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Tom Pyzdek

Six Sigma

The Dirty Dozen Quality Challenges

Major impediments that keep process excellence from going mainstream

Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 - 06:00

Lean, Six Sigma, and quality provide a set of tools and a framework for achieving excellence in any process. Quality professionals are able to help organizations determine if customer requirements are properly defined and if the organization is meeting those requirements. Lean practitioners have a set of skills that can be used to eliminate waste in the way things are done. Six Sigma can drive variation and errors out of processes. For the sake of discussion, let’s call these the “process excellence professions.” By applying these methodologies in the manufacturing arena throughout the past five decades, the lean, Six Sigma, and quality professions have helped increase productivity manyfold, while driving errors and quality problems to levels so low that society has begun to believe that it is possible to produce risk-free products, an illusion that previous generations could not even conceive. These days when I tour manufacturing facilities around the world, I find that they are able to consistently produce high quality at a very low cost per unit with minimal waste.

Question: Why doesn’t everyone use these tools?

Frankly, it is depressing when I leave a facility and re-enter the world beyond the factory walls. There I encounter poor service, rampant inefficiency, horrible quality, and an attitude that this state of affairs is the best anyone can do. I believe that those working in the process excellence professions need to do a little soul-searching to discover the reasons why so many nonmanufacturing organizations continue to ignore what we know to be valuable and highly effective frameworks, tools, and techniques for reducing variation and driving out waste and errors.

In no particular order, here’s a list of things that I think contribute to the problem:
1. The priesthood of job titles. Engineers belong in factories and laboratories. Black Belts and Green Belts belong in the dojo. Transactional businesses, service providers, and other businesses are put off by the names we give to people who apply process excellence principles. While I’m loathe to advocate adding more job titles, the existing title choices may never feel quite right to people working in hospitals and banks.

2. The jargon. DMAIC, CQTs, or SIPOCs anyone? We could do with a bit less of this alphabet soup.

3. The time it takes to become trained. My online lean Six Sigma Black Belt course takes 180 hours to complete. Quite a commitment for a working professional. I don’t advocate cutting content to satisfy an arbitrary time requirement, but I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that we are asking a lot.

4. The time it takes to become proficient. Once training is complete, it takes another year or so for the practitioner to become reasonably comfortable actually using the new knowledge. Probably unavoidable, but another barrier to be sure.

5. Charlatans and hacks. The process excellence profession is new and poorly defined, leaving us wide open for wannabes who are looking for the quick buck. This situation is slowly being remedied, but there are currently plenty of pretenders who need to be drummed out of the field.

6. The lack of a standardized body of knowledge. While most experienced practitioners agree on a “starter set” of subjects that need to be covered, there is still plenty of disagreement around the edges. As evidence I point to the fact that some Six Sigma Black Belt training programs are two weeks duration, while others are six weeks. What’s up with that?

7. The lack of a central accreditation body. Logically, the American Society for Quality (ASQ) could have served this purpose at one time. However, they chose the path of being a training provider instead, making them competitors to all other training providers. It’s tough to be objective when you are evaluating your competitor. The new International Association for Six Sigma Accreditation (IASSC) and their partner PEOPLECERT have stepped up to provide this service. However, the program is new and the number of accredited training organizations, curriculum providers, and trainers is still extremely limited. I’m proud to say that The Pyzdek Institute is IASSC-accredited and hope others will join us.

8. The historical origins of process excellence. The historical roots of our profession are in agriculture and manufacturing. The language we use reflects these origins. This will continue to impede adoption by services, health care, and transactional industries. By the way, it’s no accident that agriculture and manufacturing are among the most efficient and advanced sectors of the economy.

9. The math. Math provides us with rigorous tools to quantify goals and progress, calculate costs and benefits, establish cause and effect, model our solutions before deploying them, and to do many other things. Process excellence without math is inconceivable. Still, many fear mathematics and avoid it. This is especially so in the United States, where public education does a poor job of preparing people for the study of math at the college level. We need to do more to help break down this barrier and open the door for our colleagues in nonmanufacturing sectors.

10. The mixture of soft skills and technical skills. Process excellence requires a special mix of skills. The technical skills needed (i.e., math and statistics) are obvious. But we also need to understand people skills to deal effectively with customers, team members, leaders, and stakeholders. Project management skills are a must. The ability to do preliminary financial analysis is also a requirement. It’s challenging to find someone able to deal with all of these different subjects.

11. The arrogance of practitioners. While it’s OK to hold your head high when you earn your professional excellence credential, you must be careful not to flaunt your new status. Such attitudes are a turn-off to others.

12. The added bureaucracy. Lean, Six Sigma, and quality efforts require central organizations to get started. Ideally as process excellence gets into the organization’s DNA, the attitudes and knowledge of others throughout the organization will lead to the new bureaucracies shrinking in size over time. However, sometimes bureaucracies can take on a life of their own, sapping resources that would be better used elsewhere. Organizations that haven’t yet embarked on their own process excellence journey may well be wary of beginning if they hear one of these horror stories.

I’m sure that I’ve only scratched the surface here, and I welcome your ideas. l’d also like to see suggestions for overcoming these obstacles to more widespread adoption of process excellence. Let’s see if we can help ourselves by assisting nonmanufacturing organizations in learning to improve more quickly.


About The Author

Tom Pyzdek’s picture

Tom Pyzdek

Thomas Pyzdek’s career in business process improvement spans more than 50 years. He is the author more than 50 copyrighted works including The Six Sigma Handbook (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Through the Pyzdek Institute, he provides online certification and training in Six Sigma and Lean.


Barriers to Lean Six Sigma

At ASQ World, Kaiser Permanente explained how their quality folks are "improvement advisors", not green belts or black belts. This helps avoid the dojo metaphor and fattening resumes.


A year ago, Joe DeFeo said we need to lower the barriers to Six Sigma--jargon, etc. I agree. To accelerate the "diffusion" of Lean Six Sigma, we have to simplify and streamline the delivery.


I disagree that everyone needs to know math and statistics to do Six Sigma.  Why terrify people with statistics when affordable Six Sigma software will do the analysis for them. Let's get people get started, then let them learn more as needed.


Less than one person out of 100 works on an assembly line where everything in the Six Sigma body of knowledge is needed. Let's stop teaching everyone else everything there is to know about Six Sigma and start teaching them only what they need to know to start solving problems immediately.


And I have found that teaching people just the tools they need to know to solve their current problem, then coaching them for a day or two to solve that problem transfers the skills and abilities quickly and effectively. People learn on projects, not in classrooms.


It doesn't take weeks, months or years to get results when we focus on projects, not training. It doesn't take years to develop competence with the right training techniques and a real problem to be solved.  

Jay Arthur

Barriers to LSS


You commented..

  "I disagree that everyone needs to know math and statistics to do Six Sigma."

  Everyone is the key word.  Is that applicable to those whom we call Black Belts, or do you mean the employees in the process who work on the project teams?

  "And I have found that teaching people just the tools they need to know to solve their current problem, then coaching them for a day or two to solve that problem transfers the skills and abilities quickly and effectively. People learn on projects, not in classrooms."

  I agree with the last statement, which is why our teams attend training ONLY with a project, and training is centered on solving that problem.  But when you teach only the tools needed to solve THAT problem, do you leave behind the competence to solve the next problem if it is different?  Are the trainees really learning to become change agents?

  By the way, I've seen affordable software with electronic "advisors" for data analysis provide answers regardless of the validity of the data (garbage in, garbage out), leading to really poor decision making.  Sometimes you really do need an "expert" to coach and lead...


Andrew Banks

Everyone = 99 people out of 100

Black belts are perhaps the one person out of 100 that need to know statistics. But truthfully, their SPC software should know statistics; they should know when to use a statistic.

Based on our QI Macros customers, even the biggest companies only train about 250 Green Belts and 5 Black Belts a year.

This leaves 10,000+ employees in the dark about Lean Six Sigma. No wonder it takes forever to implement and often fails. No wonder it's so slow to catch on.

Again, there are a handful of tools--Post-it Notes, control charts, pareto charts, histograms and fishbone diagrams--that will solve 90% of all quality problems, especially in service industries. Teaching participants anything else is "overproduction" and overkill. Training too many belts is overproduction. Companies need "Money Belts" who can find ways to save time and money.

Data: All data has been systematically distorted to make someone look good during their annual review. The good news is that the data is systematically distorted, so we can use it to make improvements. I've never seen "bad" or "invalid" data. Some data is just more useful than others.

We have to stop kowtowing to people who say the data's not valid or we need to do more analysis. I say that if they've got better data, bring it or shut up. Recently, Donald Wheeler said in an QD interview that "the best analysis is always the simplest analysis that produces the needed insight." Anything else is overkill.

Frankly, most of the training being done is overkill. The amount of time spent on most projects is waste. Projects can be done in days, not weeks or months. Skill can be acquired in days, not months or years.

Lean Six Sigma needs to drink its own Kool-Aid and slash cycle time, defects and deviation to achieve results faster than most people believe is possible.