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Jay Arthur—The KnowWare Man

Six Sigma

Debunking Six Sigma Folklore Myths

It’s about bucks, not belts

Published: Tuesday, October 11, 2011 - 12:20

Ask almost anyone what is the No. 1 requirement for Six Sigma success, and he will say: top leadership commitment. It’s easy to look at Six Sigma successes like General Electric (GE) under Jack Welch and use them as evidence of the power of leadership commitment. The belief is so often repeated that it has become part of the Six Sigma lore, but does it have any scientific support? Sadly, I say the answer is no. That myth and several others do more harm than good when a company begins a Six Sigma initiative.

Myth No. 1: Top leadership commitment

More than 50 years of research into how cultures adopt change, as described in Everett Rogers’ excellent book, Diffusion of Innovations (Free Press, 2003), indicate that top leadership commitment invokes the so-called “Stalinist Paradox.” When this happens, Six Sigma—or whatever the CEO endorses—succeeds only half the time. This is less than a 1 sigma performance. As quality professionals we wouldn’t accept that from our processes; why should we accept it from our Six Sigma implementations?

A 2003 Quality Digest survey found that at least half of all Six Sigma implementations fail after three years. Could it be because average CEO tenure is about three years? I’ve talked to enough quality personnel in various companies to know that a new CEO can just as easily kill Six Sigma as support it. (Consider Jeffrey Immelt, who took over from Jack Welch.) What are they going to do to simplify, streamline, and optimize operations? They can’t seem to articulate what it is, but it’s something different.

Myth No. 2: Bigger is better

Although it might be nice to have top leadership commitment, it can cause a host of problems. CEO involvement also triggers the need to “go big.” Companies start wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling implementations. Unfortunately, this violates Juran’s “vital few and trivial many” observation. It invokes the dark side of the 80/20 rule: 80 percent of the effort produces only 20 percent of the results. This is a classic violation of lean’s rule against overproduction. Remember this about lean Six Sigma (LSS): The wider you spread it, the thinner it gets.

Moreover, once the CEO gives Six Sigma her blessing, every politically savvy employee wants to get a Six Sigma belt because it’s part of the path to advancement. This triggers the demand for belt certification but not necessarily results. Once an employee gets one of many colors of the Six Sigma belt, he becomes more marketable elsewhere and often leaves for more lucrative jobs. Remember: It’s about bucks, not belts.

And finally, all too often teams flounder trying to figure out what to work on. Leaders are almost discouraged from telling teams what problem to solve. They often want to fix their customers, suppliers, bosses, or subordinates rather than the problems within their control. And most teams fail to use data to pinpoint the problem to be solved.

Myth No. 3: Training and certification

“Top leadership commitment” opens the purse strings for training. Too many Six Sigma implementations measure results in terms of belts acquired and teams started. These vanity metrics make you feel good but don’t really measure the effect of Six Sigma. Few companies measure Six Sigma success in terms of bottom-line, profit-enhancing results. Why do so many CEOs ultimately kill Six Sigma? Because it’s about bucks, not belts.

Poplar wisdom says that people need one or more weeks of lean Six Sigma training to do anything. I say that’s nonsense. Six Sigma training is designed for people who work on a manufacturing factory floor. With manufacturing accounting for less than 10 percent of U.S. employment, only 10 percent of these trained experts actually work on a factory assembly line, where their skills might be put to good use. Although that’s still a big number—roughly 1 million people—what about the other 99 million who work in services?

Six Sigma Green and Black Belt training involves the “long tail” of methods and tools that most people will rarely use. From a lean perspective, this is overproduction—teaching people things they don’t need.

Now I’m not saying Black Belts never need these tools, but they don’t need them to start solving problems right now. By the time they do need these tools, they will have forgotten their training and have to look them up, anyway.

The “vital few” methods and tools of LSS can be learned in a day, especially when applied to existing problems involving delay, defects, or deviation.

Remember this: Learning happens on projects, not in classrooms.

Solutions to the fairy tales

Rogers describes a more effective, but seemingly slower, way to adopt Six Sigma successfully: Involve the informal leaders in successful projects. Informal leaders are the employees who everyone else turns to for insights and information about operating the business. It might be a worker on a production line or a nurse in a hospital. These people are the “hubs” of knowledge connected to everyone through their knowledge. Malcolm Gladwell calls them “mavens.” Seth Godin calls them “sneezers.”

Once hubs experience the elegant power of LSS to solve a pressing problem, they will become evangelists and tell everyone else. Word of mouth is a very effective way of getting a culture to adopt lean Six Sigma; this is how ideas spread.

To the extent that employees can experience a successful improvement project, they will internalize the experience and continue practicing the techniques. When as few as four employees out of every 100 have experienced a successful project, LSS will stick in the organization regardless of CEO changes.

This is good news, because only 4 percent of the processes are causing 50 percent of the waste, rework, and lost profit. (I call this the “4-50 Rule.”) Focus improvement projects on this 4 percent, and success is ensured. Although it may seem counterintuitive, to accelerate adoption you will want to reduce the number of people involved. Just train the people working on laser-focused teams. (Remember: vital few, trivial many.)

According to the science of how cultures adopt innovations, by the time about 20 percent of the employees have experienced a successful project, LSS will take off and become unstoppable.

So companies, consultants, and employees can continue to rant that LSS requires top leadership commitment and settle for a dismal 1 sigma success rate, or they can recognize that for Six Sigma to succeed, you need hubs, not hierarchies. Leverage the informal network.

Switch to a project-oriented, laser-focused, learn-as-you-go, involve-the-hubs method of implementation that will maximize adoption and results while minimizing costs and risks.

A foolproof way to adoption LSS: crawl-walk-run

The U.S. Army used a “crawl-walk-run” approach to implement LSS that resulted in a 700:1 return on investment. You can, too:
• Use Diffusion of Innovations to crawl-walk-run your way to success.
• Get results as you go.
• Focus teams to solve mission- and profit-critical problems.
• Use just-in-time training and improvements to achieve organizational learning.
• Allow word of mouth from internal “sneezers” to spread the “gospel” of LSS.
• Start small (4–50 rule).
• When 4 percent of the organization adopts, lean Six Sigma sticks.
• Use data to focus (4–50 rule), then choose the team.
• Reduce delays, defects, and deviation to increase productivity, profits, and
• Set big, hairy, audacious goals (BHAGs).
• Aim for 50-percent reduction in delay, defects, and deviation in six months.
• Reduce the number of people involved to accelerate adoption.
• Use SWAT teams to solve problems quickly.

It’s up to you. Will you follow the path offered by the merchants of lean Six Sigma folklore, or use the science in Diffusion of Innovations to maximize your chances of success? Haven’t you waited long enough to start plugging the leaks in your cash flow?


About The Author

Jay Arthur—The KnowWare Man’s picture

Jay Arthur—The KnowWare Man

Jay Arthur, speaker, trainer, founder of KnowWare International Inc., and developer of QI Macros for Excel, understands how to pinpoint areas for improvement in processes, people, and technology. He uses data to pinpoint broken processes and helps teams understand their communication styles and restore broken connections. Arthur is the author of Lean Six Sigma for Hospitals (McGraw-Hill, 2011), and Lean Six Sigma Demystified (McGraw-Hill, 2010), and QI Macros SPC Software for Excel. He has 30 years experience developing software. Located in Denver, KnowWare International helps service and manufacturing businesses use lean Six Sigma tools to drive dramatic performance improvements.


Partially Agree

I fully agree with the first half of the article about all the 6sigma folklore myths: top leadership commitment, bigger is better, training and certification. And the no. 2 and 3 myths I think are the concequences of No.1 in many cases. I also agree being project-oriented instead of belts-focused is the right direction to go. But I don't agree that involve informal leaders in successful projects will be cure the fairy tale.

I was a person with informal infuence in my function when I was chosen to be trained as a black belt in the first wave of 6sigma BB training in my company 7 years ago. My first and second projects were very successful( judged by dollars not the 6sigma tools utilized )which gained me lots of trust and respect from peers and my managers as well as my black belt certificate. I stayed as a full time black belt for years and carried out projects. I'm an informal leader in my organization now but that alone can't guarantee project success nor 6sigma longevity in my organization.

I think keeping informal leaders involved is very effective influencial strategy but is not sufficient. The key is nothing different from any 6sigma control phase elements--- the policies, procedures, infrastructure and people in place.

General Electric

I'm pretty sure that GE was shipping manufacturing jobs to China even on Jack Welch's watch, which does not say much for Six Sigma. Same for Motorola and Maytag.


This is not to say that Six Sigma techniques (mostly traditional TQM) are not valid or that they don't work when people use them, but only that the Six Sigma package is clearly not up to the job of keeping jobs in the U.S. Lean manufacturing as developed by Henry Ford and his contemporaries was designed to keep high wage jobs in the U.S. and was successful.

Yes and No

I don't think the issue is whether or not leadership support is in place. It's really whether the right leaders are supporting it by doing the right things. As Jim Collins points out in Good to Great, the right CEO can turn a lukewarm program into a bonanza. Unfortunately, getting the right person into that job seems to be a monster challenge.


I would agree that a "stalinist" CEO can do as much damage to LSS as an uncommitted one. In fact, once could dispute whether GE should be the poster child for Six Sigma success, considering they still practice "rank and yank," which is diametrically opposed to virtually all quality teachings. Read Chapter 14 of Fourth Generation Management.


I agree that the culture of "Belts" has fostered inappropriate elitisim, which wastes the talents and brainpower of the people actually doing the work. Training up a slew of "belts" is easier than doing real leadership work. No wonder most projects get through D, M, and A before sputtering - no organizational infrastructure or support to encourage people to allow the changes needed to deliver the "I" or enforce the "C."


Great Article

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!  I've been working in Manufacturing for 30 years.  Began my career with GE. So I know all about Six Sigma, Black Belts and Green Belts.  It's a waste of time and money.  It's nothing more than a opportunity for Engineers to show off their degrees.  I've worked for several companies over my career as a Lean Manufacturing Engineer ... I always urge employers to stay away from Six Sigma and Belts.  From my experience these programs stifle creativity and employee "full" participation.  I think it makes much more sense to focus on ideas, improving the process, eliminating waste and profitability.  Six Sigma is theoretical, who cares about theory when you can count dollars!  The Black and Green belt programs segregate employees by rank instead of promoting a team environment were everyone feels vested in ideas and improvements!  No one needs a belt for making their job better!  Continuous Improvement is a culture and should never be reduced to a Belt achievement.  Continuous Improvement must be a way of life, as natural as drinking water ... complicating it with theory / statistics and belt certifications is not natural.

The Six Sigma Scam

Wonderful to last last see more people waking up to the Six Sigma scam.  It amazes me why so few, if anyone except me, has checked it's origins.  The floating, drifting, shifting, wandering +/- 1.5 sigma is utter nonsense.   Searcg for the papers upon which it is based.  You will see that Six Sigma is built on rubbish.  With a false foundation, it has no chance.  All the other stuff that makes up Six Sigma makes it even worse.

Six Sigma is all about consultants ripping off dumb clients.