In the early 1990s, US West was an organization that was leading the charge in telecommunications. At the time, their buildings were being plagued by disruptive false fire alarms. How it was dealt with is a great example of how to apply the Six Sigma quality improvement process, a method applicable to nearly any quality issue that you might be having in your organization.

US West was experiencing a large number of false fire alarms and had several theories as to what the culprit might be. By “false fire alarm,” I am not referencing some obscure business term; I am talking about actual fire alarms. The amount of disruption that these caused at the organization was significant enough that the team there knew that something had to be done. By applying the Six Sigma Quality Improvement process, the team was able to drastically cut down on false alarms that cut into the workflow.

US West Discovered They Had a Problem

In the early 1990s, Jay Arthur was working at an advanced research facility for US West, a telecommunications company. The organization was riding high as a pioneer in its system-wide implementation of innovative telephone technology, such as being the first local phone company to offer the popular Caller ID service in 1991. The geographic presence of the company was also a major asset, with population growth in its service area assisting in tripling US West’s subscriber base in a very short period of time. The company’s strength made it difficult for competitors in the industry to even attempt to keep up.

In a period where an organization is doing so well, it can be tempting to rest on one’s laurels and simply coast along on the wave of success. US West did not see this as an option. In order to stay on top, the company felt it was necessary to keep its quality levels in check and address any issues that could be detrimental to its efforts. Any area where improvement could be made required examination.

One such area was false fire alarms. At first glance, this might seem like a rather innocuous concern. However, when one takes into account how disruptive the panic that comes with an alarm can be and how evacuating a research facility could completely undermine the work being done, it becomes clear that dealing with such an issue would be a necessity if it were a regular occurrence. Considerable costs could come with such an occurrence, as could the possibility of not meeting deadlines, production goals, or even failing to meet customer expectations.

In order to address this, Arthur was brought into the office of the vice president and told to take a look at these alarms and approach the problem as a quality improvement issue. He took on the building manager as a partner in this endeavor, and together they looked at the problem from every angle.

What they discovered was astounding.

They Decided To Use the Six Sigma Quality Improvement Process

The first thing that Arthur and the building manager did was look at the available data about the false fire alarms. From a quality improvement perspective, they looked at the rate of fire alarms per month using a control chart. Next, they examined this data with a Pareto chart. With the chart, they looked at what each false alarm incident throughout the past year was attributed to. Seven of the incidents were attributed to faulty detectors: two more to the likelihood of cell phone interference, one to water damage, and one to dust particles settling in the detector.

The idea that the number of detectors that were being reported as faulty seemed suspect, given the quality of the devices and the size of the building. It was determined that the detectors being faulty could be responsible for maybe one of the incidents, not seven.

With the dust particle theory, the building was very dusty, and enough particles getting into the detectors could theoretically cause a false alarm. While this did not seem like an impossibility, the sheer number of false alarms did not seem to be attributable to this cause.

As far as water damage goes, this too could reasonably lead to a false alarm. Again, this seemed unlikely to be a major factor in all of the alarms throughout the year.

Another idea that was being floated throughout the building was that the use of the microwave was leading to the alarms. Some staff thought that the false fire alarms had to do with the detectors being set off whenever someone was microwaving some popcorn. The proximity of the detectors and the number of different detectors throughout the building going off every year gave little credence to this particular theory.

At the same time that this was all going on, the local fire department was also experiencing a significant increase in false fire alarms that they were having to respond to. This particular fire department was serving an area that was unique in that many of the businesses in the vicinity were research facilities that were experimenting with new technology. The false alarms were having an effect, in some cases, of the fire department being able to respond adequately to real fires. So, what was happening over in US West was proving not to be isolated. There were no reports of detectors having a recall or widespread defect or being reported as being faulty in areas that were not known for being technology hubs, so the culprit of the alarms began to emerge through deductive reasoning.

This was the early days of cell phone technology, prior to them being distributed en masse to the public at large. A lot of the bugs still needed ironing out. From the reported incidents, Arthur and his partner decided that their best option was to pull cell phones from the Pareto chart and examine that as a major cause.

Arthur thought about a demonstration that happened earlier in the year when the latest in cell phone technology was being showcased. Eight hundred people were in the auditorium when a model was being shown, and when the demonstrator pressed ‘SEND’, the fire alarm went off and everyone had to be evacuated from the building. After everyone came back inside and returned to their seats, the demonstration continued. Picking up from where they left off, the speaker pressed ‘SEND’, and the alarm was again set off.

Entering the cell phone theory into a fishbone diagram, they asked why a cell phone might be causing the alarms. Cell phones emit a frequency when engaged, so this could be causing radio frequency interference. As far as why this would be an issue with fire alarms, it was suspected that it could be because they had unshielded detectors.

Luckily, the research facility had a lab where this could be tested. Arthur and his partner took a number of the alarms to the laboratory, set them up, and subjected them to cell phone interference. Sure enough, as soon as the duo would press ‘SEND’ on a cellular device, the wavelength would be strong enough to cause all of the detectors being tested to go off.

Since the research team did not own the building and it would likely cost upwards of $100,000 to replace all of the detectors with shielded ones, the team had to look at a more cost-effective solution. What they came up with was making the building cellular-free.

The Outcome Was Immediately Clear

After implementing a policy of keeping their building cellular-free, US West’s research facility dropped from having 11 false fire alarms in one year to having just one the following year. This was a massive improvement that allowed the research facility to be able to continue its work unimpeded, contribute to the organization’s further growth, and maintain its commitment to quality.

3 Best Practices When Implementing the Six Sigma Quality Improvement Process in Your Business

There are some clear best practices that can be pulled from US West’s experience with false fire alarms that can be applied to virtually any issue that arises in your organization:

1. Examine all of your data

A key practice when encountering an issue at your organization is to take the time to examine all of the available data. In doing so, Arthur and the building manager were able to see what the most likely cause was of the alarms, especially after finding out about the local fire department having the issue widespread throughout its service area of the tech hub and remembering the details of the auditorium incident.

2. Find the most cost-effective solution

Since replacing all of the detectors was a cost-prohibitive solution, Arthur and the building manager had to find another option. A solution that would cost the company virtually nothing turned out to be simply making the building cellular-free. This nearly eliminated the false fire alarm problem.

In your organization, there will be those who simply want to throw a lot of money at a problem. Acting on this type of thinking can burn through a lot of money and resources, contributing to waste in a company. Examine options that can address a problem head-on without causing a significant dent in your business’s bottom line. If such a solution exists, it is worth giving it a try.

3. Process of elimination

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a famous line in one of his books about Sherlock Holmes. The line says that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever is left, however improbable it may be, must be the truth. When looking at the potential causes of the fire alarms, the microwave popcorn theory was quickly discredited. Also, the chance of all of the alarms being attributable to water damage throughout the year did not appear possible. Faulty detectors seemed unlikely, given that there were no product recalls and that the problem seemed isolated geographically to the technological research area. Particle dust also came across as not being a possibility, if looking at the similar frequency of various detectors being set off in all areas of the building.

What this left as the likely root cause was cell phone interference.

Of course, having a root cause that is most likely is one thing; it also has to be tested. Arthur and the building manager tested cellular interaction with the detectors in the lab before deciding for certain that this was what was causing the problem.

After eliminating all of the impossible scenarios, it is important to make sure to test your likely root cause before enacting widespread control measures.

An Example for Any Issue in Your Business

False fire alarms in a business may seem like a small problem, but they could have a ripple effect just like any other issue. How Arthur and the building manager approached the problem is a great example of how to apply the Six Sigma quality improvement process to any issue that might be present in an organization. With their way of identifying the problem, measuring and analyzing the data, implementing improvements, and controlling the results, it is also a clear example of intuitively utilizing DMAIC, a cornerstone of the Six Sigma method.

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