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Ronald Ames

Six Sigma

Six Sigma Roadblocks

Many companies fail to integrate Six Sigma into their corporate cultures.

Published: Tuesday, March 16, 2004 - 23:00

As a methodology, Six Sigma has been around since the 1980s. Yet it took a couple of U.S. industry giants, Allied Signal and GE, to draw the world’s attention to the benefits the program offers businesses. Even so, many companies fail to integrate Six Sigma into their corporate cultures due to a number of different causes. This article will examine some of the problems and their solutions.

Late at the gate: nonstarters

Let’s first analyze the reason why companies decide against implementing Six Sigma in the first place. In the adult learning model, we’re taught that our first learning phase is "unconsciously incompetent." In other words, we aren’t aware of our ignorance. Many company leaders see the initial cost of Six Sigma and say, "It’s too expensive for us," Yet many of those companies incur costs of waste many times what they’d would spend on Six Sigma. They don’t know or can’t commit to the investment because they can’t quantify its benefit. But for the Six Sigma practitioner, the first in the define phase is to calculate the entitlement. This is the heart of the methodology: committing to the savings and timing at the outset.

Another reason company CEOs don’t shepherd their organizations down the Six Sigma path is because they’re unaware of both the methodology and its benefits. They think that, because Six Sigma uses high-powered statistics, it must be beyond their employees’ capabilities. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Today’s speedy and powerful computers do the heavy lifting in Six Sigma. Granted, practitioners must still understand what the statistical tests tell them, but the computer does the laborious calculating. I’m always amazed at well-meaning Black Belts and Master Black Belts who try to dumb down the Six Sigma curriculum because "it’s beyond our employees" to understand the full spectrum of tools.

Then there are companies that insist they’re pursuing alternate methodologies to eliminate waste. They site their pursuits of lean, the Toyota Production System, kaizen, TQM, TPM or other quality programs. Earlier in my career, as a Toyota Production System proponent, I did my master’s thesis on the system’s benefits. I also taught and implemented kaizen at a number of different facilities for my corporation. But these lean methodologies lack the quantitative tools to deal with complex problems and interactions. I noticed that lean tools optimized current processes but failed to break the constraints of poor process and product designs. Companies that focus exclusively on lean activities miss the improvement opportunities that a combination of lean and Six Sigma tools provide.

Many small firms lack the support that larger enterprises enjoy from local resources such as community colleges and trade organizations. They rely on industry benchmarking to find sources that can guide them in their journey toward continuous improvement. Small firms sometimes learn sooner than large firms that business is changing. What customers expect today bears no resemblance to what they expected years ago.

To see how dramatic the market has changed, one only needs to look at the computer industry. Early PCs cost thousands of dollars and utilized the Intel 8086/88 processor. With 640 KB of RAM, they were considered powerhouses. Who would have thought that fewer than 20 years later the price would have dropped as low as a tenth of what it was during the 1980s and that computers could operate with a hundred times their original power? And with the reduced cost, who would anticipate reduced quality? Whether a hard drive, processor or one of the new DVD burners, everyone expects them to work flawlessly for years. At home, my PC runs 24 x 7, connected to high-speed Internet, as part of a home network.

Big or small, companies must meet customer demands at lower costs or face the same fate as the Intel 8086: obsolescence. In order to do this, many firms have made the leap of faith and begun a Six Sigma program. What keeps many of them from succeeding? As the saying goes, "It starts at the top." Let’s look at a few different approaches companies have taken toward Six Sigma and how they lead organizations astray.

Dabblers and other dilettantes

Let’s call the first group "dabblers." These are the companies that haven’t made a commitment to anything other than sending a few people to training. These companies tend to select their trainees according to who is available or not doing anything critical. Because most companies tend to keep their top people buried in work, the dabblers seldom select their best and brightest as their first Six Sigma practitioners.

Next, they usually fail to build into their organizations the support systems necessary to implement Six Sigma successfully. (I’ll talk about these systems later.) Because in their cases the Six Sigma program depends upon those first few trainees, it’s difficult to garner top management’s attention enough to assign Six Sigma a prominent role in the organization. The few Black Belts who finish their training in these organizations either abandon their Six Sigma activities by default or seek employment with other companies that really are committed to the methodology.

We’ll call the next group of companies "delegators." These tend to select someone within the organization to champion the Six Sigma cause. Many times this person has no passion to see Six Sigma succeed and therefore fails to take an active role in nurturing the program. Because it isn’t the person’s main focus, the program often suffers the same fate it encounters with dabblers. The systems required for success aren’t put into place and the committed encouragement of a champion isn’t available.

It’s amazing how many companies place the future of their Six Sigma program in the hands of those who have no ownership or interest in the methodology or its success. Black Belts seek guidance, and because the Champion isn’t interested in learning what’s required for success, they become disheartened. Once again a company fails to successfully implement the program.

Tools for success

Why is it so hard to get Six Sigma going, anyway? What does it take for it to succeed in an organization, whether it’s big or small? A successful Six Sigma initiative starts from the top. Can you achieve success without top management aboard? Yes, but it’ll be limited by the Black Belts’ and local Champion’s perseverance. In my company’s case, we’re achieving localized results because of a few managers’ belief that Six Sigma can make a difference. Recently, a group president who sponsored the Six Sigma initiative in our division left the organization. What does his replacement believe? Will he continue to foster Six Sigma? Or will the local vice president of operations be forced to abandon the efforts within our plant?

When I first discovered Six Sigma, I was a plant manager of a 600-person plant for a tier one automotive supplier. The company had looked at the cost of implementing Six Sigma and determined that an all-out implementation was too costly and risky. Instead, it started Six Sigma within each division by sending a few people through Black Belt training and planned to build companywide momentum in incremental steps. However, once the initiative was delegated to individual divisions, no one claimed responsibility for it. The results ranged from divisions with little or no Six Sigma implementation to a few plants with active, thriving programs. Each facility developed its own strategy.

As plant manager, I hammered out a compromise with my staff, and we assigned three Black Belts to work on their projects part time. However, they were never certified, and we didn’t reap any benefits from the program. We also failed to implement other support systems. In short, we failed to establish process for Six Sigma. Use Jason Jenning’s definition of process as an example: "a best practice followed by everyone, that anyone could change if there’s a better way."

So what are the elements of a productive Six Sigma process?

First, Six Sigma must be championed from the top if it’s to be woven into an organization’s fabric. This is also essential to drive it beyond just a quality program. It’s far more than that. It’s a method to delight customers and reduce costs.

Once the top person in an organization is on board, roles must be clearly defined. Champions, process owners and Six Sigma practitioners each own a piece of the pie. They must know and understand their roles and be held accountable for their results.

Once everyone is clear on these duties, two selection processes must be implemented, and they’re both very important. The first is deciding how an organization will pick its Six Sigma practitioners. How will Black Belts be chosen to ensure that the best and brightest are involved? The second is determining how projects will be selected. Six Sigma is about results. In order to hit the bottom line, projects must have great value to the organization; otherwise they won’t be worth assigning your best and brightest to solve them.

The last piece of the puzzle should be second nature for the top person in an organization. He or she must demand that results be presented monthly for review. This way, everyone knows that the initiative is important and they’re accountable.

There’s one last step in the process that deserves appreciation. As a Master Black Belt candidate, I spend a great deal of time mentoring other Six Sigma practitioners. Mentoring is very important to the process. Not only is it a method to answer questions, it also provides encouragement and a sounding board for solutions. After all, if your organization has gotten this far, you already realize that you’re asking your Black and Green Belts to solve the toughest company problems. These practitioners will be asking the types of questions that few people will have the answer to.

Four critical steps for beginners

If your organization is thinking about implementing Six Sigma, I encourage you to ensure that the person at the top is driving the bus. Next, select the best training partner possible. Not all Black Belts are created equal. The best receive the best training and the most tools for their toolboxes. Many companies have dumbed down their programs. Don’t make that mistake. It would be better to hire for higher capabilities than to accept mediocrity. Select your Black Belts with care--you’re expecting them to deliver breakthrough results for your organization; you can expect them to deliver more than $500 thousand annually in savings.

Select your projects with the same care. If you select ones with minimum value to the company, you can expect minimum value in return. Choose your biggest, toughest problems for Six Sigma solutions. Hold people accountable. Review results on a monthly basis. Keep in mind that the Black Belt owns the solution while the process owner owns the implementation.

If your company is one of those that has "dabbled" or "delegated," don’t worry. It’s not too late to initiate Six Sigma, but it will be more difficult. The person at the top must commit fully to the process. And you must measure where you are in the implementation process. By this time, you might have different tracking tools, selection processes or training partners. Worse yet, maybe you don’t have any of the tools in place. One good way to analyze your Six Sigma deployment is to ask a few questions. How many people did we train in Six Sigma and how many became certified? How much did we save last year as a result of Six Sigma projects? Which division is in the lead in deployment? Do you have any Master Black Belts in the organization? If the answer to these questions is "I don’t know," you have work to do.

I’ll end with a few encouraging thoughts. I spoke of the many potential pitfalls to successfully implementing Six Sigma. However, many organizations in manufacturing, banking and health care have succeeded and are enjoying increased profits as a result. Whether your company will be one of the successes rests solely on your shoulders. However, with the right process, Six Sigma can be a magic wand magic for the bottom line. Good luck in your endeavors. I hope they’re as rewarding for your business as they’ve been for me personally.

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About The Author

Ronald Ames’s default image

Ronald Ames

Ron Ames is the director of Six Sigma at BorgWarner. He is responsible for Six Sigma deployment, projects and training within the Bellwood facility, and helps other groups to leverage Six Sigma as a consultant. Ron will receive his Master Black Belt certification in May.