Recently I called a friend, Ethan, to catch up on things. Ethan is a former student of mine who now holds a senior leadership position. He has been “tainted” by process excellence in the sense that because he understands the importance of processes, he can no longer practice traditional management by results. When an employee announces that he intends to reduce costs, Ethan wants to know the specific process that will be followed to accomplish the goal. In an effort to understand how this improvement will be achieved without causing harm elsewhere, Ethan asks such questions as, “What are the high-cost areas?” or “What are the major drivers of costs in these areas?” or “What are the root causes underlying these drivers?”
During an all-hands meeting at Ethan’s company, the new CEO was asked about his views on Six Sigma. The CEO responded he was in favor of Six Sigma’s emphasis on continuous improvement, but he wasn’t too keen on the “Belts.” In fact, he didn’t see a need for them.
I beg to differ.
Over the years I’ve seen many improvement initiatives come and go: acceptance sampling, value engineering, zero defects, quality circles, SPC, TQM, reengineering, etc. Six Sigma, however, has shown remarkable staying power, due, in part, to its change infrastructure. I admit, at first I regarded the martial arts titles as a bit silly, but at this stage, I don’t believe changing them makes sense. More important is the existence of people whose jobs are to make changes and drive those changes. Without them the rate of improvement will slow to a crawl and eventually stop, as with the other initiatives I’ve mentioned.
In a presentation about evolution, Stephen Jay Gould postulated that a species requires three conditions to be able to change: redundancy, variation, and slack. Eleanor D. Glor extended Gould’s hypothesis to human organizations when she wrote in “Innovation Patterns” ( The Innovation Journal, July 2001), “To create the knowledge spiral, five conditions are required at the organizational level: intention/aspiration to create knowledge, autonomy of workers, fluctuation and creative chaos, redundancy, and requisite variety.” I believe that dedicated change agents pursuing process improvement provide these prerequisites. Consider this:
• Redundancy . In an organizational setting, this means that more than one person is capable of performing a task. A Six Sigma Black Belt is a highly valued employee with vital technical skills. When this person is assigned the Black Belt role, the organization must assign his or her vacated duties to another person. Without this redundancy the organization couldn’t afford to change.
• Slack . Organizations must have “extra” resources to be able to change. Without this slack, critical tasks would go undone. The existence of a small, dedicated, full-time infrastructure of Belts is the organization’s commitment to creating the slack. Total quality management and continuous improvement failed to provide this slack and ultimately were replaced by Six Sigma. A typical Six Sigma organization will have about 1 percent of its workforce as Black Belts and 0.1 percent as Master Black Belts. Another minute percentage will function as part-time change agents as Green Belt or in other roles. This slack is minuscule yet critical to sustaining change.
• Variation . Glor refers to this as “variety,” which is the consequence of improvement. Things that are improved are things that are different than they were before. But variation is risky and resisted. Without the dedicated change infrastructure, the resistance is more likely to succeed.
• Autonomy of workers . Despite lip service to the contrary, most employees have limited autonomy because their organizations can’t--or won’t--risk their making “unauthorized” changes. However, a Belt is not an ordinary employee. A Belt is, by the nature of the job, a “rabble-rouser.” He or she actively seeks out opportunities to make changes and applies a powerful set of tools to make the changes quickly.
• Intention/aspiration to create knowledge. Six Sigma is about creating models of cause and effect and using the models to improve processes. This is the job of all Belts. W. Edwards Deming said that there is no learning without theory, and the models are theories of how the organization operates. Creating a cadre of Belts signals to the rest of the organization that knowledge creation is in the making.
Change is unpopular. It disrupts routines, creates fear, and occurs at great expense. Our egalitarian society resents elites. The elite corps of Six Sigma Belts is begrudged, yet they are the organization’s saviors.
To Ethan’s CEO I ask, “Can you create change without people dedicated to the task? If not, Ethan may be after your job!”