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Jay Arthur—The KnowWare Man


Do Your Employees Have the Tools to Succeed with Lean Six Sigma?

Why ‘No Belts’ need access to an easy, Excel-based software

Published: Monday, November 7, 2011 - 16:09

At a recent health-care conference I had a conversation with Mary, a Six Sigma Black Belt for a 700-bed hospital. She told me that the hospital had only a few copies of Minitab software, which was shared by several people. She was always being asked to close out of the program so that someone else could use it.

Recently I spoke with a several Six Sigma Green Belts who work for a large defense contractor. They told me they had no registered software at their disposal, that only the Black Belts were provided with software.

A professor who teaches Six Sigma has his students draw a Pareto chart by hand, and he times them; the best and worst times range from 45 to 75 minutes. Then he shows his students how to draw a Pareto chart in seconds using Excel-based software.

I’m going to argue that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to succeed at Six Sigma without software.

Consider the surprisingly high cost of lean Six Sigma:
• Up to $250,000 to train a Six Sigma Black Belt
• Up to $60,000 to train a Six Sigma Green Belt

With this exorbitant training expenditure, wouldn’t companies do whatever it takes to make their belts productive? More often, however, the tools and software needed for these belts to apply this training within their companies isn’t provided. Or the companies handicap the belts with just a few shared copies of Minitab or JMP, and scrimp on what’s necessary to be successful at Six Sigma. This seems to be common practice, but it violates the theory of constraints.

Theory of constraints

The theory of constraints suggests that four main constraints hold a company back: resources, market, policy, and dummy constraints.

Within IT, for example, there is a common policy constraint concerning PC software: Select a single, standalone software package for Six Sigma.

Consider your tool box at home: You probably don’t have a single pair of pliers, but you do have needle-nose or water-pump pliers. And in the silverware drawer in your kitchen, you don’t have a single knife, but you probably have chopping, slicing, and carving knives.

Why would you think you need only one kind of software for Six Sigma?

Purchasing departments have policy and resource constraints: Minimize the cost of each item purchased (not the total cost). When stand-alone software costs $2,500 per copy, purchasing and IT try to restrict access and total cost without regard for the total cost involved.

Sadly, these are both dummy constraints—which can be easily remedied with a little money. Excel-based Six Sigma software only costs about $200. Wouldn’t you spend that to make a $250,000 Black Belt more productive? Wouldn’t you spend that to make a $60,000 Green Belt more productive? Wouldn’t you spend that to equip your “No Belts” with the software they need to monitor and sustain improvements?

Most companies will spring for a few shared copies of Minitab or JMP, but is that where your data reside? No, most data are in Microsoft Excel. To make belts productive, shouldn’t they also have Excel-based software?

And after a belt has helped a team define, measure, analyze, and improve a process, someone has to implement a control system to monitor the improved process. Once a process rises above a three-sigma performance, employees will need control charts to monitor the process because they can no longer detect process changes with their five senses.

A 2003 Quality Digest survey—its results published in the article, “Six Sigma Survey,”—found that while most companies are using Six Sigma to improve, only 20 percent of respondents said they were using statistical process control (SPC). This is where most companies fail with Six Sigma; they fail to implement a control system (the “C” in DMAIC) and ultimately fall back to prior performance levels. A recent study found that 60 percent of executives did not expect to retain the gains from lean Six Sigma. Why? I believe it’s because they fail at control.

After an improvement project, belts should move on to other problems. I have found, however, that belts often become the “chart makers” for the organization because they are the only ones with access to SPC software.

Who monitors the process after it’s been improved? The No Belts—the employees who use the process. These employees will need control charts that are easy to learn, use, and update. Companies don’t want to equip No Belts with software that costs $2,500 per copy and possibly thousands more to learn how to use. They want affordable and easy-to-learn software that provides the control charts necessary to monitor the improved processes. For instance, a No Belt in health care could detect increasing trends in infection rates (hospital acquired infections kill 99,000 people a year) and take action to restore sterile precautions in an OR, ICU, or nursing unit. Or, a  No Belt on a manufacturing floor could detect process shifts, stop the line and correct the problem.

Among the Excel-based software solutions are CHARTrunner, QI Macros, SigmaXL, SPC for Excel, SPC IV Excel, SPC XL, and WinSPC. QI Macros, for instance, is an affordable Six Sigma SPC software add-in for Microsoft Excel that works inside Excel so users can easily create control charts, histograms, and Pareto charts. Green Belts, Black Belts, and Master Black Belts tell me they use QI Macros extensively and switch to Minitab or JMP when they have some exotic statistical requirement. Although I’d prefer everyone buy the QI Macros, I really want you to consider adding any Excel-based tool to make your Black Belts and Green Belts more productive. Comparing the $200 cost of Excel-based software to the $250,000 cost of a Black Belt, you’d be foolish not to equip them.

As important as Green Belt and Black Belt software tools are, I believe the biggest mistake companies make is failing to equip No Belts with SPC software to monitor and control the process. When that happens performance slips back to its original, three-sigma level within a short period of time. Most, if not all, of the belt-training expenditure is for naught.

Do your employees have all the tools they need to maximize the benefit of lean Six Sigma? Probably not.


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.


Case Study in Six Sigma Tool Foolishness

I got a call from a small manufacturing company about the QI Macros. They had just trained 16 Green Belts at a cost of over $3,000 per person. Each employee was in class for two weeks, so let's call that 80 hours at a loaded rate of $50/hour = $4,000. So that's $7,000 per person or roughly $112,000 total. And that doesn't count the lost opportunity cost of employees not being on their jobs for two weeks which might be at least another $4,000 per person or $64,000 additional.

The caller asked how much it would be to put the QI Macros on a single PC that all 16 could share.

Seriously? After spending $7,000-$11,000 per person for training, you can't spend $200 per person to make them productive?

And what about the training company that didn't include software with their training? Teaching Six Sigma methods without providing the tools to be productive should be considered malpractice.

This is just one of the many calls I get every week where some purchasing department is trying to skrimp on software at the expense of productivity. Mega waste! So I don't care if you buy the QI Macros or some other Six Sigma toolkit, but stop wasting money on training if you aren't willing to back it up with tools to make people productive. It's foolish.

Why Six Sigma Fails

I believe that Six Sigma often fails because companies don't give their employees the tools they need to do the work. This isn't a small problem. It's huge. And it's not just Six Sigma, but any activity that requires PC software. IT and purchasing constrain the resource and employees take that as a clue that it's not important, so they stop doing it.

And too many people report that they can't sustain the improvements they make. Why? Because the workers don't have SPC software to monitor performance and the "belts" are too busy to handle the charting for everyone.

I don't think SPC software companies are in competition with each other; I think we're in competition with IT and purchasing.

This article felt too promotional when I wrote it, but I didn't know how to explain it without bringing my experience into it.

I thought the same thing

Jay has some good ideas to share, but this was an advertisement. 

Quality Digest

How is this valuable for a quality professional?  This is just blatant product promotion.

Re: blatant product promotion

Sorry JSTATS, but I disagree with your statement. I read into this article the need for better availability to the software for anyone measuring, monitoring and improving processes, and not standalone products. And he has applied good logic to his argument, the cost for training the belts and those that will be expected to measure and monitor after the belt projects are completed.

His suggestion for several alternatives for a readily available spreadsheet product, Excel, including his own, with just a hint of promotion at the very end, I don't sconsider "blatant promotion" just taking advantage of an opportunity.

My perspective

Gordon - thank you for your comments.  The portions I found to be blatantly promotional:

- The article is about IT resources being constrained, but it is not just "inexpensive" software that is suggested as the solution, but "Excel-based" software.  I don't see what being Excel-based has to do with freeing IT resources.  A $200 package is $200 whether it works as an Excel add-in or not.

- The cost of standalone software is cited as $2500.  I know of no software used by more than a very small fraction of Six Sigma practitioners at that cost.  The two packages cited by name - Minitab and JMP - don't cost that.  I am not as familiar with JMP's pricing (but know it is significantly less than that), but most companies use networked Minitab licenses and are probably paying at most $200/user already.

It would not rub me wrong on Jay's website where he must make a case for someone purchasing his product, but Quality Digest is supposed to be a resource for professionals.  While the need for better availability of software is important in our field, I feel that the solution proposed does not tie specifically to the problem stated and just promotes the product the author sells.