In an earlier blog entry, I described my feelings on DMAIC and roadmaps in general. To make a long story short, I don’t believe they add much value to the core toolset of Six Sigma. A couple of folks quite rightly expressed their disagreement with my view via comments. I say quite rightly, because I don’t have data to back up my hypothesis that the roadmaps don’t matter. To get that data it would be necessary to run experiments at a program level comparing projects (or even entire deployments) done with and without a roadmap. I haven’t done that, and I don’t know of anyone else that has either.

Lack of data, however, generally doesn’t stop me from speculating. And in that spirit, while we’re talking about program-level and deployment-level experiments, there’s one that is even more fundamental that I have often thought about. It’s a scary one to consider about for those of us whose jobs, in whole or in part, involve arranging and facilitating Six Sigma training. The experiment essentially asks the question: does it really matter what we teach Black Belts?

Let me explain. Any Six Sigma program that I’ve ever seen or heard of (or any continuous improvement program, for that matter) starts off with a pitch to executives in which some version of the following conditions are laid out, either by external consultants or an internal champion:

  1. We need your absolute best people;
  2. We need to free up those people to focus exclusively on Six Sigma work;
  3. We need the most important projects to work on;
  4. We need to make sure those projects are properly scoped and resourced;
  5. Weneed to ensure that the organization supports people working on these projects from top to bottom.

Conditions 1-3 are usually the toughest to satisfy for reasons which are perhaps obvious, although 4 and 5 aren’t exactly easy either. In fact, most deployment leaders will tell you that a high percentage of their time is spent on 1 and 2 alone for the first few years of a deployment. Nevertheless, assuming the program is agreed to and competently managed, we end up somehow bringing our best folks together for four intense weeks of training, during which the concepts, tools, and methodology of Six Sigma are taught. Projects gets worked, and results happen. Everyone’s happy.

My question is this: what if we did exactly the same thing, but didn’t teach Six Sigma? What if we got our best folks together in a room one a week for four weeks over four months, focused them exclusively on the most important projects to the business, and gave them the resources and support they needed to get the job done… but didn’t teach them any new methodology? Would the outcome be materially different than if we taught them some roadmap or program?

In other words, maybe satisfying the conditions 1-5 – which make no mention whatsoever of methodology, roadmaps, DMAIC, statistics, etc, etc – is what continuous improvement really amounts to. Maybe the “sexy” methodology and jargon only provide a to a way to get the organization to agree to conditions 1-5 in the first place. Maybe the whole Six Sigma ball of wax is no more than a means to create the will to satisfy conditions 1-5.

This is the experiment that I invariably run in my head each time I go to a training event. I am struck every time by how bright and energetic the participants are, and how quickly they come together and make progress on their projects. This occurs in spite of – or perhaps because of – the fact that they are usually drawn from different geographies and business units. I’ve been involved with training programs that I think are absolutely top notch, but nonetheless I wonder… would these folks make more progress if we just got rid of the obstacles and let them get down to it with out interfering? Do we really need to teach them anything?

My hunch is no. I suspect if we truly got the best people focused on the most important projects with the right resources behind them, we wouldn’t actually have to teach them a thing. The problem is that conditions 1-3 are extremely difficult (maybe impossible?) to produce in the absence of a program with a lot of “sizzle”. That is, it’s relatively easy at this point in history to sell a Six Sigma program with all the attendant hoopla, but for whatever reason it’s hard to sell the idea of simply getting our best people working on our most important projects with everything else cleared out of the way. Perhaps when it comes down to it, the only reason to have a Six Sigma program at all is to create conditions 1-5. Maybe what we teach truly doesn’t matter.

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