Chances are you’ve heard of Six Sigma, perhaps in connection with General Electric, the company that made it popular in the 1990s. You may even know that Six Sigma uses statistical techniques to improve processes in both manufacturing and service industries. But did you know there is an important role for Human Resources (HR) in this sophisticated process improvement approach? Or that Six Sigma initiatives are unlikely to succeed without HR’s help?
HR professionals with the right skills can contribute to a Six Sigma initiative at both strategic and tactical levels. This article describes the areas in which HR should play a role in Six Sigma and discusses how HR professionals can increase their chances of being included in Six Sigma decision-making and implementation.
To appreciate the important role HR has in Six Sigma, it is important to begin this discussion by having an understanding of what Six Sigma is, all the roles played by others in a Six Sigma implementation, and the factors critical to a successful implementation.
Six Sigma Defined
The term “Six Sigma” is widely used to refer to all of the following:
Six Sigma has a martial arts convention for naming many of its professional roles. The chart below describes how these roles are typically defined.
Leaders and Champions usually receive high-level training on the technical aspects of Six Sigma and specific training on how to lead an initiative. At the “Belt” level, each candidate is assigned an initial “training project” that he/she will work on during the formal training period. Candidates attend classroom training for a week, work on their projects for three weeks, return to class for another week, and so on until they have acquired all the skills appropriate to their role.
As with any major organizational initiative, many factors contribute to success. Some of these factors will fall within HR’s area of responsibility, such as those discussed below.
Having the right people in the Black Belt role is critical to the success of a Six Sigma initiative. The training investment is substantial for this pivotal role. Further, Black Belts are the visible “face” of Six Sigma. They help shape the organization’s impression of Six Sigma, and, consequently, the willingness of many to embrace the initiative. Therefore, you want to pick Black Belts very carefully. (Some organizations only select Black Belts from among those who have already been identified as “high potentials.”)
HR professionals can help the Six Sigma Leader find the right people for Black Belt roles and ensure they remain in those positions for the typical two-year rotation. Potential HR contributions in this area include:
Rewarding and recognizing Black Belts and Six Sigma teams is more complex than it may appear. Black Belts join the Six Sigma initiative from various places in the organization where they are likely to have been at different job levels with differing compensation arrangements. Determining whether and how to make appropriate adjustments in level and compensation now that all these individuals are in the same role is both tricky and critical.
Similar complexities are involved at the project team level. Six Sigma projects led by Black Belts typically result in savings in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Deciding how the team should be rewarded and recognized and who should get credit for what is not easy. Yet ignoring these issues can result in resentment, reluctance to work on Six Sigma projects, and the potential failure of the overall initiative.
HR professionals can help the Six Sigma Leader tackle the challenge of establishing the right rewards/recognition. Potential HR contributions in this area include:
The work of Six Sigma is done mostly at the project team level by a Black Belt leading a small team through the steps of the DMAIC method. If the team itself does not function well or does not interact effectively with others in the organization who ultimately have to support and carry out the process changes, the project probably will not be successful. Given the typical project’s potential payback, failure can be expensive.
HR professionals can help the project teams work together more effectively. Potential HR contributions in this area include:
Many Sponsors, Champions, and Leaders look to Six Sigma as a way to change an organization’s culture to one that is more data-driven, proactive, decisive, and customer-oriented. But they often have little idea about how to achieve successful culture change.
HR professionals can help executives approach culture change in a way that addresses the underlying business goals without creating organizational resistance. Potential HR contributions in this area include:
Introducing Six Sigma into an organization is a major change that will have a profound effect on a broad group of stakeholders. Managers and employees at many levels of the organization will be asked to engage in new behaviors. In many cases, those leading other initiatives will see Six Sigma as a source of competition for resources, executive attention, and organizational power. Others may see it as an indictment of their past performance. Many will be confused about how Six Sigma fits with the large number of other ongoing organizational initiatives.
HR professionals can help reduce the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding Six Sigma and increase the levels of acceptance and cooperation in the organization. Potential HR contributions in this area include:
Just because HR professionals can play a role in the success of Six Sigma, it doesn’t automatically follow that they will be asked to participate. Unless you are in an organization that views HR as a partner in all business initiatives, you may have to push to be included in Six Sigma.
HR can greatly increase its chances of being included in the Six Sigma initiative by:
In addition to HR/organizational development-related areas, HR professionals need a familiarity with Six Sigma itself. Without a basic knowledge of the DMAIC method, supporting tools, roles, jargon, and even simple statistical methods, HR will not have the credibility it needs to be considered a potential contributor to the initiative.
The time to get this knowledge is now. Even if your organization is not rolling out or even considering Six Sigma today, there are two reasons why it is worth a HR professional’s time to become familiar with the concepts now. If the organization does decide to implement Six Sigma, there won’t be enough time to catch up. HR has to be involved at the very beginning of the initiative. In addition, there are many applications of Six Sigma to HR’s processes themselves, e.g., the payroll process, benefits administration, selection, and recruiting. HR might even consider setting an example for the rest of the organization by adopting Six Sigma techniques to enhance its own processes.
The marketing challenge is twofold. First, senior executives may not believe that the people issues are just as critical to Six Sigma’s success as are its many technical components. In that case, HR will need to sell the importance of the people side. Second, executives must perceive HR as being able to make a significant contribution on the people side of Six Sigma. Besides ensuring that it has both the required skills and knowledge described above, HR can also meet these challenges by:
HR has a substantial role to play in the success of a Six Sigma initiative. But it will have the opportunity to contribute only if its professionals have the right skills and knowledge and are able to show Six Sigma executives the value they can add. Gain those skills now and make sure senior leadership knows how HR can help support the success of the initiative. Only then will they realize they just cannot do it without you!