How can Six Sigma be integrated with ISO?

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Imagine working for a corporation that is operating at an overall quality level of about Six Sigma.  In terms of capability, this means that the company would be about 1,800 times better than the average organization (about Four Sigma).  So, what would such a difference be like?  If it existed, what would not need to exist?

To explore this question, let us set the stage with a very simple example.  Suppose that a company’s flagship product contains 1,000 critical-to-quality characteristics (CTQs), and every such characteristic was verifiably Six Sigma capable.  Of course, this would translate to a long-term first-time process yield expectation of 0.9999966^1,000 = 0.99660497, or about 99.7 percent.  This means that only 1 out of about every 295 production units would be expected to contain one or more defects.  In the short-term, only 1 out of about every 1,000,000 production units would be considered defective.  Certainly, with such a level of quality it is highly doubtful that the organization could materially benefit from any of the ISO standards.  If anything, these standards would likely “get in the way of running a quality business.”

Today, we are undated with management journals that routinely feature some top executive proclaiming the need to quickly realize profound, sweeping corporate change.  Naturally, they insist that such change is necessary to ensure business viability and vitality.  At the same time, it is paradoxical that some quality journal is likely featuring an article elucidating the merits of ISO standards.  In an almost surreal way, the two dichotomous aims flow down the river of sub-optimization.

Interestingly, the ISO standards are just that, they are standards – robust guidelines that are specifically designed to ensure a stable, static system of business.  Never mind that such standards (as well as their supporting documentation) tend to discourage operational deviations and structural change — two of the vital paths to innovation.  Yes, such standards have strong intuitive appeal.  Yes, these standards even sing to the glorious merits of common sense – but then again, common sense has rarely produced a breakthrough in business performance.  Extraordinary reasoning is what motivates uncommon accomplishments (business or otherwise).

Once the mechanics of a management system have been properly and thoroughly documented in accordance to ISO standards, certain elements of the management team are then provided incentives (direct and indirect) to ensure the status quo.  Unfortunately, such a “system lock-down” usually occurs before the organization was able to realize quantum change (i.e., Six Sigma capability).  How tragic it is to be locked into a perpetual circle of mediocrity (Four Sigma capability) by the chains of documentation.  It is so unfortunate that the same devices intended to “make the business better” often thwarts what it needs most — breakthrough.

It must be remembered that Six Sigma was created to break the status quo, not ensure it.  Six Sigma is about dynamic change of a quantum nature.  Devices like ISO (and other such standards) cannot drive the aims of Six Sigma.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Breakthrough is never realized through “documentation.”  Breakthrough is about vision, leadership, innovation, and adaptation.  Breakthrough cannot be achieved through more and better guidelines.  Breakthrough comes from the head, heart, and gut, not from a book or set of guidelines.

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