A recent iSixSigma Discussion Forum thread posed the following question: “Have there been any Six Sigma deployments that have failed?” My answer is ambiguous enough to make me sound like a politician. The question immediately begs definition of the term “failure.” My definition of a failure would be anything that does not deliver the Return On Investment (ROI) required by the company for any other investment. Using this definition, I am not aware of any deployment that has been a failure. It is also necessary to understand that once a company has invested the money and resources to do a multi-year Six Sigma deployment and made it public (typically through the annual report), it is highly unlikely they will step forward and admit they could not execute, regardless of the outcome.

Six Sigma consultants typically define successful deployments in the following way: A successful Six Sigma deployment is one that provides an acceptable ROI and leaves a stand-alone program (not requiring further assistance from outside resources). I am not aware of a failure by this definition either. But even successful programs may have required some level of assistance when the consulting resources left. Most Master Black Belts, Black Belts and Green Belts rise to the occasion to support the business in this case.

There are many programs that have failed to deliver the frequently bloated promises of savings, which are the result of over-zealous salesmanship (both internal and external). The highest savings I have seen in a wave averaged $175,000 per project. This occurred once and the average did not hold over the life of the program. Typical waves produce savings in the $100,000 to $125,000 per project range. It is, however, a function of project selection. Given this critical dependency, it is very likely there have been many failures to meet expectations.

I am also not aware of any Six Sigma deployment that has been without some form of failure. A Six Sigma deployment is no different than any other program or business initiative. You make plans and develop metrics to evaluate the progress. When the deployment is not going as expected, you make adjustments. President Harry Truman once said something like: “I’ll make a decision and if it is wrong, I’ll make another one.” The key is to plan, do, check and act on the results.

The following list are some of the ways Six Sigma deployments have failed to meet expectations. When you consider the infinite number of ways a deployment can fail, if you are superficially engaged the odds lie in favor of a failure.

Master Black Belt (MBB), Black Belt (BB) & Green Belt (GB) Failures
  • Not severing themselves from their old job, at least through training
  • Treating it as an academic exercise
  • Failing to appreciate the complexity of dealing with people
  • Failing to recognize Control as the most difficult phase to implement effectively
  • Not transferring ownership of the solution to the team as the project progresses (the solution becomes personality dependent)
  • Spending to much time on the computer and not enough time in the process
  • Not communicating effectively with management – they speak the language of money
  • Presenting results as if it were a science project – using things such as ANOVA tables to convey results (graphical representations convey more information faster – you are communicating an idea)
  • Avoiding resistance – when you know it is present you have to deal with it
  • Creating a exclusive club attitude around the program
  • Not sharing the credit for the solution with the team
  • Taking credit for work accomplished by another initiative or an ongoing project.
  • Focusing on certification rather than the team project and the company’s results
  • Not providing the team the opportunity to share the spotlight (have them attend a management presentation or better yet use them in the presentation)
  • Generating false data
  • Not getting at least a basic understanding of the tools required to do an analysis
  • Including special effects in the presentation to cover a lack of content
  • Using a large number of slides to cover a lack of content in project reviews
  • Running to the Champion to break a roadblock before they try themselves
  • Not taking a roadblock to the Champion after they have tried themselves
Management And Company Failures
  • No concept of Customer expectations
  • No vision related to Customer expectations
  • No follow-up on the annual operating plan
  • Lack of alignment (horizontal or vertical)
  • No visible leadership at the executive level
  • Business executives do not show up for report-outs (conveys a lack of priority)
  • Deploying Six Sigma without a goal (reason for deployment)
  • Deploying Six Sigma with a goal but no plan on how to get there
  • Abdicating the deployment plan to a consulting company
  • Trying to change the organization without a detailed change process
  • Not having metrics in place for management participation
  • No metrics for Champions
  • Champions do not show up for report-outs
  • Having metrics in place but no feedback (or limited feedback annually, semi-annually, quarterly)
  • Not having multiple projects queued up for each MBB, BB or GB (so when they complete a project the next one has already been selected)
  • Not communicating deployment plans effectively through the organization
  • No rewards or recognition program
  • A rewards or recognition program that does not recognize teams
  • No retention program for trained personnel
  • Trying to use contract type agreements to retain MBBs and BBs
  • Project selection process does not identify projects related to business objectives
  • Middle management operates on their own agenda (feel support is optional)
  • No accountability
  • Champions do not break roadblocks
  • No buy-in at the Process Owner level
  • Process Owner believes they have the option to not buy-in
  • Supply base supplying poor quality material
  • No consequence for suppliers sending bad material (typically because of price)
  • No plan to deploy into the Design and Marketing functions after Operations has launched
  • Believing a single initiative can/will solve all your problems
  • Using BBs for fire-fighting
  • Buying cheap software to save money on the deployment
  • Training BBs without providing a computer
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