The Six Sigma Cycle of Change

Nothing endures but change.” – Heraclitus (fl. 500 BC). If only it were that easy. Achieving a specific change, like becoming a Six Sigma company, will not just miraculously happen, it will require a purposeful process focused on results. Change, like other processes, consists of a series of steps; each of which take time and must be followed in order. In recent months, several people have asked me what the real goal of implementing Six Sigma is and what the change process actually looks like. This remark from a Six Sigma Champion sums it up best,

“I hear that Six Sigma is about culture change, but all we really seem to be doing is talking about Black Belts, Green Belts and their projects. What does that have to do with Culture Change?”

Great question, but one not often addressed in popular literature. I began my answer instinctively by drawing a picture. The picture was a circle with three labeled points: 1) change behavior, 2) experience results and 3) culture change. Throughout my career and personal life, I have found that the most effective way to sustain change is by successfully repeating experiences. It is the reinforcement through repetition that will lead to lasting change, either behavioral or cultural. Likewise, for Six Sigma, it is the repeated positive impact of successful Black Belt and Green Belt projects that will help drive and institutionalize change in your company’s culture.

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While you cannot change your culture overnight, you can start to drive results through Six Sigma projects. By repeatedly delivering results, everyone involved in the projects, supporting the projects, benefiting from the results, or those merely observing the results will all come to appreciate Six Sigma as a more disciplined problem solving methodology and data driven decision-making process. Through the experience of repeated success, the culture of your organization will begin to change.

The model I developed to describe the Six Sigma change cycle is illustrated below. At first glance, it appears as an overly simple model, so I thought I’d better explain. With most companies, Six Sigma gradually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because once you begin experiencing the results; you will not give up. It is just too powerful. Getting through the early stages of a Six Sigma implementation, however, can be tough.

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You will notice from the model that the Six Sigma change process is a closed cycle. With a closed cycle, the question always is, “how do I enter the cycle?”

Consider the three possible points of entry:

Six Sigma Cycle Of Change

  1. Experience results: Results take time, effort, and investment. We obviously cannot start here.
  2. Culture change: Culture change takes time and the experience of repeated results. We cannot start here either. That only leaves…
  3. Change behavior: Can we simply agree one day to do things differently? Yes, we can, but it will not be easy. It takes a very deliberate, concerted effort to decide to do things differently. We cannot sustain a hard, conscious effort forever either. Eventually we will revert to our old habits, unless… our new behavior produces reasonably fast results, which in turn drives a culture change. This culture change will cause us to do things differently on a permanent basis.
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We all know that change isn’t easy, so how can we create the series of repeated experiences that produce the culture change that drives the behavior and results that we want? We must first start with what we can control – our own behavior.

There is one more dimension of the model that I want to elaborate upon… the wheel. Why not just a circle? The wheel represents the forces at work. A large wheel at rest is difficult to get rolling. You have to put in a lot of energy to overcome the inertia and resistance that is keeping the wheel at rest. However, once in motion, keeping the wheel rolling is easy, we just periodically have to add a little bit of energy. That is the Six Sigma cycle of change; it’s very hard in the beginning to get things rolling, but once the wheel of change is in motion, it’s easy to sustain. In other words, Six Sigma becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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