David Silverstein of BMGI discusses the details of a Six Sigma deployment.

Q: How long should a Six Sigma implementation take?

As little time as possible. However, when executed smartly, even an aggressive implementation will take 12 to 18 months to feel like you’re out of the “initial implementation” phase. From the time you make your decision to proceed, you need to train the executive team, establish support systems, train champions, allow sufficient time to select training candidates and first projects and then proceed through the first round of Black Belt training. That will take a minimum of six to eight months, and of course you’re not done.

To truly answer this question, we need to provide a definition of done. Does it mean, “I’m done with consultants and I do my own training?” Does it mean X projects completed? Or does it mean, “My Company really feels like a different place to work – we’re seeing a real change in the culture toward one that has a greater appreciation of quality, approaches problems in a more structured manner, and is more data driven in its approach to decision making.” Expect that to take 18 months for a small company or business unit, and three-to-five years for a large organization.

Q: Do you recommend a phased or “big-bang” deployment approach for your clients?

A: Either is acceptable, but what I don’t like is a “pilot” program. Telling people you’re piloting something is like saying, “you have the power to kill this if you don’t give it an honest effort. If it doesn’t go well, we’ll quit.” That can turn failure into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Compare that to a phased approach in which we agree where we’re going, we’re just going to take it one step at a time. That’s alright, but don’t go too small. If the implementation isn’t big enough to maintain the focus of the senior management team, you’re going to have problems. I prefer to see a deployment no smaller than a single profit and loss center which means someone has the authority to say, “this is how we’re going to do it,” and then stick with it.

I see a lot of consultants sell clients on the big-bang. Why not? They make more money. But many companies find the implementation of Six Sigma much more challenging than they anticipated. There’s a general rule of thumb – train 1% of your employees as Black Belts. But for most companies, that’s just too many in the first year of a deployment. It’s not a question of how much money you want to save; it’s a question of the bandwidth of an organization.

Take, for example, a company of 10,000 people. The 1% thumb rule comes to 100 Black Belts. Now consider that each Black Belt will work on an average of two projects at any one time and each project to be supported by six team members. That would equate to 1,300 people leading or supporting Six Sigma projects. It’s more than most companies can manage.

So you need to establish the right pace and scope of deployment and unfortunately, there is not canned answer to the question. Each company is unique.

Q: Do you suggest building an implementation team that consists of your own consultants as well as a company’s internal personnel?

A: A company has to assign its own people. For one, they don’t want to be beholden to consultants forever, but secondly, consultants are not leaders within the business – they’re consultants. In fact, the more heavily weighted toward insiders the better. Consultants should be used to provide guidance and experience, but what’s different about Six Sigma as compared to other types of consulting is that the goal is to teach companies to solve their own problems – not to hire consultants to solve problems for them. So there should be a disproportionate number of inside team members.

Q: At what point does a client typically become self-sufficient in their Six Sigma initiative?

A: Again, depends on the client. Some say, we want to be training our own Green Belts in a year, Black Belts in 18-months, but we’ll never train our own Master Black Belts. Others say, “We focus on our core business and outsource training.” In most cases, clients want to be self sufficient in a year but find it takes closer to two in reality. The key is that your initial plan takes into account your goals and is designed to get you there. If you want to do your own training in a year, you can’t wait until Black Belt certification is complete to decide who your Master Black Belts will be, you have to identify them almost from the beginning and start providing them opportunities to practice teaching. For most companies, training Green Belts internally makes a lot of sense, training Black Belts internally makes sense for bigger companies, and training Master Black Belts rarely ever makes sense. As for management team members, such as champions, you need someone very effective to teach internally, but it can be done.

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