Six Sigma Doesn’t work?

Posted on 10 Oct 2008 by The Manufacturer

There’s a rumour going around, and I’ve heard it from lots of people. Believe it or not, some people are claiming that Six Sigma doesn’t work, and Lean is the only approach you should take to effect continuous improvement.

Any unsupported process improvement initiative is destined to fail, no matter what moniker is assigned to it. Over the past few years, I have seen Six Sigma approaches drift further and further away from what General Electric Co., Motorola and Allied Signal (now Honeywell) designed them to be. If you have studied your quality history, you will know that the Six Sigma approaches employed by these companies and other forerunners worked because they included design features that were not part of the quality circle movement of the 1980s. Real Six Sigma worked for two key reasons:

1. increased support
2. increased focus

Ironically, we have reached a point in time when many people are buying Six Sigma packages that closely mirror those approaches that caused most quality circle programs to fail. If you are not familiar with this approach, here it is:

1. collect ideas from all of your people
2. provide a few days of training
3. form some teams to work on what appear to be the high-leverage projects

Quality circles failed because:

* Top-Management: Top management involvement and management have been suggested as key factors related to the success of QC programs. Top management involvement is essential in setting up the policy and guidelines and helps to promote more funding, participation, guidance, and cooperation throughout the company. QCs‘ participative problem solving and upward communication can open boundaries between management and worker that have traditionally been closed. Thus, communication channels to top-management are very important.

* Inadequate funding: Lack of financial support, or management’s unwillingness to invest a large amount of money to support the programs may also cause QCs to drop a project. The lack of recognition of circle accomplishments is also very critical.

* Middle-Management (Supporting Staff): QCs with a high level of middle-management support have worked on more projects and have a higher amount of cost savings than those with a low level of support. Resistance by staff groups and middle management and prohibitive costs are threats to the programs’ survival.

* QC Members: QC members’ motivation, commitment, cooperation, and effort in solving their problems may also influence the success or failure of the programs. Further, the lack of members’ problem-solving skills and training and the lack of knowledge of operations are threats to programs’ survival. Interestingly, About 37% of Toyotas assemblers participate in Toyota’s global “Quality Circles” competition that pits worker against worker in a friendly competition to develop more efficient manufacturing methods. Twice a year, Toyota holds a competition to identify the best ideas. A Silver Circle award is presented for the best idea from one of every four quality circles. One of every four Silver Circles wins a Golden Circle award. The winners of the Golden Circle then face off against each other in the Global Quality Circle competition, often held in Japan.

* Low volunteer rate and the stability o.f the QC membership: may also influence QCs’ problem-solving process. Thus, turnover in an organization is an important factor related to the success and failure of these programs.

* The Nature of The Task: The nature of the project and the timing of the project seem important. First, the complexity and difficulty of the project may also have some impacts on the success of QCs. Sometimes, the project may be too complex and difficult for members to identify the solutions. As mentioned earlier, participants have limited power and are limited to the types of problems they are allowed to work on.

* Data and Time: Finally, the availability of necessary data, information, and time to solve the problems is very critical. Besides on-time delivery, Japanese supervisors display a strong management commitment to quality, yet U.S. supervisors expressed far less concerns on quality but placed a heavy emphasis on meeting production schedules. Therefore, it is plausible that management personnel in the U.S. may have a higher priority on meeting production schedules than on spending time to collect data and information for QC activities. This concern again is closely related to management commitment.

Do you know many green belts an organization of 250 people should have?

What percent of their work time should be devoted to Six Sigma projects?

According to Mikel Harry’s book, Six Sigma, the answers are:

“one per 20 employees”


“it depends.”

Harry states that there is no formula for how a green belt’s time should be used, but the ‘one green belt per 20 employees’ ratio is explicitly stated. In General Electric, becoming a green belt is a requirement for all exempt employees, and in most cases, you need a black belt certification to get promoted. We are regressing toward our ineffective quality past, and yet we have the nerve to blame the tools when the users use them wrong. It’s like saying a cordless drill doesn’t work because we failed to charge the battery first. We must build project-focused and continuous process improvement expectations into every employee’s job.

Many companies think lean works through reduced headcount, but they have yet to realize that short-term gains will most likely come back to haunt them as customer service slides and process failures increase. The reduced waste (fewer people and lower labor costs) looks polished on this quarter’s financial report, but what happens if we are also trimming away those skills and relationships that provide value to our customers? We are essentially watering down a powerful approach to process improvement on a day-by-day basis.

What’s the case in your organization? Are you properly supporting your Six Sigma efforts with well-trained, focused and effectively supported leaders, or are you repeating the mistakes that many of us made 20 years ago?

With each day that goes by, we are losing ground. If we don’t stop this erosion, where will we end up?

By Rob Thompson of LearnSigma blog

Your thoughts? Lean and Six Sigma essential or just a wate of time? How have your initiatives worked out? Leave a comment below…