As I was scanning news this week, a couple of articles caught my eye. The first was a piece by Damon Darling in the New York Times about Farecast, an airfare search engine that aims to predict how much the price of an airline ticket will rise or fall before the flight actually occurs. Says Hugh Crean, Farecast’s chief executive, “This is predictive technology — we won’t achieve clairvoyance. We repredict and resimulate against our database to get better and better at what we are doing.”

The second article that got my attention concerned the use of InnoCentive, an online portal that aims to connect organizations having scientific problems with researchers who can solve them. In the piece, Ann M. Thayer of Chemical and Engineering News spoke with Dan Kittle, Vice-president of Research and Development for Dow Chemical’s AgroSciences Unit.

According to Thayer, Kittle admits that “the approach was a bit ad hoc at first.” Kittle himself says of the InnoCentive program that “we learned quickly that we needed to put some structure around it help drive it.” Kittle continues “You’ve got to be able to get a challenge down to something for which you rationally believe there are the expertise, understanding, and capability to directly approach.”

Does any of this sound familiar? It sure does to me. The problem that Farecast faces – the development of predictive models and the accuracy of predictions – is one that occurs to some extent in almost all Six Sigma projects. In programs I am involved with, we even tackle it the same way Farecast does: state a prediction, test that prediction against reality, evaluate the thinking that produced the prediction, and iterate until we have a useful model. It’s not a “Six Sigma” approach per se, but rather an application of the scientific method.

The InnoCentive piece highlights how useful it can be to inject a little bit of structure into the project selection process. And furthermore, that even a very good problem solving method probably won’t be magic. These too are conversations I have had repeatedly in the context of Six Sigma deployment. Even though the Innocentive folks really have nothing to do with Six Sigma, they face exactly the same problems we do.

What to make of this? The comments from Dow and Farecast illustrate that folks outside the Six Sigma bubble face exactly the same issues thatwe do. The reason these article caught my eye is because it seems to me the longer I stay in the Six Sigma world, the less “Six Sigma work” I do. In fact, my activities tend to focus, rather generically, on the following:

1. People: Finding the right people and developing them
2. Process: Developing effective processes and discipline to process
3. Projects: Selecting the right projects and executing them efficiently

Literally everything I do (professionally!) falls squarely in one of these areas. What’s interesting to me about this (admittedly non-novel) observation is that on the surface none of it has anything to do with Six Sigma. Rather, Six Sigma just happens to be a framework in which to work. I honestly don’t believe there’s anything special about Six Sigma other than that. All the hoopla, all the jargon, all the acronyms, all the bizarre terminology – perhaps the real and only value of those things is that they force us to focus and get organized about our people, process and projects. In other words, Six Sigma forces us to answer the fundamental questions. And if we don’t do that, well, there are a million dead corporate initiatives out there that show what happen if we don’t. We spend a lot of money and create a lot of cynicism, only to end up back we started again.

My point is that the fundamental questions of business (examples: How do we decide what work to do? How do we develop our people? How do we innovate? How can we predict more accurately?) never really go away. And I don’t think you’ll find very good answers for any of them within a Six Sigma program. In fact, it’s been my experience that what separates a good Six Sigma program from a bad one is how effectively these questions have been answered before deployment begins. Which is probably true of any initiative within the organization.

So, Six Sigma provides a reason to focus on the important, foundational questions that the business faces. That’s not news. But perhaps that exuse to focus isactually the true value of Six Sigma – not the projects or roadmaps or certifications or belts anything else.Because the business is going to spend a tremendous amount of time, resources, and money on a typical Six Sigma deployment, there is strong impetus to have answers to those fundamental questions before the deployment begins. And maybe once we have some decent answers, what we deploy doesn’t matter very much at all, as long as we do it well.

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