Six Sigma critics are right about one of their chief complaints: the program is a re-packaging of a lot of tools and ideas that have been around for a long time. Personally I don’t think that’s a bad thing, since many of the ideas that have been re-packaged were languishing before. Regardless of where the tools and ideas originally came from, the hype of Six Sigma has driven a lot of useful activity in areas where it wasn’t happening before.
Trouble is, the same thing is happening in a lot of different areas. Six Sigma as a program has several analogs, some competing and some in areas that Six Sigma hasn’t reached yet (like software design). You could argue that each program is different, but I would counter that even if that’s true, all of them have a similar aim. You could also argue about which of them is best; indeed, a great amount of energy seems to go into this argument every day.
But back to the aim. Beyond the specific project-level objectives of each program, what they all seek to provide is a conceptual framework. They collect different tools and ideas and put them together in a way that tries to be easily comprehensible. Lean does this. Six Sigma does this. 5S does this. SMED does this. 23 other continuous improvement programs do this. All of which leads to another question: what do you do in an organization that has Lean, Six Sigma, 5S, SMED, and all 23 of those other programs?
This is not hyperbole. In more and more organizations with good programs in individual discipline, it is a real problem. Just as Six Sigma provided and organizing framework for of a lot of disparate ideas and tools, we now need something to organize the various organizing frameworks. Failure to do this results in lack of alignment and missed synergies at best, and utterly disconnected silos working in opposition at worst. And it tends to be very difficult to address, because everyone involved is already genuinely working towards continuous improvement to the best of their ability. Change management experts will tell us we need a burning platform to make change happen – that’s unlikely to be the case in this scenario.
So what to do? How do we move up the next level in the hierarchy of organization? Once the Six Sigma program is running on all cylinders, the SMED team is in a groove, and the 5S group is having wild success, how do you tie them all together without killing the individual components? The obvious answer is not to let it happen in the first place. But in organizations of any size, it has almost certainly already happened. And it happens precisely because people on the ground want to do the right thing.
I don’t have the answers yet, but I think I’m coming closer to asking the right questions.