This three-part article reviews three approaches to explaining Six Sigma that the author has seen backfire, along with an alternative. Part 2 looks at Traps 1 and 2. Part 3 looks at the third trap.

Humankind has successfully split the atom and put people on the moon, but explaining Six Sigma to busy business leaders is a different matter.

I’ve been in dozens of meetings where a leader – sometimes a department VP, other times a division president or CEO – has asked for a description of “this Six Sigma thing.” Each time, someone responded with talk of continuous improvement, customer voices and data-driven decisions. The leaders were usually very quiet during these explanations – too quiet. And, after almost every meeting, I would hear the person who gave the explanation grumble that the leader “just didn’t get it.” Sometimes the person grumbling was me!

In the spirit of continuous improvement, I began to ask, why? Why don’t leaders “get it” as quickly and easily as we’d like? Possibly the root cause is in the way Six Sigma is typically explained. In other words, the problem may not be distracted or dumb leaders. My hypothesis is that leaders new to Six Sigma don’t need to know about Six Sigma to become engaged, they need to know what Six Sigma looks and feels like in their world.

You Need Leaders to Lead Quality

Leadership support is a prerequisite for quality. Leaders set the agenda, make the rules, and sign the checks. Without leadership’s genuine commitment, your company’s Six Sigma effort will end with the same results as quality guru Dr. Deming’s quality campaigns of the 1940s. He didn’t require leadership involvement and ended up with “nothing” he said, “not even smoke.” Leadership buy-in is necessary, but not sufficient. Leaders must literally lead the way.

Certainly, no one can effectively lead what he or she doesn’t understand. That’s why crafting a compelling and accurate explanation of Six Sigma is so valuable.

Explanation Traps and How to Avoid Them

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
  • Trap #2: It’s Good for You
  • Trap #3: It Only Works If Everyone Does It
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