Six Sigma and Standardization

While travelling on an international flight earlier this year, I was asked to fill out forms for customs. After filling out the forms I proceeded to wait in line where fellow travellers in front of me delayed processing time because of a simple data entry error on their customs card. Apparently 1/11/07 is read as a date of November 1st in some countries while interpreted as January 11th in others. I estimated this simple lost in translation issue made me wait an additional 15 minutes in line and caused rework of five to six forms.

As I continued my travel I realized additional differences. People walked and drove on the left side (and not the right). The streets were only painted with white indicators as opposed to white and yellow paint used in the US. Riding in the back seat of the taxi cab was considered inappropriate as was tipping. Familiar measurements in pounds, miles, and Fahrenheit were replaced with kilograms, kilometres, and Celsius.

The experience made me trigger a debate with my husband. Could standardization be considered a key tool in Six Sigma? I’ll admit standardization would’ve certainly helped my trip in multiple ways. Aside from the lost wait time in airport customs (due to defective forms), I encountered rework from walking (and briefly driving) the wrong way. Time was lost and I’m sure errors were made doing conversions from metric to imperial.

Standardization definitely has its benefits as a Six Sigma tool when it comes to black and white data, such as measurement systems. I remember reading a few years ago where a company has a major operation fail because a key calculation was performed in metric while all other measurements were done in imperial. The failure cost the company millions of dollars. Creating a standardized system would serve as a poke yoke tool to effectively eliminate conversion calculation errors.

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Standardization could also be seen as a method to improve efficiencies in processes that have great variation. For example, during my last trip, I visited four airports- each of which had their own process for security screening. While the majority of the process was the same for each airport, subtle differences, such as when to remove shoes and show identification, often confused travellers and created delays.

There were a few examples that I could think of where standardization could’ve been of little value in a Six Sigma application. For example, it would be hard for me to make a standardization case of where to sit in a taxi. One may be able to do a correlation analysis comparing seat location to customer satisfaction but at the end of the day where I sat in the taxi bore no black and white effect on the travelling process, nor did it create rework by me having to change seats. Aside from feeling a bit embarrassed after the ride to have learned I should’ve sat in the front, standardization would have not made a significant difference.

In summary, there are many applications where standardization can be a very positive Six Sigma aide. Standardizing measurement systems and creating standard operating procedures are two examples of initiatives that can greatly reduce defects. However standardization is not the answer to creating a poke yoke world. There will always be a debateable gray area such as the optimum location of a steering wheel in a car (left or right side) the best seat in a taxi, etc., that standardization may not improve. Tools such as voice of the customer analysis are more suitable for examples such as the ones above. However, this leads to another debate- How does Six Sigma balance voice of the customer when the customer requests variety, (the exact opposite of standardization) which could lead to variance (and defects)?

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The debate will be continued in a future blog entry.

Comments 3

  1. qualityg

    I see no debate. All Process Improvement should start and end with Standardization.

    I also believe Dr. Shigehiro Nakumura would not agree with your views on Standardization and "Poka-Yoke."


  2. qualityg

    additional information can be found at the url listed


  3. Andrew Downard


    I respectfully disagree. Strict standardization around a process or procedure is extremely time consuming, resource intensive, and often expensive, especially if there are humans involved. If there are data to suggest that standardization is important in a process, then by all means pursue standardization. If not, leave it alone. Unless and until you have done the work to identify the cirtical few factors from the trivial many, standardization is wasted effort. Who cares if areas which are not critical are not standardized?

    Furthermore, since there is variation in all things, why not spend time making processes robust to variation rather than chasing perfect standardization? Or better yet, why not make intelligent decisions about how to select and blend both strategies?

    To pick a random example from the link you provided, do you honestly believe that mass standardization would improve student performance in schools? I tend to believe the opposite – that widely disparate circumstances among teachers, pupils, classrooms, neighborhoods, lanuguages, cities, etc, etc, mean customization is the only hope of addressing the massive variation that exists. Sure, we need to standardize on some things at some levels, but to blindly pursue standardization in all things would be a nightmare of watsed effort and sub-optimal results.


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