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Rip Stauffer

Quality Insider

Is Six Sigma Dead?

Postmortem vs. prescription

Published: Thursday, December 4, 2014 - 15:42

A number of recent articles in quality literature (and in the quality blogosphere) have posited the death or failure of Six Sigma. More articles, from many of the same sources, discuss the outstanding success of current Six Sigma efforts in manufacturing, healthcare, government, and financial services organizations. Which is it? Is Six Sigma dying, or is it alive and well?

It certainly has died at a number of companies. Several consultants I talk to regularly mention that their clients wanted to implement Six Sigma, but they wanted to make sure that no one called it Six Sigma. I have had this experience with a couple of clients as well. The usual reason given runs something like the following: “We tried that a few years ago, and it left a bad taste in peoples’ mouths.”

The May 2009 issue of Six Sigma Forum Magazine reported the results of a Minitab survey of approximately 200 Six Sigma Black Belts (and those ranking above Black Belts) from a variety of companies. The survey asked the following question: “Based on your experience, what are the top five reasons Six Sigma projects fail (do not meet objectives)?” The top reason given was “Lack of management support,” followed by “Not linked to finances,” “Solution not implemented,” “No data—bad data,” and “Project scope too large.” There were many other reasons given, but the pattern was clear: Most projects that fail do so because their leaders don’t provide support.

This is consistent with the literature, going back at least 40 years, tracing the failures of most continuous improvement efforts and other organizationwide change initiatives. One vital ingredient in deploying any change in an organization is leadership’s constant, consistent, and clearly visible commitment and engagement in the process of change.

One of the strengths of any successful quality approach is that all levels of the organization are involved. Six Sigma deployments should start by raising awareness in the boardroom. In successful deployments, this happens through a day with the executive team, assessing the organization’s readiness, discussing the requirements for success, and learning about what it takes to drive change in the organization. This is followed by champion (sponsor) training, so the project sponsors will understand what’s required of them to lead the effort, how to interpret the various results they’ll see during tollgate reviews, how to conduct those reviews, and how to provide ongoing support to their teams. In the best deployments, the middle managers (i.e., the process owners) receive training to help them understand their responsibilities in day-to-day process management to support improvement projects.

This preparation helps “front load” the Six Sigma deployment, so that projects tend to be scoped more rationally, access to data is easier, solutions get implemented, and results are measured and publicized. Black or Green Belts are sent to their first training session with a project charter in hand, and come back from the first session ready to hit the ground running on that first project. These people’s mentors (outside consultants or internal Master Black Belts) provide ongoing coaching to ensure that the first projects are successful. Top management publicly celebrates the successful completion of projects. In this scenario, by the time the first wave of projects is completed, very few people have any doubts about whether Six Sigma is important to the organization. The results are clear, and leadership commitment is unquestioned.

Two case studies

I have worked with companies that failed in this respect, and with companies that succeeded. The two case studies I will discuss next are typical of failed and successful deployments, and are very consistent with not only the Six Sigma literature, but also with most of the broader change leadership literature.

Company A was a very large, privately owned company with diverse business units, mostly related to the hospitality industry. The deployment champion at this company had been successful in deploying Six Sigma at a smaller organization. In his new position, he was paid more, and his title was more impressive, but he was at least one layer lower in the organization than he had been at his earlier job. Although he had “the ear of the CEO,” he was one of many who did, and there were others in the chain with much more access to that CEO.

In his earlier job, he had trained internal people to be Black Belts, and after three years had advanced the strongest performers among them to become Master Black Belts. At his current company, because his boss wanted Six Sigma to be implemented “faster,” they took a shortcut, hiring some Master Black Belts from the outside. A couple of these deserved the title; most, as it turned out, did not.

We had recommended an executive session. The deployment champion told us “that isn’t going to happen—not as busy as these executives are,” but he assured us that he had the situation well in hand. He was meeting with them individually, an hour at a time when he could get it scheduled, and had given them all a required reading list.

Initially, champion (sponsor) training was scheduled for three days. Managers told to attend complained to their managers, who managed to get the training requirement reduced to one day. One class of 20 champions attended a one-day workshop. Most of them stayed for the entire day. Some of them even chartered projects.

This company had decided to start its efforts with two-week Green Belts, and we began training Green Belts at a rapid pace. When the first wave came to class, half of them were still looking for projects. Of those who did have projects, only a handful had champions who had been to champion training. The rest had been sent by their bosses, who had heard that “this Six Sigma thing is going to be in my expectations this year, so I need to get a project or two done.” When the first wave came back for their second week, some of the projects had been dropped, some Green Belts were still looking for projects, and some had made a little progress.

It got worse in subsequent waves: Fewer projects had champions; fewer of those that did had trained champions (some of the trained champions had been promoted and were no longer able to function as champions); almost none of the projects could be tied to strategy; almost no one had data or baselines. Some could not even tie their project to a specific process.

I expressed this concern to my managing director, and told him that the company would be much better off if he diverted its deployment investment from training to coaching and thereby got some projects done. He called the deployment champion. After a 20-minute conversation, my boss hung up and said, “He’s happy with things... he says they are making lots of progress. From his perspective, it’s successful, and he wants you to keep going.” I asked for a meeting with the deployment champion so I could explain my views further. That never happened.

What did happen is that we kept training wave after wave of Green Belts. Midway through the second year, the organization held a “gallery walk” at its world headquarters, to celebrate all the gains they had made in process improvement efforts. I attended this celebration; about 20 projects were on display. Not a single project had been led by a Green Belt. None of the gains could be proven with data. Many of the people involved in the projects questioned the advertised results.

At the end of two years, three things happened:
1. Corporate trainers decided to take over Green Belt training. They told me, “We are cutting out all the statistics—our feedback indicates that students didn’t like it and never used any of it.”
2. My new managing director had a meeting with the deployment champion, who was furious that he had spent more than half a million dollars on our training, but couldn’t prove that any of our students had provided any return on that investment.
3. All the Master Black Belts quit and moved to other organizations.

In later years, I met several people from that organization. All said pretty much the same thing: “We really tried, but it just didn’t work with our culture.”

Company B was a manufacturer and a spinoff from a larger, Fortune 25 company. This company was in crisis due to the “buggy whip syndrome”; in other words, they were very good at what they did, but their business was in trouble because other technologies were overshadowing the need for products that had provided the bulk of their sales for a long time. The company had hired as its new CEO a well-known quality champion and author of a book on deploying lean. He hired me because he wanted Six Sigma aligned with his lean efforts to create a system for process improvement.

This CEO personally led a two-day executive session, inviting us to present an overview during the first half of day two. He required his direct reports to personally sponsor projects in the first round. He introduced his COO as deployment champion, and told the executive team in no uncertain terms that she was his voice in this deployment. He then opened sponsor training to these individuals and their direct reports, which was scheduled to occur between the second and third weeks of Black Belt training. The top managers left having committed publicly to project ideas that were aligned with strategic objectives.

The CEO opened the first session of the first week of every Black Belt training class, and required project sponsors for the wave being trained to give an elevator speech about the project they were sponsoring. The deployment champion sat through the entire first wave of training, and had her second in command sit through the entirety of every subsequent wave. Each week, we set aside 90 minutes on Monday through Thursday for project reports from the Black Belts. The COO demanded a schedule set in advance for these presentations, and each project sponsor was required to sit in on all his projects’ presentations. The CEO always sat in on the first set of presentations in week two of each wave.

In the first set of presentations, one of the Black Belt candidates, an engineer, got up to present and said, “Here is my charter.... I’m afraid that’s all I have to report. I haven’t been able to get anything else done because I have two other projects that are priorities.”

The COO, in front of everyone present, immediately turned to the project sponsor and asked, “Is this project important to you?” The sponsor started to talk about other priorities, and she cut him off.

“We all have other priorities. What I asked was whether this project is important to you. This project, that you committed to support, that you said would drive a metric at the top of your strategic objectives for the year... is this project important to you?” He again tried to talk about some other priority, and she cut him off again. “Let’s meet on this, after the presentations are done.” She looked over at the CEO and said, “Are you available?” He nodded.

That engineer was able to report significant progress during the next rounds of project presentations. We never heard any whispers about lack of sponsor support after that.

We trained 18 Black Belts in that first round. Two of them were victims of a reorganization (the day of the final exam). The other 16 completed their projects, and the validated NPV for the total portfolio from that first wave was $32 million in the first year. We saw similar results in each subsequent wave. The deployment champion’s second in command took over training at the end of the second year and became the company’s Master Black Belt. Most of the Black Belts ran between three and five projects per year, with gains varying between $250,000 and $2 million per project.

The bottom line is this: It’s very clear that the methodology works. It’s worked in hospitals, banks, military organizations, manufacturers of all shapes and sizes, and hotel chains. DMAIC is intended to solve difficult, complex problems—problems without an obvious solution. Lean is intended to help streamline and accelerate work, and constantly eliminate waste. Other disciplines within these methodologies enhance organizational learning, improve the quality of business decisions, and significantly lower operational and business risk. All this is proven by those who have been successful.

It is not, however, a silver bullet—no methodology is. It can’t be “installed,” “nailed on,” or “sprinkled” over the organization like fairy dust. You can’t hold an organizationwide kick-off event, then retreat into the boardroom and hope for the best. It is a significant change to the technical, political, and cultural systems within the organization, and so the leaders must lead—actively, proactively, and consistently lead. This means that the boardroom and the C-suite cannot delegate the burden of leadership to others but must get out and ask questions, hold regular project reviews, and update project selection criteria as strategic imperatives change. They cannot leave a question in anyone’s mind about his commitment to the change.


About The Author

Rip Stauffer’s picture

Rip Stauffer

Rip Stauffer uses his extensive experience in total quality and Six Sigma to educate and counsel at all career levels with specific experience in government, manufacturing, medical devices, financial services, and healthcare organizations. Stauffer is Senior Consultant at MSI and CEO of Woodside Quality LLC. Stauffer is an ASQ senior member, an ASQ Statistics Division member, a certified quality engineer, a manager of quality and organizational excellence, and a Six Sigma Black Belt and Master Black Belt. He is an adjunct faculty member at Walden University, teaching graduate and undergraduate business statistics courses and international business courses. 


Quality will never be dead

Thank you for all your rich comments. I try to bring my Lean 6-Sigma milestones to your knowledge. The startup of digital (cellular) Mobile Telephone Systems at Ericsson in 1982 was a challenge. 1 single person employed first. I was joining the main production mgmt staff in 1985, then there were appr 700 R&D Engineers. I transferred from a position as an automotive R&D Manager for 5 yrs 1980-85, where I had two trips to Japan for my Lean 6S portfolio, but only one Benchmark theory - getting down to 1 PPM level incoming quality like many Japanese electronic companies then. Without much understanding of top management I started measuring PPM-levels of the processes by help of a freind close to the automation machinery and automatic test equipment. We were at 45 000 PPM in august 1986. We reduced the PPM-levels of the primary processes to 50 PPM in 1989, factor 1/1000 three years later. I put Monthly PPM-charts in front of R&D Designers, creating a competitive position for the product owners to reach the 1 PPM level very soon. Number of speech channels increased 10-fold every year from 1982 to 2000 well following the Moore's Law. In 1989 I heard of the Motorola Six Sigma Concept and Deming's book Out Of The Crisis. I found them very supportive and explanatory for my efforts and further educational mission for Scandinavian Industry. Maybe my early and rapid grassroot simplification from a designers view point was our success. I had no formal quality role at Ericsson. I worked off line of the line management structure.

We might as well ask if Quality is dead

Nice article Rip - you got right to the correct point of management consistency and support, despite the distracting title.

Has the name 'Six Sigma' been used by hack consultants whose sole purpose was to get rich while defiling real quality methods and tools? yesBut so what?  They did the same thing in the eighties with SPC and are still doing it with 'Lean'.  These people will never go away, so we need to stop lamenting their existance and be the best quality professionals we can be.

Did some companies use it - and Lean - to put lipstick on their pigs before trotting it off to market?  yesBut companies have been doing this since the dawn of time with some brand of lipstick or other...again we need to get over it and do something productive.

Did the goofy hocus pocus gimmicks (Cpk, 1.5 sigma shift, etc.) get in the way of some deployments?  yesAnd there will always be goofy things because marketers need gimmicks and lazy people people want a pill that will cure their ills today...

Is China's accendancy to economic first place a result of the US use of Six Sigma?  no.  China is number one because they have the most people and they are finally leaving their agragrian economy...

At its heart - and in its origins - 'Six Sigma' is and was nothing more than a 'packaging' of quality methods and tools.  For those companies that took quality seriously it has been very successful and continues to be.  I have worked under the banner of 'six sigma' sine the beginning and I have seen both success and failure for exactly the same reasons Rip pointed out.  Companies that care about quality will continue to invest in it and companies that don't will continue to look for the miracle pill.  I have chosen to not partake in anti-stupidity rants and do what I can to teach, promote and use solid effective quality improvement methods - no matter what the banner du jour is...

Emphasis on process stability

I agree that many companies have had sucess with 6-sigma (in spite of it's flaws).

My major issue is its lack of emphasizing the importance of process stability and control (similar to capability studies). SPC is treated (based on my experience) as a tool to be applied on the backend of the DMAIC process instead of the primary analysis method in the beginning to determine what type(s) of variation we are working with. To steal from Wheeler, don't we need to get the most of our existing process/system BEFORE going down the 6-sigma road.

I think so. 


Well-said, Rich

I've been writing and presenting on that very subject for years, Rich. The ASQ Six Sigma Body of Knowledge, the Indiana QC Primer for Black Belt, the ASQ Green and Black Belt handbooks all to that very thing...relegate SPC to the Control phase of the project (yet they want you to do a capability study in Measure). In my practice, we start with SPC in Define (because you can't have a reasonable baseline without some evidence of statistical control), and use process behavior charts throughout, for tracking progress, validating experimental results, etc.


This must be a trainer specific gap.

In the beginning Motorola used control charts - and/or multi-vari charts - as part of define and early analyze phases.  Even as recently as 2005, I've seen trainers spend substantial time on the need for control charts and/multi-vari charts in these early phases.  I think it is a definitive sign of the weakness of the trainer if they relegate control charts to the control phase.  And I hold that same opinion for the ASQ BOK and Indiana manuals.  The downside of widespread training is that the knowledge experience adn skill sets get diluted as more trainers rush in to fill the gap.   Remember that many Academic statisticians have no clue about SPC.  How many times have you had to tell a college grad, a professor or a 'training mill' graduate that control charts do not require Normality of the data?  There was an article published in the ASQ Statistics newsletter a while back concerning how Deming got his ‘little’ red bead experiment all wrong.  The gist of the article was that if he just used ANOVA techniques and better statistics he could have known that the operators were ‘messing up’…This wasn’t some Six Sigma guy but a PhD Statistician…so I wouldn’t blame Six Sigma for the lack of how to best use control charts.

On the other hand I think the even more complex concept of homogeneity and 'stability' are not well understood by most practitioners.  A non-homogenous process is fairly common these days and can be quite stable - even tho it will appear 'unstable' in a traditional control chart that is predicated on a homogenous process where the largest component of variation is piece to piece.  This throws many people for a loop when they first encounter it.  Of course as Donald Wheeler pointed out in his article "Why Do We Keep Having Hundred year Floods" if you don’t chart your data in time series and rely solely on descriptive statistics this natural non-homogeneity will make your statistics useless.  This knowledge is even less common. 

And of course not all assignable causes are easy to fix and not all common causes are difficult to fix.  This too is often overlooked in hack training…

So my basic lament isn’t about six sigma – its about poor trainers who use pabulum training material.


Normality may or may not be required

Re: " How many times have you had to tell a college grad, a professor or a 'training mill' graduate that control charts do not require Normality of the data? "

The x-bar chart may or may not require normality of the underlying data because of the central limit theorem. (If it's really non-normal, even averages from samples of 4 or 5 will not follow a normal distribution.) If you are running a chart for individuals from, for example, a gamma distribution (common for undesirable random characteristics like particles and impurities), the chart will be useless unless you set the control limits by using the gamma distribution. StatGraphics, by the way, can do this. If you go with the normal distribution, your false alarm risk can be 10 times the expected 0.00135 at the upper control limit. Or maybe even worse, depending on the underlying distribution.

Also, your Cpk estimate based on the normal distribution can be off by orders of magnitude in terms of the nonconforming fraction. That's as in, "Your Six Sigma process is sending us 1000 nonconformances per million opportunities!"

Furthermore, I would not vouch for the accuracy of an s or R chart for a gamma distribution because the spread is larger than for a normal distribution.

More on this subject here: http://www.qualitydigest.com/inside/quality-insider-article/when-bell-cu...

Can I get a reference?

Somehow I missed that issue of the Stats division newsletter. I'd love to get a reference for that! It must have been hard to pack that much misunderstanding into one article...

Article that Misinterprets Deming's Red Bead Experiment


It was a mini paper in the January 2013 Statistics Division Newsletter...

"Is Deming's Red Bead Experiment Misleading?" by Charles H. Goldsmith

Thanks, Bev!

Thanks so much! I am a member of the division, but somehow missed that newsletter. It's hard to imagine more misunderstanding packed into one article; it was this level of misunderstanding that led Shewhart to write the lectures that later became Statistical Method from the Viewpoint of Quality Control.

What's in a title?

Light dawns on Marble Head...

I started writing this article several months ago, under the working title "A Tale of Two Companies." The article is not about whether Six Sigma (or TQM, or Lean, or SPC, or BPR, or CPI, or any other brand name for continual quality improvement) is dead, but about why they all continue to be reported as dead.

When I sent the article into QD, it was under that title. My timing was bad, though, because unbeknownst to me, Don Wheeler had also submitted an article entitled "A Tale of Two Comparisons," to lead the QD Daily the day before my article. Clearly, an editorial decision was made to change the title on mine--for good reason. In retrospect, I think the choice for the new title may have been unfortunate...as someone who has often commented in other forums on whether TQM or SPC or LSS or Six Sigma had shuffled of the mortal coil, I know that lots of readers wait for articles with these titles to pounce and declare it DOA.

What I would hope might happen is that you read the article again, and wherever I have the words "Six Sigma," substitute your preferred methodology. My hope is that then you'll see the article as I intended it...a comparison of how two companies used the same approach to continual improvement, with one being successful (and eventually growing beyond the branding) and the other not--and some of the reasons for each result.

Defective from the start.

If Six Sigma was any other product, it would have been returned to the manufacturer as defective, the day it was taken out of the box.  The very name "Six Sigma" should have made people suspicious.  How on Earth could a philosophy based on counting defects with the farcical target of 3.4 ever hope to succeed?  The origins of the 3.4 show that it was more scam that just fallacy.

CEO's bought the hype without ever considering the basis of the nonsense.  It was festooned with tools, simply to justify more loot for those doing the training.  Hopefully one day the masses will wake up and return to Deming.

Deader than Elvis

Face it, Six Sigma was never really about quality, it was about marketing.  A lot of consultants got rich convincing CEO's this would save their companies and convincing people that this was the end all be all program (key word) for permanent job security.  Years ago I called GE out on their six sigma over light bulbs.  I bought three light bulbs, none of which worked out of the box.  How come I'm not that lucky when I play lotto?  And by the way, it happened again with refrigerators.

Quality is hard work, it's process focused.  Six sigma has some powerful tools, all of which we've seen since Roland Fisher.  The problem is none of the six sigma consultants really know how to teach the real essence of quality, rolling up your sleeves and digging in. 

80% of your problems can be solved with 7 tools.  It's all about fundamentals.




Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

Six Sigma and Lean are both still around and the success varies with the change agent. I often find Six Sigma and Lean to be focused on efficiency - and not effectiveness. The best improvements come from effectiveness and this usually comes from focus on the largest producers of waste - management. Management is where I see Six Sigma and Lean fail.

Both Lean and Six Sigma need to have attached them a method for management. I have found only one that has endured the test of time - the Deming Management Method (DMM). 

The proof is in today's News

Six Sigma is dead!  As of December 4, 2014 China is now the number one economy in the world, surpassing the U.S.A.

The issue of it's death goes deep down to the use of Six Sigma in the U.S.A. by top management, (in the boardrooms), over the past decades.  It has been used extensively to make business systems and finances look good prior to a sale, merger, or for seeking financing.

The net result of all the empty promises, hard work, and positive results achieved by Master Black Belts, Black Belts, and everyone else involved is that most manufacturing companies that went through Six Sigma no longer exist, and/or all their manufacturing has been moved offshore.  And that is why it's dead!

The proof is in the pudding!

For those manufacturing companies that still exist in the U.S.A., hang on!  The use of the Six Sigma methodology will keep those American companies competitive in the global marketplace.......   Until the board members decide that the results achieved are good enough to sell the company, or move it offshore.

Six Sigma = TQM

My perception has been that Six Sigma is simply a fancy name (or umbrella) for Total Quality Management. If the fancy name gets people to use the underlying techniques, it gets results--much like the folk tale about stone soup. It is, however, hardly innovative; DMAIC is simply a variant on Plan Do Check Act, as are all closed loop continuous improvement cycles. TOPS-8D is easier to understand, and applies to a wider range of projects.

Standardization, which was touted as an innovative feature of Six Sigma, dates back to Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor, if not earlier.

For whatever reason, Six Sigma leaders Motorola and General Electric both moved jobs offshore for cheap labor. Henry Ford did not need cheap labor, which suggests lean manufacturing is superior to Six Sigma--but the two approaches are emphatically synergistic and not mutually exclusive. This suggests that, as pointed out in the article, management commitment is vital (as it is with any program).

Perhaps there is a need for a new label like Productivity Improvement Method or Productivity Improvement System that encompasses any and all activities and techniques that remove waste--which can be quantified as waste of the time of things, waste of the time of people, waste of materials (ISO 14001), and waste of energy (ISO 50001). This would include all lean methodologies, design of experiments, DMAIC, 8D, CQI-10, PDCA, the seven basic quality improvement tools, and so on. The bottom line is that, if it eliminates waste (and poor quality is waste), just use it.

Tom Pyzdek's "Six Sigma Project Turkeys" (http://www.sixsigmatraining.org/six-sigma-projects/six-sigma-project-tur...) underscores the need for projects to go through to completion. TOPS-8D projects that get no further than D3 (containment) are another example of the problem. A good closed loop corrective action system will demand that all projects go to completion, which is in fact mandatory for those related to ISO 9001 audit findings.

There is also the "just do it" project, or Error Cause Removal (ECR) program that was described roughly 50 years ago. If, for example, a forklift's forks are damaging boxes on pallets behind the one being lifted, just shorten the forks (or put rubber blocks on them to prevent the forks from extending beyond the pallet, assuming the change in the load's center of gravity does not create a safety issue). One does not need DMAIC or 8D to reach a conclusion of that nature.

Six Sigma, TQM, Deming

I hadn't really intended to raise the "TQM" v "Six Sigma" v "Lean" v "LSS" v "The Deming Method" discussion with this article. I made my feelings about that debate clear, I think, in an earlier comment and article (http://www.qualitydigest.com/inside/quality-insider-column/drop-argument-channel-value-stream.html). My point here was that I've seen a lot of articles over the last several years discussing the demise of SPC or Six Sigma or TQM. Many of them were clearly from business leaders who had led as Company A's management had led.

Yoshi Osada and others, from JUSE, met with Lou Schultz from Process Management International about 14 years ago. JUSE wanted to understand Six Sigma. Lou, a long-time Deming Disciple and consultant in the Deming Method, was just beginning to explore building a Deming-based Six Sigma practice. Osada wanted to try to see if or where Six Sigma might fit into the JUSE "House of Total Quality." After some presentations and much discussion, they reached consensus that Six Sigma was a "vehicle." My understanding of that term may be incomplete, but I have understood it as essentially marketing...a way to carry Quality to the organization. At PMI (later BlueFire Partners), Lou had us build Six Sigma training and consulting on a foundation of the Deming Philosophy. We were able to get Deming into the door of many organizations that wouldn't have talked to us if we'd told them we were bringing TQM or the Deming Method.  Those whose management led and had the constancy of purpose necessary to implement a Quality approach to management did very well. Those who did not lead, did not do very well (but still blamed the approach, not their leadership).

I've been hearing that Six

I've been hearing that Six Sigma is dying or dead for at least 20 years. But it's been going strong since it began at Motorola in 1986 and took them from the brink of bankruptcy to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award winner in 1988. I agree with the author that there are many Six Sigma Projects that are ill-conceived and/or poorly executed (see my article Six Sigma Project Turkeys http://www.sixsigmatraining.org/six-sigma-projects/six-sigma-project-tur... for several examples.) However, demand for my Six Sigma training continues to increase and every few days I get to review a successful certification project presentation that demonstrates why: done properly, Six Sigma works!