There is a strong tendency for Six Sigma programs to forge an inextricable link between project management roadmaps, notably DMAIC, and statistical tools. This has never made much sense to me. In my experience, Six Sigma programs can not only exist and survive without the use of typical roadmaps, but prosper and flourish.

In the vast majority of Six Sigma environments, it borders on heresy to even ponder whether some, if not all, projects couldn’t perhaps be completed without the use of a roadmap. While it is probably the case that the DMAIC framework is efficient and appropriate for a certain subset of projects in most organizations, I have never been able to accept it as the panacea that most people in the field seem to. And by people, I mean consultants and executives. Not experienced practitioners, because by the second or third Six Sigma project most folks on the front lines eventually realize that toll-gate driven roadmap processes consume enormous amounts of time and energy in the form of meetings. In fact, I suspect the majority of seasoned Black Belts would abandon toll gate reviews in a hurry if they had the choice.

Consider a class of 24 Black Belts, all of whom will complete 2 projects in a year. Suppose (conservatively) that each project team has 5 members, and (again conservatively) that each toll gate review will take 30 minutes. That adds up to 120 hours of time spent in meetings involving those who are supposedly the best and brightest in the company. And what do those meetings produce? Certainly they gather stakeholders together to inform and discuss aspects of the project. But do they make a material difference to the outcome of the project? In other words, would the end result be better, worse, or the same if we gave the Black Belt responsibility and authority to organize the project and team meetings as they saw fit, as opposed to imposing a DMAIC structure? I submit that in my experience there are few negative consequences to abandoning the toll-gate-roadmap approach, and numerous positive consequences. Fewer meetings are one such benefit…admittedly one of my favorites!

It is undoubtedly true that DMAIC and other roadmaps are: a) easy to teach; and b) easy to administer. This makes the roadmap approach a darling of consultants (who see a consistent and portable program that can easily be taught in many different environments) and executive management (who see that DMAIC in particular lends itself to tidy dashboards and displays). But do the steps add value to a product or service? In most organizations I suspect the Lean folks would consider canceling toll gate meetings an easy, quick-win project. My hunch is that they would be correct in most cases.

What’s the null hypothesis here? If the tacit assumption taught by consultants and embraced by executives asserts that roadmaps and tollgates are necessary, the hypothesis that needs testing is something to the effect of “does a program without any toll gates or roadmaps result in any statistically significant differences compared to a program based on DMAIC or some other roadmap?” And if there were differences, would they be positive or negative? In short, what are we getting for all the time spent on toll gate reviews and roadmap compliance, if anything?

My own view is that there is an infinite variety of improvement opportunities out there, and it’s nonsensical to suggest that any single roadmap will serve a significant portion of them well. Tacit agreement with this view is provided by the flurry of supplemental roadmaps that have appeared (and continue to appear) over the years since DMAIC was first introduced. So the test for the null hypothesis is both simple and audacious: run a Six Sigma program that does not depend on any particular roadmaps and see what happens; teach the tools of Six Sigma without the framework of DMAIC (or any other framework) and evaluate the results; trust practitioners of Six Sigma to decide for themselves how projects should be managed, when meetings should happen, what stages are appropriate for a project. In short, let go of structure and embrace flexibility.

As organizations turn more and more to innovation as a wellspring for continuous improvement, what we ought to be creating is not wave after wave of people who can follow roadmaps well, but rather creative map-makers who can and do chart new paths to any destination. To do that, we need to explore Six Sigma beyond DMAIC.

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