Six Sigma: It’s Not Just a Company’s Processes That Vary

A good implementation of Six Sigma covers a lot of territory, from improving existing business processes to designing new ones and then to managing them for the long term.

Organizations that understand begin by applying Six Sigma to improve current processes, using specific statistical tools to identify and reduce the causes of unsatisfactory results. Later, Six Sigma provides ongoing monitoring and managing of these processes to ensure that they continue to produce the desired results. As process-oriented thinking becomes established throughout the organization, a true system of process management starts to take shape.

This approach is the ideal, taking advantage of the full potential of Six Sigma.

However, the reality is that there are variations in the way Six Sigma is implemented and trained, some of them actually limiting its potential. These variations are caused by a number of factors that Six Sigma practitioners need to recognize.

Key Sources of Variation in Implementing Six Sigma

The variations in the way an organization chooses to deploy Six Sigma come from many places. Here are some typical ones:

1. Different definitions of Six Sigma based on previous experience: First is the “There is only Six Sigma” crowd. These are often people who learned to appreciate data analysis and statistical method for the first time through participation in a Six Sigma program and are genuinely enthusiastic. For them, Six Sigma was their first contact with quality and process management, and the tools employed are forever associated with it. They are eager to share what they know and deploy it in the classic fashion by emphasizing project structure using DMAIC (Six Sigma applied to improve existing processes in five project phases – Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) and monitoring financial payback. But the drawback is that this group tends to overlook the position of Six Sigma within the longer history of process management and treats it as an isolated cure-all, thus potentially alienating people.

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Then comes the “toolkit” crowd. This group consists primarily of engineers and traditional quality professionals who recognize the tools and methods from their own experience, but then often reduce the definition of Six Sigma to just that – a toolkit. Due to their awareness of process management in the past, they also are more likely to reject the enthusiast’s perception of Six Sigma as a completely new phenomenon. Implementation focuses on training others in the tools to improve technical processes, usually limited to manufacturing, with the potential to over-emphasize the statistics and ignore Six Sigma’s top-down, bottom-line driven, strategic application. However, if an organization already has a program in place to promote strategic process management, this definition may make sense.

2. Different approaches to problem solving based on cultural differences: Businesses in English-speaking countries tend to be driven by an MBA culture of professional management, accentuated by a strict bottom-line focus and extremely pragmatic approaches to problem solving. In this environment, training in Six Sigma is viewed as similar to obtaining a driver’s license: “Just tell me what I need to know to get safely and efficiently from A to B.” Six Sigma training and projects will emphasize speed and the attainment of financial goals. The downside could be insufficient or sloppy data analysis.

Contrast this with many parts of continental Europe and elsewhere where managers are more likely to have engineering backgrounds that stress theory and the exploration of detail. Here, the attitude is much like saying: “It is not enough to know how to drive, you also need to be a certified auto mechanic before you are allowed to turn on the ignition.” Expectations from Six Sigma tend to include the intense training of statistical theory while undervaluing, or even ignoring, the strategic contribution of Six Sigma to business results and long-term cultural change.

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3. Different learning traditions: Approaches to learning new content are of two basic types – top down and bottom up. This is partly driven by the cultural differences cited above.

Top-down learning is pragmatic and dictates that one start with a specific goal and first aim for a basic understanding of content, gradually working down toward the detailed level through multiple learning cycles. This approach focuses on knowing enough to get the immediate job done (i.e., attaining the specific goal) while theory and detail are absorbed over time through practical experience. It is the most common approach to Six Sigma training, whereby a subset of statistical knowledge is used initially to achieve immediate project results and promote a broad appreciation of statistical process control within the organization. Doing multiple projects with varieties of data deepens this knowledge and identifies people with the talent and interest for even more detail.

Bottom-up learning, on the other hand, already assumes a capacity for broad detail and is more suited to a technical culture. A base of theoretical knowledge is first established. Once the full theory has been completely explored and digested, subsets of the knowledge are applied to specific situations at higher levels. This approach is thorough, but time consuming and works best for developing a team of operations-level data analysis experts in technical environments. However, it may slow projects down considerably and also does little to promote a broader appreciation of process management throughout all areas and levels of the business because non-technical people will quickly lose interest or never start in the first place.

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Conclusion: Hints and Suggestions for Deployments

  • Six Sigma trainers, coaches and practitioners, as well as business managers, should be aware of the variation in the perceptions of Six Sigma and the resulting expectations about training and implementation. Understand what drives a person’s view of Six Sigma, including professional background and the influence of national cultures.
  • Companies looking for deployment support, should ask carefully about a potential consultant’s or trainer’s approach to Six Sigma training and coaching to see if it will meet their organization’s particular needs.
  • Companies and practitioners must realize that most Six Sigma training programs focus on a subset of statistical theory and tools that directly address the questions being asked in a typical project: “Is my process stable (predictable) and is it meeting customer requirements?” “What are the root causes of poor process results?” “Have I really made a significant improvement?”
  • On the other hand, Six Sigma trainers must be prepared to go beyond the basic content if trainees are not a group of beginners in statistics and want to understand Six Sigma within the historical context of process management. At the same time, this should not detract from project success, the broader strategic aspects of implementation.
  • Most importantly, a balance should be struck: Focus too much on statistics and trainees miss the points about project structure (DMAIC) and the longer term issues of organizational and cultural change. Leave out too much fundamental knowledge of statistical theory and the risk is developing poor data analysis habits and not developing internal process experts with a deeper understanding of the tools for complex situations.

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