Six Sigma’s Misunderstood Method, Part 1

If, like many, your Six Sigma program is not providing the wow factor it promised, read on for the critical part of the methodology that was not explained to many of us.

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions

Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutionsIf, like many, your Six Sigma program is struggling or not providing the business “wow factor” that it promised, read below for the critical part of the Six Sigma methodology that was not explained to many of us.

Once upon a recent time, phones rang off the hook at the desks of Six Sigma consultants. If one had a Black Belt or Master Black Belt, he or she could demand top dollar and benefits. More recently, colleagues with belts were hard hit by the recession as businesses made hard decisions to reduce those who enabled or facilitated better work rather than reduce those who did the work.

At the time of this writing, there is a mixed bag of responses to the phrase “Six Sigma.” It seems as if, for every business that decides to incorporate the philosophy or methodology, a different business abandons it. Why is it that a methodology that rocketed Motorola from barely mediocre to world class, and has been boasted by the likes of Allied Signal, GE and Honeywell now has as many naysayers as promoters? The answer is that failures have caught up with success.

For every tale of astounding business turnaround, there is now a nightmarish horror story. For every successful venture, there seems to be a failed launch or program. Even the current leadership of Motorola, where the whole philosophy started, won’t lay claim to continuing the methodology.

Is Six Sigma done? I don’t really think so. Should it be? I shrug my shoulders. I’ve witnessed the good and the poor, the great and the ugly. I can say, however, that I believe that I understand why the failures have occurred, and what, in simple terms, distinguishes the successful from the failed. Let me explain what I can in hopes that my observations might help you reinforce, bolster or turn around your own program if it needs help.

I believe that most of us never received a clear explanation of how Six Sigma works, and therefore, how it succeeds. Even after months of training, many of us struggle to quickly and concisely explain how Six Sigma makes business better.

I believe that the crucial information that determines the success of the Six Sigma approach that was never explained, or at least not explained in a way that we understood or that adequately got our attention, is as follows.

  1. Six Sigma saves money by reducing and controlling variation.
  2. Six Sigma is a decision-making methodology.

If you are a champion or experienced swimmer in the ways of Six Sigma, then you might reject my first bullet. Variation is all over the Six Sigma training and language. How can I say that most of us didn’t get the message? To that I say, “Well, think about it. Did you really get a good explanation of why reducing variation saves money, or were you simply told to believe it?”

Let’s replay how many of us typically get Six Sigma explained to us. There’s usually an elevator speech to get the conversation started, which explains that the term “Six Sigma” refers to an ideal state in which only three parts of every million are defective. Imagine the quality and customer satisfaction and the savings if only three products in every million we deliver are defective.

Once that suggestion gets our attention, there is usually a consequential explanation that “sigma” is a mathematical symbol or representation of standard deviation, which is a measurement of the variation of a given process. The goal is to improve the process to the point where six of these standard deviations fit within the limits or the window of the specified performance or tolerance.

The conversation goes on to explain that a problem-solving approach is included in the methodology to aid in process improvement. It typically takes the form of a stepped process denoted as define-measure-analyze-improve-control (DMAIC). In addition to a problem-solving process, it is a toolbox, mostly filled with root-cause analysis and statistical tools to both measure and understand process variation and control it, and to aid in rooting out the causes of variation.

Of course, there are numerous success stories and examples thrown in by way of both selling and explaining the methodology. Does that sound like a fair synopsis of how Six Sigma is often explained?

Now, I admit that variation is discussed. But, in any of the discussions that you have ever had, did anyone sit you down and really explain that the enemy of Six Sigma is variation; that, as a soldier of the Six Sigma army, your mission is to seek out and destroy variation in all its forms, wherever you can find it? If someone did, you got better training than most. Now, here’s the kicker. Did your management staff and executive leadership get that message? Did anyone explain why variation is the enemy?

The fundamental assumption of the Six Sigma philosophy is that variation is the root of all evil. Evil manifests in the form of people doing unnecessary work to correct or control things that come out differently every time they encounter it. Evil manifests in the form of materials and products that change their behavior, or experience poor quality because each and every one is different than the one before, or from those the month before. 

Businesses lose money, or waste time and resources trying to control or manage processes and phenomenon that behave differently from event to event, or time to time. This is a very sound principle. It works for every form of business or personal endeavor, it is timeless, and it is basic. For this reason, Six Sigma is a solid idea. By minimizing variation, we can minimize wasted resources, time and money.

The problem is, that in all of the sales pitches, long explanations of the methodological approach and months of training, this fundamental principle seems to get buried, neglected, overlooked or poorly explained. I’ve worked with numerous people in Six Sigma organizations that never really understood why all the discussion of variation was important. At best, they were told that variation is bad, and they played along, but when push came to shove and long-term decisions needed to be made, the goal of investing in lesser variation lost to short-term costs.

Please tune into the Chemical Equipment Daily for part two of this two-part series. What’s your take? Please feel free to comment below!