There are countless business books out there that present good reasons why it is not necessary to be 100% right all the time. Beyond being unnecessary, I think being completely right is highly over-rated in the context of business. Being 80% right and good at executing is probably more than sufficient in most cases. Not all cases, of course, but most. Being 50% or even 25% right and good at executing is certainly better than being 100% right and unable to execute. But clearly, this message is not getting through to the Six Sigma crowd.

I say this because the majority of philosophical conversations I hear about continuous improvement still revolve around a driving need to be right. These range from high level (Is Lean or Six Sigma the right program for this company? Have we got the right set of tools? Are our senior executives saying the right things?) to very specific (Are we doing measurement system analysis right? Do we have the right project selection process? Is our interpretation of capability indices right?). But they all rest on a common assumption that being right about the various aspects of continuous improvement is necessary.

I’ll do the 80% contingent one better and propose that being right is neither necessary nor sufficient for a continuous improvement program like Six Sigma to work. I’m not even sure it is worth worrying about.

The sufficiency clause is easier to argue, because libraries are filled with books by people that are right. Deming was right. Shewhart was right. Ishikawa was right. Juran was right. Womack is right. Wheeler is right. There are even some consultants out there who are right. Plenty of people over time have got things right. But there are still many of organizations doing it wrong, even though they’ve read all of the books and hired the consultants. So clearly being right isn’t sufficient for being successful.

There is also ample evidence that being right isn’t necessary for being successful. I’ve seen multitudinous cases where flawed methodology or assumptions were used to generate genuine process improvements. And not just by luck. There are plenty of Green Belts and Black Belts out there who misuse the statistical toolset they have been handed and still turn out great results. Same thing for Lean or any other methodology you care to mention.

Indeed, this latter phenomenon is a fixation both in the community and in the popular business press. There are plenty of detractors out there who gleefully point at holes in the methodology, highlight inappropriate shortcuts, and take pride in identifying errors. I’m tired of hearing from those people…not because they are incorrect, but because what they are correct about doesn’t matter. What those folks don’t realize is that being wrong doesn’t have much of an impact on the success of the program as a whole. Because being right is almost irrelevant.

You only have to be vaguely right – let’s say 25% for the sake of argument – to have a program that adds significant value for an organization. That’s because the real value of these programs is forging a common approach and methodology across the organization. Getting people on the same page and (to mix metaphors) marching in the same direction.

Let me put it another way. Take the usual assumptions about running a successful program. Any book, consultant, or expert will tell you that the following are needed (your list may vary):

  • The support of senior management
  • Top-notch training on the methodology
  • The best people assigned to the most important problems
  • Adequate resources, support,and budget
  • The focus of the organization for a sustained period of time

My point is simply this: if you manage to get all of those things in place, what you decide on as the content of the program is largely immaterial. You want to teach DMAIC? Fine. Want to make Lean your thing? Fine. Want to invent your own methodology? Fine. Want to have hula classes and a luau every Friday? Fine. It really doesn’t matter. The entire point of the program is to force the bullet points above to happen. Do whatever you have to do, call the program whatever you have to call it, just make sure those things happen. Because once they do, the rest is just details. Hula and luau can work just as well as Lean and Six Sigma.

This, ironically, is why Six Sigma has been so successful and so long-lived. Not because it is especially right – Lord knows there are holes in the philosophy and methodology you could drive a truck through. (1.5 sigma shift, anyone? CpK without control charts, anyone? I could go on…) But rather because it is very, very good at motivating the organization towards the goals described above. And that turns out to be much more important than being right.

About the Author