This three-part article reviews three approaches to explaining Six Sigma that the author has seen backfire, along with an alternative. Part 1 sets the stage. Part 3 looks at the third trap.

Below, I’ve listed three approaches to explaining Six Sigma that I’ve seen backfire, along with an alternative. I don’t want to put words in your mouth. You know your company and your audience best. My goal is to help you avoid the verbal potholes I and others have already hit.

Trap #1: Mistaking Defining for Explaining

“Sigma” is part of the problem. This Greek letter (s) has been used to describe variability for generations –  but not by managers. Sigma is a nonsense word to most of them. So, whether you’re describing 6, 7 or 67 sigma, you could just as easily be talking about widgets. This makes it tempting to use a definition of the Six Sigma metric as the starting point of an explanation. This is a trap, though. It’s mistaking the means for the end.

Alternative Approach: Position the term ‘Six Sigma’ as a goal and relate it to other goals that already exist at your company. Briefly describe why Six Sigma quality goals are focused on defects, but spend more time on something closer to the leader’s world: like how he or she might contribute to the process of defining what are considered defects at your company.

Trap #2: It’s Good for You

Another clunker is explaining Six Sigma as if it is a cure for what ails the company. Statements like, ‘We need Six Sigma to force R&D to involve other functions in their planning,’ aren’t persuasive to seasoned managers. They’ve already been disappointed by other big ideas with promises of similar healing powers. People make the day-to-day choices that move a company forward (or not), and leaders know from experience that getting people to change is hard work. Ideas may give you a reason to change, but they won’t do the changing for you.

Alternative Approach: Echoing the advice of President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address (‘Ask not what your country can do for you…’), don’t limit your explanation of Six Sigma to what it will do for the company. Instead, challenge the leader to describe what the company will do for Six Sigma. What is the company capable of contributing to achieve higher quality for customers and less waste? The benefits of Six Sigma come at a price and true leaders appreciate an open accounting of what that cost might be. In addition, understanding those investments makes the potential benefits seem much more realistic (i.e., it’s not something for nothing).

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