A powerful process improvement tool since the 1980s, Six Sigma has grown in popularity over recent years while less effective initiatives have faded away. Yet some still believe Six Sigma will ultimately share that same fate. These skeptics are people who feel burdened by the disruption Six Sigma has caused in their responsibilities and authority. It is up to managers to face the skeptics and set the right tone for a deployment, while keeping happy those people who believe in Six Sigma – the converts.

Understanding Skeptics and Converts

Those who have bothered to sit down and talk with a skeptic often find the skeptic’s opinion of Six Sigma stems from the intimidation they felt when the methodology was first deployed. Skeptics often confess that they felt the training curriculum they received was inaccessible and inadequate.

In the opposing corner from the disbelievers are the believers. They fall into two categories.

There are those who converted very quickly, usually while in training or while reading their first Six Sigma book. Typically, these people have non-engineering backgrounds and are enticed by the power of statistical techniques.

Then there are the slow converts. These people tend to have engineering or mathematical backgrounds, and their initial reaction to Six Sigma was most likely confusion. The realization that a portion of their prior academic training was being repackaged in bite-sized chunks and fed to former liberal arts and business majors disturbed them. These slow converts are rarely the agents of change their managers may want them to be. Instead, they provide the necessary and stable backbone of a Six Sigma program. They avoid getting too excited, they rarely bite off more than they can chew and they keep the quick converts grounded in reality.

Changing the Tide

The task of turning the skeptics into believers falls on the shoulders of upper management, whose idea it was to deploy Six Sigma in the first place. To be successful, managers cannot afford to be skeptical. Nor can they afford to let skepticism fester. Managers must do their best to keep the converts they have while at the same time chip away at the skeptics.

Most managers feel that the key to winning converts is to achieve quick wins as soon as possible. The most popular method for accomplishing this is by utilizing Kaizens. While the focus on quick wins can be a great plan, when viewed under the microscope, there are risks associated with this strategy.

Avoiding Kaizen Pitfalls

It is true that Kaizens are a powerful tool and can accelerate the momentum of culture change. However, alleviating the current process constraint is the only way to increase system throughput, and most Kaizens do not target the current constraint. Therefore, most Kaizens do not achieve an improvement in system throughput. Many might ask, “But isn’t any kind of improvement still improvement?” The answer: Not necessarily.

There are two other inherent risks in a Kaizen-focused approach to deployment. The first is that the financial expectations of senior management tend to grow proportionally to the total number of events completed. Over time, this can result in extreme pressure for “big” wins instead of quick wins. Those Six Sigma practitioners who give in to this pressure are susceptible to taking on more projects than they can handle, which can ultimately lead to a stalled deployment.

The second risk is that if there is not a reasonably quick transition from Kaizens and rapid improvement events to longer, more analysis-intensive projects, then the entire continuous improvement initiative may become synonymous with Kaizens. If a sufficient amount of time elapses, it will become significantly more difficult to get back on track and progress onto a more quantitative focus.

Kaizens are invaluable at achieving culture change because they are highly visible displays of change. They are the key to getting the skeptics on board. Once a critical mass of supporters is on board, however, Kaizens should be slowly replaced with more rigorous methods, such as full-scale DMAIC projects, for optimizing system performance.

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