Over the past decade, the success of Lean Six Sigma has been highly publicized. The widespread adoption of the process improvement methodology across many different business sectors is one indicator of success. However, little is written about companies that fail in their Six Sigma deployments, or at least scale back their support over time. For obvious reasons, companies are reluctant to air their dirty laundry, but the phenomenon is serious enough to warrant public discussion.

Although limited reliable data exists on companies that abandon, phase out or replace Six Sigma programs, only minimal digging is necessary to find anecdotal cases of deployments gone wrong. By having conversations with peers across various industries, sifting through the blogs of frustrated participants or reading the few negative reports on a company’s Six Sigma experience, common warnings and patterns begin to emerge. The astute practitioner will notice that many companies that have had problems with their deployments face similar challenges and will see their programs move along the same rising and falling arc. This can be described as the “bloom and doom” curve, shown below.

The Six Sigma Deployment Bloom and Doom Curve
The Six Sigma Deployment Bloom and Doom Curve

The Three Phases of Bloom and Doom

The Rise: This first phase of bloom and doom can be characterized by lots of excitement and initial support. Certification targets are published by organizational leaders (e.g. “X percent of the population must be Green Belt certified”). Ratios of Black Belts or Master Black Belts to employee base are standardized. Managers push to get their people certified. Employees are quick to realize how obtaining Six Sigma credentials will benefit their careers. Training classes are filled to capacity. Six Sigma can be found everywhere in the company. A myriad of projects are launched.

The Plateau: After certification targets are met, things start to slow down. Many of the company’s employees have completed their obligatory certification projects and never complete another. Managers have been rewarded for reaching certification goals and only have to maintain current levels. Training classes begin to thin out because most employees are now trained.

The Decline: Finally, the Six Sigma program goes down a slippery slope. Managers give the program lip service at best or – at worst – completely disregard it. Leaders have already moved onto whatever initiative is the “next big thing.” Employees don’t attend training and initiate Six Sigma projects only if coerced. Training stats may not even be reported at this point. Projects don’t follow the DMAIC roadmap, but are still labeled as Six Sigma projects. Project tollgates are nonexistent or done sporadically with limited attendance. Black Belts and Master Black Belts begin their mass exodus to other companies that are just starting Six Sigma or are still in the Rise phase. At this stage, Six Sigma exists at the company in name only.

The time period to go through all three phases can vary from organization to organization. The Rise can last from one to five years, the Plateau may be slightly shorter and the Decline can drag on indefinitely.

Five Ways to Defeat the Decline

This rise-and-fall pattern, however, is not inevitable. By following these five steps, practitioners can ensure that the path of their program will continue in a continuous upward arc.

1. Select the right metrics. Remember that Six Sigma is not an end unto itself. The business results delivered through Six Sigma are what matters most, whether they are measured in hard or soft dollar savings, increased revenue, or improved customer satisfaction and loyalty. Beware when companies use metrics such as certification rates or the number of Belts as the primary indicators of success. Belt certification does not guarantee year-over-year business value. Once organizations have reached certification targets, there may be little incentive to continue their focus on Six Sigma without more relevant success metrics. The primary metrics to measure Six Sigma success should always be based on the business value returned to the company.

2. Value the organization over the individual. Understandably, employees desire certification for many reasons, the most obvious of which is that certification will help them advance their careers. However, the importance of Green Belt or Black Belts diminishes over time if the only results they deliver are part of their certification projects. In terms of the number of Belts, more is not better if continued value is not delivered year after year. After all, what is the value of a Belt who does not complete a project? Zero. Six Sigma leaders should never be driven by an individual’s desire for certification. Rather, organizational goals should be the focus, with individual certification as a positive byproduct of the process of achieving those goals.

3. Select the right projects. Closely linked to the idea above, project selection is a key component to Six Sigma longevity. Projects should never be selected merely to get someone certified or to wrap DMAIC around a problem that is clearly not a Six Sigma project simply to gain visibility. Meaningful, impactful projects help keep momentum. Leaders should be very selective when applying Six Sigma. Additionally, project benefits should be validated by leaders outside the deployment, such as finance representatives, to avoid reporting inflated results that will eventually erode credibility.

4. Build the right infrastructure. Who is ultimately accountable for the success of Six Sigma within an organization? Not the Belts. The organization’s leadership determines success or failure. Too often, Belts are expected to carry a Six Sigma deployment. Instead, the organizational leaders that act as project sponsors or Champions should be the keystones to success. From communicating expectations and responsibilities to selecting projects and training leaders, management must provide the program with a strong foundation. Additionally, deployment leaders must evaluate foundational components of the business before implementing Six Sigma. For instance, does the organization exercise basic process management skills? Are processes documented and routinely maintained? Are metrics used to drive decision making? If not, leaders may have some more planning work to do before rolling out Six Sigma training and projects.

5. Continually evolve the program. Despite what some will say, process improvement and quality are evolutionary, not revolutionary, endeavors. At the beginning of this decade, Lean was sometimes seen as a competing methodology to Six Sigma before people got smart and combined the two. The infusion of Lean tools and ideas helped to reinvigorate Six Sigma. Likewise, organizations should prevent Six Sigma from becoming stale. Six Sigma professionals can help by searching for ways to expand the skill sets of employees and keep the initiative fresh. Whether it involves the implementation of Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) to complement DMAIC, or the introduction of new tools, ideas or concepts, there is no reason to impede the growth of the continuous improvement body of knowledge.

Six Sigma practitioners all aim for continuous gains over time. The challenge is to maintain momentum after the initial surge and excitement wears off. The above actions, if taken at the beginning of the deployment, can create the right environment for sustainability. With these five elements in place, Six Sigma professionals can keep an eye on the warning signs to avoid the dreaded Plateau and prevent Decline.

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