WHAT IS THE SIX SIGMA SECRET?
By Jay Patel
There is an aura of mystery around Six Sigma--the hottest quality talk to hit big business
since TQM and ISO 9000. So what is all the talk about? Well to start, it is the systematic
culture change producing a revolutionary transformation and proving itself a HUGE
success in cutting costs and increasing the bottom line. Literally, Six Sigma means a
failure rate of 3.4 parts per million, but it has become a term to denote a conglomeration
of strategies, objectives, tools and methodologies to improve the business’
competitiveness and performance.
In short, working to Six Sigma is operating at optimal process performance level
approaching zero-defects in order to produce a product or service efficiently and
effectively. It is a focus on excellence in every aspect of an organization; an indication of
achieving world-class performance and maintaining that status. Elimination of all
internal defects is the aim—standardizing the tools and techniques and providing
intensive training for their use is the requirement.
Six Sigma’s origin is with Motorola in the mid 80’s; implemented by Bob Galvin in 1987
and culminating in the success of winning the Malcolm Baldrige Award in 1988. Why?
Survival. Motorola had to act to market changes that were putting them out of business.
Today, they are a worldwide leader in quality and profitability. After winning the
Malcolm Baldrige, their success became public knowledge and the revolution known as
Six Sigma began.
Jack Welch of General Electric describes Six Sigma as “.. the most challenging and
potentially rewarding initiative we have ever undertaken..”. Proof positive are the results
—three quarters of a billion dollars saved in the first year of implementation!
Many companies looking for results in greater profitability and earnings, greater
customer loyalty, improved product innovation, improved employee morale, broader
diversity in the workforce, and better regulatory compliance are turning to Six Sigma.
Another Quality Tool?
Sounds like a ‘new’ gimmick? Another “Quality Tool” to implement and forget? Well,
in truth, the tools and techniques that Six Sigma uses are not new. As quality has
evolved, more sophisticated methods have been developed to assure the organization runs
optimally for all the right reasons. It would be a mistake to put it on the same level as
ISO9000 or QS9000, which were developed in the interest of creating and maintaining
quality systems. The trouble with these is that they can be implemented for the sake of
implementing them. If not taken seriously, the project never does its intended work.
What makes Six Sigma successful is the methodology of management commitment,
involvement, rigorous training and statistical tools.
The results attract attention, and justification for spending significant funds to train Project
Managers comes quickly with the promise of millions in cost reductions. Projects are
chosen, implemented and realized during actual training, so results come by the time training
is complete. When a company commits to Six Sigma, they are committing all types of
resources and justifying the costs based on the potential results—causing true personal
commitment to change and improve. The other major aspect of Six Sigma’s success is in its
solid phase infrastructure. Training people to lead, train, implement and succeed is all a part
of creating a Six Sigma culture that inherently continues to succeed. And if hundreds of
thousands of dollars is what it takes to change culture for big organizations than so be it—
money is what drives this culture! Keep in mind though, that Six Sigma is similar to TQM.
The tools and techniques are not new. It is the process mentality, training and management
involvement that makes the optimal performance of Six Sigma a reality. All tools can
succeed when there is knowledge, buy-in from the top and incentive to make it work!
What makes Six Sigma so successful? Dedicated Six Sigma practitioners accomplish an
average of between $500,000 and $1,000,000 in bottom-line benefits! Upon completion of
the first project, these practitioners have all the tools, methodologies and implementation
skills to repeat for other projects and reap the benefits in other areas of the business.
Rather than attempting to improve one area, evaluating Six Sigma style requires top-down,
big picture thinking. Executives and Coaches are required to participate, enabling change
and project implementation. They are the environmental catalyst to support the projects and
their drivers. It generates excitement when project performers are enabled and empowered to
really make things happen! Opportunities for praise are abundant, people are motivated for
the right reasons, and ideas for improvement all ‘happen’ as part of the daily culture.
Breaking Down Barriers
There are five phases to the Six Sigma philosophy; Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and
Control (sound familiar to Deming’s Plan/Do/Check/Act?). These are the basis for the road
map that will be built as part of the implementation plan. Define refers to setting the project
and goals of the improvement planned. Identify the potential areas for improvement (most
areas will be blatantly obvious after a quality cost analysis). The goals will be different for
each area; strategic objectives for management and more specific objectives in operations--
there needs to be defined requirements to keep the plan on course. Target areas are added
and removed as necessary through this approach. Measure the current system. Establish the
metrics that will monitor your defined goals. Re-evaluate their validity and reliability
regularly. Analyze your system. Apply statistical tools to identify the gap between
performance and goals—these are your facts to prove the project, the process and the
measures developed. Control this new system. Establish the culture needed to continue and
improve the system—develop the policies, procedures, incentives, budgets, and instructions
that will carry the system forward and continue the development of the people.
Where To Begin…
The start of a Six Sigma program comes with the initial strategy of desiring to be the best.
Your objectives need to match the direction the company and focus on how you will make it
to the top. Providing training will be the initial step in showing serious commitment.
Determine and set focus on the organizations needs. Select the appropriate Champions and
Sponsors—if you don’t know who they are, find an expert who can help you. Getting
assistance and support to develop the program is key—hiring an expert who is a leader is a
necessity! The experts should offer the following at a minimum:
1) Ability to offer effective training on all the applicable topics
2) History of success in process improvements
3) Experience in Six Sigma methodology
4) Staff with a variety of expertise to meet both the training and consulting needs
5) Service at a reasonable cost with guaranteed satisfaction
Leading the Way
Six Sigma requires that the organizational barriers be removed to achieve the strategic goals.
Only Senior Management can lead this effort—leading, directing, and communicating the
objectives to achieve success in implementation. How? By being an example, making
decisions based on fact and empowering the workforce to succeed in all of their projects.
Champions are typically higher-level management individuals who understand Six Sigma,
who are skilled in process and project management, and who are committed to the program’s
success. They constantly live and breathe the Six Sigma reality.
There are two types of project managers in this program: the Black Belt and the Green Belt.
The Black Belts hold the most important role in the Six Sigma implementation—they are
responsible to follow the principles and practices of Six Sigma methodology. Black Belts are
the experts in statistics and project detail, applying the methods and training in their use in
order that team members use them properly. Green Belts support the breakthrough
improvements and are trained with the same project and quality management skill set as a
Black Belt. Most often, Black Belts will aid the Green Belts in implementing their projects.
Companies are discovering bigger benefits in shorter time when they focus on issues dealing
with lost revenue: these projects grab attention and do not let go until they work properly.
By the time evaluation is complete and measurements are determined, participants have
become totally committed and the culture moves toward process improvement focus instead
of just meeting production schedules and extinguishing fires. When employees from all
levels within an organization participate with process improvement, the results are
exponentially beneficial and long term. The resulting statistics are amazing—because Six
Sigma reduces non-value added costs, the savings drop directly to the bottom line.
The success of Six Sigma has been well documented—with success averaging more than
$150,000 in savings per project. The infrastructure that Six Sigma demands is its foundation
for success. Successful deployment requires five areas of focus:
1) Management Commitment, Involvement And Leadership
2) Effective Training & Development Plan for Black Belts
3) Understanding And Focus On The Needs, Drivers And Key Business Processes
to Select the Project (by all)
4) Choosing the Right Champions and Black Belts
5) Reward and Recognition Program
Though this program has had incredible success in many organizations, keep in mind that not
all companies that have attempted Six Sigma have succeeded. It is crucial that the
implementation is well planned and all hands are on deck. This is a powerful tool and can
provide incredible results but, like TQM, it needs to be implemented properly; it cannot
happen without true management commitment and effective deployment of the Six Sigma
A secret? Six Sigma is a culture change—and these do not happen easily. Our society is old
manufacturing and management mentality—Quality Systems 101 and a focus on ‘making it
right the first time’ are not required teaching in school. Business focus is on producing a
‘product’, making money and staying alive. This program requires a great deal of training in
leadership, management and statistics, but it is no secret. Neither is the incredible success it
is bringing to those who have implemented it! Best of luck!
-Jay P. Patel ♦
Facts and information for this article were obtained from the following resources:
1) The Six Sigma Academy website at www.6-sigma.com
2) Breyfogle III, Forrest W., Implementing Six Sigma: Smarter Solutions using
Statistical Methods, Wiley, New York, NY
3) Pyzdek, Thomas, The Six Sigma Revolution, at www.qualityamerica.com