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Greg Brue

Six Sigma

Will The Real Six Sigma Experts Please Stand Up?

Six Sigma’s rapid acceptance and phenomenal success has created a stampede of self-proclaimed Six Sigma experts.

Published: Monday, April 19, 2004 - 22:00

From its inception, Six Sigma was considered revolutionary. The six original pioneers who implemented the methodology at Allied Signal--the only true Senior Master Black Belts--vowed that the system would unearth inefficiencies in business operations that lead to outrageous levels of defects and extraordinarily wasteful operating costs. The quality of a company’s output would improve, they said, saving an estimated 20 to 40 percent of budget in cost of poor quality.

The methodology soon delivered everything its pioneers had promised.

Once Six Sigma was introduced to GE CEO Jack Welch, who gave the methodology his unabashed endorsement, there was no stopping the flurry of executives wanting to take the fast track to vastly improving their company’s bottom line.

Six Sigma’s rapid and widespread acceptance and its phenomenal success has created a veritable stampede of self-proclaimed Six Sigma experts all claiming to possess the knowledge to put the methodology into action. Expectations frequently fall short, however, because although some of the practitioners are authentic--having been personally trained by genuine Six Sigma Master Black Belts--others are virtual imposters who don’t fully understand or practice the true Six Sigma methodology.

Although the product being distributed by self-proclaimed experts doesn’t have enough substance to yield optimal results, it does contain enough information to be dangerous. The intellectual property looks credible enough to a novice and even generates excitement about Six Sigma implementation. In truth, however, the information often contains altered, covered-up and watered-down versions of the original success model. It has morphed into a follow-the-recipe knock-off that bears little resemblance to the true, independent problem solving that once existed. Essential tools are misapplied, resulting in less-than-stellar performances.

Corporate managers are no longer clear about what they’re entitled to when opting to implement Six Sigma. Often, disillusioned CEOs walk around like the emperor with new clothes, shrouded in a false sense of security. They think their systems are everything they’ve been told they should be. They remain unaware until the dire reality of their situation becomes apparent: The numbers don’t add up, and there’s a huge gap between the savings promised and those delivered. True practitioners are increasingly called upon to rekindle a failed Six Sigma deployment in order to access the methodology’s original content, including the notion that Black Belts are radical thinkers empowered to look for and solve problems.

Consider this example: A $40 billion company hired a self-anointed Black Belt to implement what he called Six Sigma. During the course of three years, the company should have easily surpassed $250 million in savings. Instead, it measured a pathetic $20 million in cut costs, less than 10 percent of its potential savings.

This company’s Six Sigma deployment failed on many fronts: Company leaders neglected to take an active interest in the system (they never met a single Black Belt or even relayed their support of the effort); too few resources were committed to the initiative (only 10 Black Belts were trained out of 20,000 employees); and the company implemented very little reinforcement and control for sustainability (a year after deployment, only seven part-time Black Belts remained).

The cost in time and money to clean up such a failure is akin to reviving a patient that has flatlined: It can be done, but the uphill battle to accomplish it affects everyone. The company’s failed attempt to deliver on its promise diminishes shareholders’ confidence and employees’ morale, leaving both groups reluctant to attempt a second deployment with any degree of enthusiasm. Then, of course, the task and expense of contracting a second team to deploy the system remains, not to mention what it cost the first time around and the opportunity costs in doing it incorrectly.

Clearly, in order to achieve Six Sigma’s full benefits and unlock your organization’s untapped potential, it’s crucial that corporate managers choose authentic teams to lead the deployment. However, distinguishing the genuine articles from those who just hang out a shingle can be difficult. With so many imitators professing Six Sigma expertise, business professionals need a scorecard to keep track.

Now there is one. The Six Sigma Scorecard lists guidelines that help company officials ascertain whether their Six Sigma deployment team is up for the job or simply playing dress-up.

"The Six Sigma Scorecard is right on target," says Mike Daly, president and CEO of Berkshire Bank, who’s currently working with Six Sigma Consultants Inc. to implement the system. "Companies serious about Six Sigma should use this as a tool to ensure they’re partnering with the right provider."

The Six Sigma Scorecard

Corporate managers can gauge prospective Six Sigma consultants (or former ones if they’re disappointed by previous Six Sigma results) by measuring them against the following five tests. Those who pass all five are probably the real deal and have earned the right to "please stand up." Those who don’t should remain seated.

  • Perform a walk-away acid test. Six Sigma is only one tool for growth. The primary goal is to abandon typical "recipe" thinking and replace it with radical thinking-a top-to-bottom, zero-base rethinking of how the company is managed and how its business is conducted. A true Six Sigma provider has the ability to challenge C-level executives into rethinking the existing business model and strategy to drive growth. If the CEO doesn’t endorse the program, the Six Sigma firm must be willing to walk away from the implementation because without support from the top, Six Sigma will fail to produce maximum ROI.
  • Drive a tank through corporate silos. Fiefdoms refusing to adopt Six Sigma will sabotage the process. Period. Everyone must be part of the process. No excuses accepted. Achieving enterprisewide buy-in eliminates the emergence of gremlins with their own political agendas. This is accomplished through the ongoing dissemination of information from the leadership team to everyone in the organization.
  • Draw a straight line from Main Street to Wall Street. For public companies, Six Sigma pros must be able to validate project savings at stockholder meetings and show how it translates into growth for the company. Further, they must have the ability to convert Six Sigma activities into the "first call report" used by Wall Street analysts and clearly see the connection between their ability to raise the bar on corporate performance and the price-to-earnings ratio of the company’s stock. The basic equation is:

Higher efficiency = Higher stock price valuation

  • Beware of the risks. True Six Sigma firms will be able to assess up-front the potential savings with enough confidence to guarantee a minimum savings equal to 20 percent of a company’s revenues and accept the risk of being compensated on the basis of this savings (as opposed to a "pie in the sky" promise). Have them prove to skeptics the power of the Six Sigma methodology by using their own people to identify and solve problems risk-free to the client.
  • Do some research. Talk to CEOs of companies that have been served by Six Sigma practitioners and had sustainable results. If they say the consultants "changed their corporate lives" by instituting systemic change and influencing culture, you have a winner. Focus should be on the dollars saved, not the number of Black Belts trained. Richard Hoffner, director of Six Sigma, Decoma International Inc., who worked with Six Sigma Consultants Inc. to deploy Decoma’s Six Sigma system, believes the points emphasized on the Six Sigma Scorecard are essential for the methodology to succeed in an organization.

"The Six Sigma Scorecard approach is right on the money," he says. "All levels of the organization must fully endorse the Six Sigma program, starting from the very top, to avoid just another ’flavor of the month’ program. Unless the continual acceptance and discipline in using Six Sigma tools are present, the company is just wasting valuable time, resources and money."


About The Author

Greg Brue’s default image

Greg Brue

As president and CEO of Six Sigma Consultants Inc. for more than 10 years, Greg Brue has implemented Six Sigma methodologies for some of the world’s most recognized companies. He is one of the original pioneers of the system--a Senior Master Black Belt--personally trained by Mikel Harry to deploy Six Sigma at Allied Signal and GE.

He is the author of several publications, including Six Sigma for Managers and Design for Six Sigma, both published by McGraw-Hill. He frequently conducts two-day Radical Thinking CEO retreats, designed to uncover and address key business obstacles, invigorate corporate leaders, and arming them with a new strategic plan, renewed focus and unwavering support. Brue is also a regular guest speaker at major business events and quality industry conferences.

For more information, visit Six Sigma Consultants’ Web site at www.sixsigmaco.com.