Is Six Sigma just a fad – another flavor-of-the-month initiative that will blow over in a few years? Without proper leadership, what is labeled Six Sigma in some organizations may indeed fall by the wayside. However, done right, the tools, methods and culture that are true Six Sigma will be here for decades to come. And years from now, whether it is called Six Sigma or by some other name, this methodology and management strategy will be propelling organizations to lasting success.

There are three things about Six Sigma which will keep it from fading away as just another quality fad. First, the core of Six Sigma methodology is simply a sound decision-making process, presented in a way that can be produced and reproduced throughout an organization. Second, the discipline to execute effectively and efficiently is characteristic of a Six Sigma culture, as Six Sigma tools and methods support management in communicating its vision and direction. Finally, in order to achieve long-term success, an organization must innovate while simultaneously keeping employees productive. Six Sigma tools and structure can help an organization balance the drive for productivity with the need to innovate.

Making Sound Decisions

At the core of Six Sigma methodology is the DMAIC roadmap (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control). When completely overhauling an old process or designing a new one, an organization can apply the DMADV roadmap to Design for Six Sigma (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify). While the tools vary from project to project, following the roadmap improves the chances of achieving success.

The first three phases – Define, Measure and Analyze – are the decision-making process. Everyone probably has been told, “The first step to solving a problem is to define it.” With Six Sigma, the problem is defined by first defining the process, and then measuring the process outputs to see just how bad it is. During the Measure phase of a Six Sigma project, the key process inputs also are measured to ensure there is enough information to make a sound decision. Once the inputs and outputs have been measured, the cause-effect relationships between inputs and outputs are Analyzed, determining what changes are necessary on the input side in order to get the desired outputs.

Decision-making Process
Decision-making Process

These are the basic steps involved in making any decision:

  • Lay out the problem.
  • Evaluate how bad the problem is, its urgency and importance.
  • Once it is determined that a decision is needed, weigh the options using the knowledge of cause and effect.
  • If enough is known to make the best decision possible in the time allowed, choose a course of action.
  • If more information is needed, put off the decision while the matter is studied further.

This much of the Six Sigma methodology is no more than applying the right tools at the right time in the decision-making process. By this measure, Six Sigma will be around as long as people strive to make the best possible decisions. The better the data gathered and the greater the understanding of causal relationships, the less an organization must resort to intuition or just plain guessing. Perhaps a company’s CEO and CIO may already make great decisions, but they cannot make every single one. And if the whole organization does not excel at making great decisions, there is no way a company can be the best it can be – or in other words, “world-class.”

Having the Discipline to Execute

Once a company has determined the best solution to a problem or the best course of action, it must execute and sustain the improvement or it has gained nothing. In the DMAIC roadmap, this is done in the Improve and Control phases. Like the decision-making steps, this is neither new nor mysterious. It is simple organizational discipline. Employees execute their assigned tasks according to the defined procedures. That is not to suggest that employees are motivated out of a fear of being punished. In a healthy disciplined organization, they do it voluntarily because they believe in the leadership and take pride in what they do. With organizational discipline, management is freed from “looking over the shoulder” of employees so it can spend more time on things like strategic planning or process improvement.

When employees in a company can see how they are doing in terms of hard data, it is easier for them to take pride in what they do. Good metrics mean less fear for employees that they will be judged unfairly, according to the “feelings” of a supervisor. Six Sigma requires openly measuring the right things in the right ways, getting people involved in a process fully engaged in optimizing that process, helping everyone see how they fit into the big picture and how their work contributes to the bottom line. In all these ways, the Six Sigma toolbox can help any organization achieve the discipline it takes to successfully execute wise management decisions.

Balancing Innovation and Productivity

The third way Six Sigma contributes to the long-term success of an organization is by helping achieve and sustain high levels of both innovation and productivity. In a competitive marketplace, organizations must innovate both in what they produce and in how they produce it. At the same time, organizations absolutely must achieve a high level of productivity in order to realize the profits from innovation.

Unfortunately, there is a fundamental conflict between traditional productivity management methods and an environment that fosters innovation. Successfully managing both innovation and productivity is critical to achieving world-class status. On one side, organizations have countless tools to drive productivity, such as those that track employee activities and time management. New ways keep being invented to keep employees from wasting “company time.” On the other side, are the masters of fun and innovation telling companies to get rid of structure and discipline – hire the best people and get out of their way. Tear down cubicle walls and let people make their own rules. Throw fish. Promote creativity and happy thoughts, and that will take care of everything.

The trouble is customers want predictability and consistency. When they come to visit, they do not want to get hit in the head with a salmon. It takes some structure and control to consistently satisfy customers. How does Six Sigma help? As discussed, Six Sigma metrics and discipline support the drive for productivity. At the same time, a Six Sigma culture requires management to plan time for people to work at innovation. It provides a structured environment in which creativity, innovation and productivity can coexist.

The Six Sigma approach also helps get the most out of an organization’s creative energy. A wide-open creative environment may foster lots of ideas, but most of them are of no value to the customer. Coming up with truly original ideas or inventing new technology is only a small component of innovation. The greater part is applying concepts – new or old – in ways that serve customers better. With the Six Sigma approach, the team starts with an understanding of what truly matters to the customer. A cross-functional team with good leadership can pull new and old ideas from throughout the organization, applying them to meet the customer’s needs in new ways.

Recognize the Full Potential

If an organization sees Six Sigma as just another quality fad, then it is missing the program’s full potential. Six Sigma is not just about doing a project to deliver some product or service a little better. Look beyond the tools. Look to the value of a Six Sigma culture in which everyone in the organization on every level follows sound decision-making techniques and executes with discipline. Using the Six Sigma methodology and tools can help an organization move forward, but the greatest value for a company is to also establish a Six Sigma culture. That is the key to achieving or maintaining world-class status.

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