Six Sigma is an amazingly persistent program. I was left off the list for the official birth announcement, but someone should probably be planning ahead for a thirtieth birthday party in the next few years. That’s remarkable longevity for trumped up flavor-of-the-month program.

I think Six Sigma is utterly absurd in many respects. Even if you love the methodology, you have to admit that the jargon and belt terminology are over the top. Honestly, to the uninitiated we must sound like a group of arcane techno-monks spoiling for a fight. We’re the drag queens of the quality world.Six Sigma training methods are generally excruciating, and often rooted in dubious pedagogy. Quality control at the program level is non-existent. Statistical methods are routinely abused. Many conclusions reach are just plain wrong. I can see all this quite clearly, and I like the program.

So why does Six Sigma survive? If it is patently ridiculous, potentially misleading on crucial questions, and generally very annoying, why do people keep using it? The answer is simple, I think: because despite all that, it works. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Consider the window dressing that accompanies a full-blown Six Sigma project. For the sake of this example, let’s assume we’re looking at one of the first projects in an organization. The process probably kicked off with the search for a consulting partner. Six Sigma consultants come at great expense, so some native set of requirements likely kicked in that required multiple consultancies to be evaluated by a high-level team. Once the consultant was picked, candidates for training had to be selected. Because the training is so expensive, this again required a great deal of concerted time and attention from the organization. Ditto for project selection. Finally training takes place, and everyone has to learn a whole new dictionary. The project gets rolling, toll gate reviews start up, and they’re unlike any project meetings ever seen before. No one really understands anything. Questions are asked, arguments begun, experts called in. Eventually paths forward are determined, and execution starts. Implementation is carefully staged and monitored because, let’s face it, no one involved can afford for the project to fail at this point. Results occur, processes are changed, metrics are reported, and success is celebrated. Everyone is happy, and not a little bit relieved. Now repeat, and repeat, and repeat.

That’s a lot of rigmarole. And it’s generally considered to be the ugly side of Six Sigma, the messy underbelly that necessarily accompanies the elegant statistical approach, the data driven decision making. But I think that view gets it backward, suggests that the tail wags the dog. Far from being undesirable, I think all that rigmarole is actually what adds the value in the whole process. I’m convinced the content of the program is immaterial. All the program content needs to do is trigger the window dressing, because the window dressing is what gets the right people in the room.

Let me put it another way. Many companies hire consultants to do things that they supposedly cannot do for themselves. But it is sometimes the case that consultants come in to the organization and seek answers to the question being asked entirely within the organization. Which is strange because logically, consultants are not needed if the answer is already present in the population hiring the consultant. (If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon you might think I‘m making it up. But ask around, because I’m sure you won’t have to go too far to find someone who can provide relevant story from your part of the world.) Development of corporate strategy is an archetypal example. So why use consultants in such cases? They are extremely expensive, and the answer is already there. Well, you use them precisely because they are expensive. Writing that check triggers a set of behaviors in the organization. It forces important players to take notice. It makes it politically dangerous to ignore the outcome of the project. It means people show up at meetings and complete their action items on time. And all that means that the answer is suddenly taken very seriously, even if it was known all along, and even if it happens to be incorrect.

I think Six Sigma works the same way. The crushing structure, bureaucracy, and cost of a deployment sends all kinds of signals to the organization that the program is important and needs to be taken seriously. I’m not saying it makes sense, but I am saying it works. All the rigmarole serves the very important purpose of getting the right people in the room, which means decisions can be made and execution can happen. The guts of the program don’t matter, as long as it serves that purpose in the end. Six Sigma does this by accident rather than by design, but it nonetheless does it very well. And that’s why I think we should probably be planning for a thirtieth birthday party.

About the Author