Most likely you’ve heard that many people think Six Sigma is just a “fad” – a fashion that sweeps the world with great excitement for a brief period of time, usually less than a year, and then disappears. What are some fads that have come and (partially) gone in the business world? How about: quality circles, sensitivity training, self-managed teams, e-business…the list goes on and on. But should we add Six Sigma to this growing list of management fads? Various people say yes, but those who truly understand and are comprehensively trained would argue otherwise. This article presents both sides of the story.

Six Sigma Is Just A Fad

In the February 2003 edition of Quality Digest, editor Scott M. Paton provides “The First Word” publisher introduction to an article about the transition deadline to ISO 9001:2000. In his introduction, he makes reference to Six Sigma:

Six Sigma. The latest management fad has so captivated corporate America that there’s little time to devote to lowly standards compliance.

Mr. Paton seems to suggest that Six Sigma will not be around in the long term, and worse – it is lofty and grandiose and not serious enough to get real work done.

More blatantly supporting the notion of Six Sigma as a fad is an article entitled “Six Sigma? No Thanks.” in the April 2003 edition of Quality by Scott Dalgeish, a contributing author and chief operating officer at Spectra Logic Corporation in Boulder, Colorado.

…Six Sigma is another repackaged quality trend that will come and go, and I’ll pass on this trend, thank you. While I believe in Six Sigma’s content, I will also add that as a trend, it has been harmful to our profession.Mr. Dalgeish goes on to describe why he believes Six Sigma has been harmful to the quality profession. His two supporting arguments are:

  • When ASQ launched Six Sigma training they formed a relationship with a single consulting company.
  • Some Six Sigma terminology is “owned” by companies who have trademarks.

Six Sigma Is Not A Fad

The following paragraphs are reproduced with the permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. from Rath & Strong’s Six Sigma Leadership Handbook. It is authored by Daniel L. Quinn, President and CEO of Rath & Strong/AON Management Consulting.

It wasn’t long ago that we were reading headlines announcing, “Quality Is Dead”: though that knowledge had been useful for a time, things had moved on. It was much like hearing that the “old” economy was dead and that a “new” economy had superseded all the old principles: One starts to think that we need to relearn everything all the time. But throwing out the old and bringing in the new can lead to hugely unproductive shifts in resources; one needs only to look at the huge overinvestment in technology in the late 1990s, and the long hangover we are all still living with as the stock market readjusts, to see the effects of this overzealousness.

The paradox is that while we don’t want to throw out the old, we still need to be receptive to the new. When I was at the ASQ May Conference in Indianapolis in 2000, so many quality traditionalists were pooh-poohing Six Sigma with statements like “This is nothing new,” or “This is just a banner.” The general tone of the majority of the attendees was, “We invented that 50 years ago.” This was despite the fact that Six Sigma was already getting stunning results at places like GE Capital and Johnson & Johnson.

After leaving that conference, I remember thinking that if quality is in the hands of those people, it is dead or, if not, it should be killed. Because the fact is, whether we want to accept it or not, Six Sigma resurrected quality and, in fact, has taken it to a new level, turning it into a sustainable business strategy that has achieved amazing bottom-line results for company after company.

While it’s true that many of the concepts had been around for decades – some developed here at Rath & Strong by people like Dorian Shainin in the 1950s – Six Sigma recaptured our imagination with proof of the revolutionary change that bottom-line-oriented improvement can deliver. In the early 1990s, Dr. Joseph Juran told me that we had lost quality to a generation – that it wouldn’t be until well after the new millennium that quality in this country would come alive again. We lost it to banners and slogans and not enough results.

But since then, Six Sigma has reinfused the field with a whole new generation of bright, ambitious talent who would not have otherwise been attracted to what was perceived as a dead science. It was thrilling for me to go to a conference last month where Jack Welch keynoted, and where there were a lot of new faces, a lot of energy, and a lot of smart, young people; what a difference two years (and a lot of proven success) makes!

Because of Six Sigma, quality has become exciting again. People are using the tools and methodologies that were created and improved over the last century, they are doing it in a comprehensive and structured way driven by the CEO, and they are getting profound results. Financial analysts are now finally beginning to understand that it wasn’t just technology that drove productivity improvements in the United States during the 1990s; it was quality improvements through implementations of Six Sigma methodologies that helped transform some of our largest and most prestigious companies.

All in all, while on the one hand quality professionals need to be open to new ways of implementing our knowledge, new people attracted to the field can learn what we’ve learned and avoid the waste of reinventing. To them I say, help the movement; help quality move forward, but don’t start from scratch. Understand that you’re building on what previous generations have taught you, and be ready to pass on what you have learned to the next generation.

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