Six Sigma has been popular in the US, for example with General Electric, Honeywell and Motorola. However many companies in the UK (manufacturing, service and public sector) have adopted lean thinking. Lean thinking tries to minimize waste between processes while Six Sigma tries to eliminate error and variation within each process.

In early 2000, Michael George (a management consultant) from the USA, came up with this idea of integrating these two methodologies within a single framework. Believing that neither framework is a solution to all problems, he found that you can get better results if you combine the methods and integrate them within a single framework, lean Six Sigma. And research has clearly indicated that you get better results with the integrated approach.

What sorts of industries has lean Six Sigma been applied in?

It has been applied in all kinds of manufacturing and service organizations: the benchmark is the Bank of America. It is used in other financial services companies such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds TSB, Sun Alliance, and Kwik Fit, originally a provider of automotive parts, but now also a leading insurance provider in the UK.

Over the past five years I have been researching Six Sigma's use in small and medium sized companies (SMEs), and the research I have done with SMEs shows that is it equally applicable here. Hence my book, Six Sigma for the Little Guy (to be published in 2011), which describes the research and its application.

What made you want to start an academic journal on the subject?

Various factors motivated me to start on this project. During my research and teaching career I have discovered that engineers lack statistical knowledge and the ability to apply statistics to problem solving. If you look at engineers graduating from the top schools in the UK, less than 5 per cent have been introduced to practical and applied statistical methods. So the challenge is to motivate the engineering community to apply statistical methods, and that is one of the reasons why I got into lean Six Sigma, because I wanted to encourage the community to use the methodology for problem solving in organizations.

The second reason is that more than 70 per cent of Fortune 100 companies in the US are utilizing Six Sigma and lean methods for process implementation. And there is currently no journal which integrates these two methodologies. Some journals in the fields of general management, quality engineering, and quality management cover broader aspects of lean and Six Sigma, but there is no real focus there. So there is a real gap: both lean and Six Sigma are hot topics and a large number of world-class corporations are using them, but there is yet little evidence of academics across Europe engaged in Six Sigma research.

There is more research in the US, but in Europe we are far behind. For example, you might get 450-500 papers published every year on issues to do with operations management, but very few on Six Sigma related topics. And in the UK, you might get 100-150 PhDs on various operations and quality management related topics, but so far there's been less than five on Six Sigma.

So, that is the idea behind launching this journal: to provide a platform for both researchers and practitioners. There are a number of applications, but no new or significant academic knowledge. So the purpose of the journal is to encourage the academic community to submit papers.

My hope is that the two academic conferences I have founded (International Conference on Six Sigma and European Research Conference on Continuous Improvement and Lean Six Sigma), which take place every two years, will stimulate the publication of papers based on latest research developments on the Six Sigma topics.

I also founded another journal, International Journal of Six Sigma and Competitive Advantage, published by Inderscience, which now has a new editor

Mission and editorial objectives

Looking through the first two issues, your authors seem to be either from engineering or a related discipline, or consultants. Do you aim to get more contributions from business schools, if so, how, and from which disciplines?

At Cardiff Business School in Wales you have the Lean Enterprise Research Centre (LERC), which is really well known. But apart from that, lean Six Sigma has not yet reached many business schools.

However Six Sigma should be taught as a process for business improvement in operations management (including service operations), technology management, and production management. Yet pick up any textbook on operations management, for example and you will find no more than five or six pages on the subject, while in most UK business schools, you get no more than a couple of hours of teaching.

What journals would people publish in if they were not publishing in yours, and how will you persuade them to make your journal their first choice?

I have seen Six Sigma related articles in The TQM Journal and International Journal of Quality & Reliability Management, both of which are published by Emerald, as well as the Journal of Operations Management, one of the top operations management journals in the USA published by Elsevier, and Quality Engineering, the journal of the American Society for Quality, published by Taylor & Francis.

However, these journals are very broad and the International Journal of Lean Six Sigma is clearly differentiated by being far more focused. My experience over the past 18 months, from what people have said to me, is that they prefer to publish in a specialized journal related to the topic of their research.

Every three months I visit the US, to present papers or lead workshops on these two topics, and I can see that there will be a huge demand for the journal over the next five to ten years. In fact, currently a lot more papers are coming from the US than from the UK, and I expect this trend to continue.

You are keen to "bridge the gap" between theory and practice. How will you do this?

There are many ways, one is having conferences. I am also developing an international network for Six Sigma research, for which I am submitting a proposal to one of the UK's leading research funding bodies.

The idea is that we meet up in Europe in three or four countries, for sessions which I will chair, and invite speakers from different parts of the world. These speakers will talk about what is currently missing in Six Sigma methodology, and what the future holds for it. Will it evolve so that we see more changes, in the way that we have already seen Six Sigma evolving into lean Six Sigma? For example, you now hear people talking about design for lean Six Sigma and so on. How do we ensure the method's sustainability? We don't want to see Six Sigma dying in organizations after five or ten years. So my argument is that academics have a huge role to play in ensuring that this does not happen, but what, more precisely, is their role?

In your first two issues, you publish quite a few papers which provide frameworks for lean Six Sigma. Is one of your objectives as a journal to help develop these frameworks?

My experience of the introduction of Six Sigma here in Scotland, for example in Rolls-Royce, is that it's applied mainly to the production and manufacturing function. But a company has other functions – human resources, marketing, administration, finance, recruitment, research and development, sales, customer service, logistics, the supply chain – and Six Sigma principles are not being integrated across the business. If you don't integrate Six Sigma, and just apply it to manufacturing and production, it will never get into the DNA of the business.

However, applications to other functions are taking place and are being reported widely. For example in Japan and the US, we hear of Six Sigma being used with human resources, sales and marketing, administration, invoicing and billing, and customer service. It can be applied to anything that is a process, and needs to be used in that way in businesses in the UK.

You are looking for an editorial mix of empirical research, review papers, case studies and theoretical frameworks or models. What are the qualities you are looking for in each of these?

I don't want to treat the International Journal of Lean Six Sigma as a pure academic journal. I would like to see a combination of case studies, especially from the service industry and from public sector organizations, and empirical research, using surveys, and semi-structured interviews from people at various levels across the organization, both vertically and horizontally.

I would also like to see viewpoint articles, which means selecting senior managers, academics or top-class consultants from across the world and inviting them to give their opinion as to where we are going with Six Sigma and lean methodologies.

I would also like to see the development of theoretical frameworks, for example how would you apply Six Sigma developed in Motorola, in an x-ray room for a CT scan? You need to tweak it with a tailor-made methodology. Every process is different: manufacturing is different, service is different and public sector processes are different. So for each situation you need to develop tools and techniques which are applicable in that particular environment. And I would expect such accounts to look at how they arrived at that particular customized framework, as well as at the research they based it on.

If you could be granted three dream articles, what would they be on?

One would be the sustainability of lean Six Sigma. I would like to see it surviving for at least another 25 years, but how do we sustain it?

The second one would be on Six Sigma for the public sector: how the methodology has been applied in the police force, the fire service, or a city council, or hospitals (these have been using lean for some time, but want to move on to Six Sigma). For example, Strathclyde police contacted me because they were getting big variations in the blood analysis reports: the same blood samples sent to the same laboratories at the same time, but with different results and taking different amounts of time.

The third one would be lean and Six Sigma for the engineering community. Here there is both a huge need and a huge gap. I teach at both the undergraduate and postgraduate level at the University of Strathclyde, one of the top schools in Scotland, and there is a huge need for these topics to be taught. So I would like to see more applications of relevance to the engineering community, and more enthusiasm on the part of engineers for statistical methods such as Six Sigma.

And finally ...

The UK is just about to undergo an unprecedented level of cuts to its public services. How can lean Six Sigma help service providers to cut and still retain a level of service?

Fundamentally it is a question of how efficient the processes are. I think half our councils are operating below the optimum level of efficiency, at 50 as opposed to 100 per cent. So the question is, how do we apply lean and Six Sigma thinking to improve the efficiency of operations while at the same time reducing cost? It should be possible because efficiency is all about reducing cost: if you can make your process more efficient, you are reducing cost because more efficient processes mean fewer errors and therefore greater productivity.

One of the problems we are facing in public services is short-term thinking by senior managers. We need to change the mindset which thinks just for short-term results and which lacks a clear vision or strategic direction. That's the ethos that you often see in the UK's National Health Service, the police force and in councils: we are creating fire-fighting managers who only tackle problems that arise on a daily basis without determining the root cause, so the problems come back again and again. So there is a big need for a change in culture.

That change isn't going to happen overnight, we are talking about several years of hard work. We need brave leaders setting directions and targets and looking at how we transform businesses. Some benchmarking studies of private hospitals in the US, showing best working and management practices, will help.

I have just been invited to a programme called Lean Government to take place in September 2010. Hopefully the discussions there will have some positive outcomes and will be a small step in the right direction towards sustaining a good level of service within the financial restraints being imposed currently.

Editor's note

Margaret Adolphus interviewed Professor Jiju Antony in August 2010.

Visit the information page for: International Journal of Lean Six Sigma