iSixSigma

The Warning Signals of a Failing Six Sigma Program

If an organization’s Six Sigma program is beginning to fail, there are warning signals. Those signals can be as simple as gut feelings, but many can be compiled into a list of specifics which indicate a disconnection from the core business.

By Max Isaac and Anton McBurnie


A Six Sigma program at a financial services company is in trouble. Morale among the Black Belts could best be described as mixed. Most of them love the work – being able to work with different teams, applying their analytical skills to problem solving, seeing quality improve. But stress is starting to get to them. They are having a harder time getting managers to pay attention to them or to assign people to projects. There is little commitment to putting team members through any kind of training, so the Black Belts have to spend more time dealing with conflict and confusion and less time helping team members improve processes. The Black Belts also are beginning to be the butt of in-house jokes and resentment, and as a result are becoming a tight-knit group who do not welcome outsiders.


A successful deployment of Six Sigma is not an end; obviously it is only the beginning. Like any business function, it requires the ongoing care and attention of those who are invested in its success. That is especially true in regard to how well the business has come to accept Six Sigma into its culture.


During the earliest part of a Six Sigma implementation, the company watches closely all signs of success so the successes can be built upon, and all signs of failure so course corrections can be made. Everyone in the management chain is alert. But it is not unusual for organizations that have already implemented Six Sigma to let down their guard. Fortunately there are warning signals of trouble that can be acted upon. Sometimes, those signals are just gut feelings or an uneasiness that employees are just paying lip service to Six Sigma. But in many cases, more concrete signals indicate that Six Sigma is beginning to become disconnected from the core business.

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Any of these warning signs should be addressed promptly:


Downward Trends in Deployment and Results Indicators (or No Tracking of Results)



  • Projects take longer to complete – due dates are regularly missed.
  • Financial returns drop steadily. (Black Belts begin working on smaller projects that would be better suited to Green Belt leadership.)
  • The time for completing Black Belt certification creeps upward.
  • Stated goals for projects become increasingly modest.
  • Projects get sandbagged (“under promised”).

Flagging Support for Six Sigma Projects



  • Company leaders no longer personally demonstrate a commitment to Lean Six Sigma.
  • Black Belts and Champions have a difficult time recruiting people to staff projects.
  • Attendance at team meetings drops off.
  • More and more people question their involvement in Six Sigma. (“It’s taking time away from my regular job,” or “This isn’t helping me get more efficient, it’s just adding to my workload.”)
  • Participation, commitment and philosophy vary widely among locations and/or divisions.
  • Where at first high-caliber employees were assigned to Six Sigma deployment and Black Belts were carefully screened, now “problem” individuals or those who do not have enough real work are assigned to Six Sigma teams.
  • Project selection is not or never has been driven by return on invested capital or other key strategic factors.
  • Black Belts are leaving.

Evidence of Six Sigma Isolation



  • The Six Sigma staff show signs of becoming a clique who take all the credit for improvement and are impatient with anyone who does not share their enthusiasm.
  • Project selection becomes a local activity leading to sub-optimization of Six Sigma resources – some areas are overstaffed, some projects languish because of a lack of available Black Belts.
  • Cynicism toward the Six Sigma initiative mounts and cross-team collaboration problems start to develop.
  • Metrics for Six Sigma projects are set independently of corporate strategy, and are measured only in terms of cost reductions or amount of dollars generated per Black Belt (no customer, quality or cycle-time indicators).

Sliding Back into Old Ways of Doing Work



  • The initial focus on customer needs dissipates. Internally oriented metrics slowly creep in as the main measures used to select and monitor project success:
  • Projects are selected based on imposed executive mandates and/or managers’ pet projects, not on objective criteria.
  • Projects are selected based on cost-cutting criteria (customer priorities are lost in the shuffle).
  • Projects are not checked against corporate priorities.
  • Best practices sharing is inconsistent or non-existent.
  • Black Belts are diverted to “quick hits” that do not require Six Sigma skills; newly learned Six Sigma skills atrophy from lack of use.
  • Behavior of senior executives contradicts the basic tenets of Six Sigma. (They do not base decisions on data, they react inappropriately to special/common causes, they do not use good decision-making processes and they focus on outputs [Ys] instead of the underlying drivers [x’s].)

A Gradual Erosion of Six Sigma Roles and Responsibilities



  • Champions are pulled into non-Six Sigma-related work.
  • Black Belts become more and more immersed in project selection and chartering, rather than driving results by leading projects.
  • Master Black Belts are assigned to projects that really should be handled by Black Belts.
  • Sponsors focus solely on day-to-day operations, relegating Six Sigma to the zealots who are increasingly separated from the main culture of the organization.

A Champion must be alert for these signs and engage the appropriate management to bolster or restore the original enthusiasm and commitment to Six Sigma. Any delay in taking corrective action could mean a lost window of opportunity for an on-going quality improvement program. Remember Six Sigma is about results, it is not about meeting training goals, counting the number of project teams working, or making presentations about what is going to be done. Management must insist there be a P&L financial validation to “book” the savings as real by constantly asking the right questions, specifically: Is the project on schedule?


A company will be more likely to reach the financial (and improvement) results it has set if it is successful in changing the norms within the organization. For Lean Six Sigma to endure, it must become part of the culture. For that to happen, it must be part and parcel of the norms within the organization – “the way we do things around here.”


About the Authors: Max Isaac is a leader in the field of leadership and organizational behavior with more than 30 years of management and consulting experience in North America and Europe. He is co-author of the book, The Third Circle: Interactions That Drive Results and a contributing author to Lean Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma for Service. His knowledge of how to weave change initiatives into the fabric of an organization provides a complement to the standard discussion of how to launch Six Sigma. He can be reached at misaac@3circlepartners.com. Anton McBurnie has more than 20 years of hands-on experience growing, turning around and managing companies in North America, Europe and Asia. Since 1999, his work has included major global implementations of Six Sigma programs in Fortune 500 companies. His focus has been on fundamental organizational change, acceptance of the programs into the culture of the company and creating high performance executive teams. He can be reached at amcburnie@3circlepartners.com.

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