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Jay Arthur—The KnowWare Man

Six Sigma

Six Sigma Should Listen to the Voice of Its Customers

The methodology wastefully over-trains, over-promises, and under-delivers

Published: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 - 08:45

For the last decade, people have come by my booth at the American Society for Quality (ASQ) World Conference on Quality and Improvement and asked: “Isn’t there a better way to implement Six Sigma that doesn’t cost so much or take so long?” Of course there is, but conventional wisdom inhibits the spread and benefits of Six Sigma. Even our largest customers rarely train more than 250 Green Belts and five Black Belts a year.

In 2010, Joe De Feo of the Juran Institute said: “We need to make Six Sigma more accessible.” I couldn’t agree more. Toward this end, let’s examine some of the failings of Six Sigma.

Six Sigma preaches voice of the customer (VOC) but seems to have forgotten that VOC applies to Six Sigma itself. What do customers normally ask for in a product or service? Usually, it’s, “Deliver products and services that meet my needs.” To that end:
• Don’t waste my time.
• Help me save money.
• Help me save time.
• Reduce my cost to own or use it.

Sadly, Six Sigma has lost sight of these basic requirements. During this recession, companies can’t wait months or years for belts to be trained and projects to be completed. They don’t want Six Sigma; they want results from Six Sigma, and they don’t want these to take too long or cost too much.

Although quality improvement and control grew up in manufacturing, the world has changed. Nowadays only one person out of 100 works on a factory floor where every Six Sigma tool can be used. The other 99 percent work in back-office services like accounting, purchasing, and IT, and front-office services like health care, restaurants, hotels, and so on. Rather than listen to the voice of our customers, most Six Sigma trainers keep hammering unnecessary manufacturing information into the skulls of their service-oriented customers.

Traditional Six Sigma training covers all the methods and tools required on a manufacturing factory floor. This one-size-fits-all training fails to address the needs of its customers. At the ASQ conference I spoke with a Black Belt in health care, who said her entire training consisted of manufacturing examples. The training company couldn’t even bother to get health care examples for exercises. This borders on malpractice.

Six Sigma seems to have forgotten that Pareto’s rule applies to training—20 percent of the tools will produce 80 percent of the results. From a lean perspective, teaching the nonmanufacturing students every method and tool in Six Sigma is overproduction. If they cannot use it immediately, it’s waste.

This means that most Six Sigma training can be shortened from five days to one for the other 99 percent of students. For most nonmanufacturing jobs, I have found that seven key tools (I call them the “Magnificent Seven”) will solve 99 percent of the problems. They constitute what I call “Money Belt” training.

What about the costs? Training a Black Belt and bringing him up to speed can take a year and cost $250,000. Small businesses (which create 70 percent of the jobs in the United States) do not have the time, let alone the money, to do this.

And what about results? During a recent podcast, Michael George, founder of Strong America Now, admitted that one chemical company spent $4 million with the George Group without a bottom-line benefit. A recent study by AlixPartners LLP found that 60 percent of executives didn’t expect to hang onto the 5-percent improvements they expect from lean Six Sigma.

I’m not saying that Six Sigma hasn’t succeeded in some companies or that it hasn’t produced results; I’m saying that it hasn’t produced the kind of performance breakthroughs at the speed necessary to take the brakes off this economy.

So there you have it. Six Sigma has a one-sigma success rate. Six Sigma wastefully over-trains, over-promises, and under-delivers. I suspect the over-training is caused by a selfish requirement for consultants to stay fully booked for five-day trainings rather than customize training to a client’s actual needs. Of course, consultants aren’t alone. Managers dangle the carrot of Green or Black Belt certifications in front of employees who use it to fatten their resumes and find higher paying jobs. It’s not quite Wall Street greed, but it has the same feel to it.

Here’s the terrifying news: Health care insurance costs rose 5 percent a year from 2008–2010 and 9 percent in 2011. Despite efforts by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), patient turnaround times and outcomes have not improved during the last decade. At this rate, health care will cost $4.5 trillion by 2020. Health care could use control charts, Pareto charts, and fishbone diagrams to cut a trillion dollars in unnecessary and preventable expense, but in spite of Don Berwick’s challenge to embrace science and evidence, there has been no progress. I’ve looked at hundreds of improvement project posters at IHI, the National Association for Healthcare Quality (NAHQ), and the American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Magnet conferences during the last decade; few use these tools. Most show a pie chart, bar chart, or line graph with a trend line through it. And there’s never a control plan to sustain the improvement.

Similarly, the U.S. government is sluggish, error-prone, and deeply in debt, but trying to apply traditional Six Sigma methods could take decades and bring the government to a complete standstill.

I say it’s time for Six Sigma to drink its own Kool-Aid. It’s time the methodology became “more accessible.” It’s time to simplify, streamline, and optimize Six Sigma for everything from Mom-and-Pop stores to Fortune 500 companies to federal, state, and local governments. We can no longer support the cycle time to implement traditional Six Sigma. We need to stop measuring progress in terms of “belts” and start measuring progress in “bucks.” The economy needs results now. There’s more than enough work to be done.


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.


Six Sigma is Easy

Going from 3-to-5 sigma is easy. Staying at 5 sigma is hard. Going beyond 5 sigma takes a few more tools.

The Magnificent Seven Tools can be learned quickly and easily given a problem to solve and data to work with. They are:

  • Excel PivotTables to summarize defect data (every multimillion dollar project I've ever done starts with PivotTables.

  • Control charts to show defect rates over time and monitor the improved process.

  • Pareto Charts to laser-focus the improvement project.

  • Histograms to show deviation from customer requirements in manufactured products.

  • Ishikawa (Fishbone) diagrams to capture the results of root cause analysis

  • Matrix diagrams like an action plan or checksheet.

  • Process flow diagrams like Value Stream Maps and Spaghetti diagrams.

I've never needed hypothesis testing or DOE or a plethora of "Long Tail" Six Sigma tools to solve problems, because I rarely work with a factory floor. Most of the time, the factory is pretty smooth, but the surrounding "service" processes like sales, orders, purchasing, payments, etc. are flawed, causing customer dissatisfaction, lost profit, waste and rework.

Learn the "Short Tail" of tools that will solve most problems facing businesses first. Then add the rest.

Stop trying to turn everyone into a statistician. It's wasteful.

When you eliminate the "Long Tail" tools and focus on the Magnificent Seven, Six Sigma and Lean become easier, a lot easier. When I work with a team or three, give them some just-in-time training and drag them kicking and screaming through the problem solving process, they learn how at a gut level.

I include the cost of the QI Macros in my training so that everyone has tools to make Lean Six Sigma easy. Training people without giving them tools is silly. To make Six Sigma easy, people need tools that make it easy.

When we make Six Sigma easy, more people will embrace it. When they are successful, they'll tell their friends. Word of mouth and "word of mouse" will trigger a tsunami of adoption that will benefit everyone--companies, employees and customers alike. An explosion of adoption will keep every consultant busy for decades to come.

That's my mission: create 100 million "Money Belts" using the tools of quality to start solving problems every day in ways that simplify, streamline and optimize products and services around the globe.

Be a Money Belt!

One step at a time

Six Sigma is for any type of organization that wants to achieve levels of quality approaching perfection. Reaching this level of performance will never come easy or cheap. Fortunately, moving toward this goal can be taken one step at time.

Start with the basics: Good supervision, good documentation, good training. Make sure you are gathering accurate data on customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, process performance, and financial performance. If you don't have these basics in place you should be working on them, not looking for the next step.

Once you've mastered the basics move on to Lean, which is about eliminating waste. Use tools like 5S, Value Stream Mapping, Pull, Flow, Poka-Yoke, and Jidoka to improve the efficiency, reliability, and profitiability of all your processes (whether manufacturing or not) everywhere in the organization.

Finally, move on to Six Sigma which is about reducing variability and improving quality to near perfection. Use the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control methodology to make sure you're solving the right problems, solving them in the right way, and solving them for good.  

Some organizations will always complain about how hard Six Sigma is - as if acheiving world class results should be easy! Other organizations will follow the steps, do the work, and reap the rewards. Every organization gets to decide which kind it's going to be.

My thoughts

To the other commenter, the 7 basic QI tools aren't proprietary or secret. 


To Jay's point. I agree that it's malpractice, and unhelpful, for a hospital to be using all manufacturing examples in teaching improvement methodologies. That's just lazy on the part of whoever is doing that.



What's left

Let's see, everyone knows that the foundation of Six Sigma is utter rubbish, so we drop that and add in Voice of the Customer ... we're heading back to the future with Deming !  Even chief scammer Mikel Harry says Six Sigma is "80% TQM".  Why not drop the entire 20% of rubbish that Six Sigma adds and get back to quality !

The Eighth Waste

As I mentioned in another comment, Six Sigma contributes to what I've seen popularized as "The 8th Waste" - under-utilizing the brainpower of the people doing the tasks. I have a buddy that chooses Kepner-Tregoe as a way to drive problem solving into the hands of the masses. The notion of "belts" tends to foster inappropriate elitism, and constrains the organization to require big efforts to solve small problems. If a problem is in people's natural "line of sight" they should be given tools and resources - and accountability - to solve their own problems.


The only shortcoming of that is when a process issue crosses multiple organizational boundaries. In my experience, those are projects that warrant facilitation by "heavy hitters."


That being said, I wouldn't entirely blame the consultants and trainers, though they should know better than to rely solely on "a**es in classes." I still maintain that the right leaders, committing the right way, can establish an organizational "infrastructure" that allows Lean and Six Sigma to function in those processes that cross organizational boundaries.


You forgot to list your Magnificent Seven tools for the article...or do we have to pay to see? How is that different from Six Sigma practitioners that you de-cry in the article?

Six Sigma can't do the job alone

The fact that Six Sigma's foremost developers and exponents, specifically General Electric, Motorola, and Maytag all sent jobs offshore for cheap labor pretty much speaks for itself. This is not to say that the Six Sigma toolbox (primarily well-established TQM methods) does not work if used diligently and systematically but it applies to a rather limited range of problems. Lean manufacturing, as developed by Henry Ford, is far more effective. It applies to pretty much everything, and anybody with a high school diploma (Ford did not even have that) can master the basics. Lean requires a no-layoff policy (or else the workers won't support productivity improvements) which means management cannot ship jobs offshore for cheap labor. Ford didn't have to and he would probably have fired any of his executives who did.

Six Sigma is in my opinion the wrong tool for health care. Health care needs ISO 9001 to eliminate quality problems that translate into harm to patients along with thousands of dollars in excess costs. I am not even sure control charts for things like hospital acquired infections and so on should be used because every such incident is an assignable cause and not random chance. That means every MRSA infection or whatever requires a corrective action request or quality action request.

I do see that ISO has developed a standard for DMAIC, which might be helpful in systemizing the use of Six Sigma. The Automotive Industry Action Group's CQI-10, Effective Problem Solving, seems far more straightforward than DMAIC and applicable to a far wider variety of problems.

Control charts can be used

Control charts can be used for things like hospital acquired infections in many ways. For example, you could know if a day, week or month had a unusual number of incidents (low or high) and then try to find out why.