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Columnist H. James Harrington

Photo: Scott Paton, publisher


Applying Six Sigma in Smaller Companies
Six Sigma combines with ISO 9000 to create a success story.

Stanley A. Marash, Ph.D.


In previous articles, I’ve discussed the Fusion Management philosophy, especially in relation to large organizations. Now I’d like to show how creative thinking works for even smaller companies.

Wheelock Inc., of Long Branch, New Jersey, supplies audible and visual signaling devices to the life-safety fire notification market. Wheelock’s environment of learning, teaming and coaching for its employees has been extremely successful, but the company’s CEO and head coach, Peter W. Tarlton, wanted more. He recognized that for Wheelock to be the best in its market niche, it must improve productivity, increase profits and satisfy its internal and external customers at a higher level. To accomplish this, top management benchmarked itself, asking some serious questions:
n Which companies are doing things faster, better and more efficiently?
n Can a small to mid-size manufacturer get the same results?
n Can these results be maintained?
n Will the company culture accept something new?

Wheelock’s management viewed the benchmarking data as a new challenge. Why not follow GE, Motorola and AlliedSignal and pursue Six Sigma? If their results are real, why shouldn’t Wheelock target the same results? So the company put together an action plan to institute new continuous improvement tools and upgrade its quality management system to ensure it maintained these tools. The business plan called for Doug Phillips, vice president of general operations, and Alan Fazzari, vice president of people services, to lead two initiatives: ISO 9001 and Six Sigma.

In fewer than 15 months, the team:
n Trained six associates as Black Belts
n Trained 15 managers as champions
n Completed several process improvement projects, with savings close to $700,000
n Completed ISO 9001 training, including lead auditor and internal auditing training
n Completed both top- and middle-management empowerment and facilitation skills courses
n Trained its first wave of 15 associates for Green Belt certifications
n Trained more than 30 associates from multiple functional areas in design for Six Sigma

Wheelock also established a waiting list of associates who wished to become Black Belts and Green Belts, completed facilitation and empowerment training for another 20 supervisors, identified more than two dozen Black Belt and Green Belt projects, and set up a formal Six Sigma/ISO 9000 orientation program.

Two major Six Sigma projects were deployed, the first to reduce product development cycle time, the second to reduce the amount of rework in the soldering process for printed circuit boards. During the first project, the product development cycle was mapped and analyzed. The “as is” process—involving 75 activities taking a minimum time of 239 days and a maximum many times that—was restructured:
n The “should be” process was reduced to 17 activities, including two all-inclusive pilot runs and multiple checks and balances.
n Core-product multidisciplinary teams now meet at least twice each week.
n A customer delight council has been created to focus on external customers.
n Robust design and decreased time to market are being pursued as primary objectives.

During the second project, a significant production problem was attributed to one operation, touch-up soldering on printed circuit boards, accounting for 27 percent of the total assembly labor and more than $144,000 annually, just on one series of boards. The test yields before touch-up operations were just less than 90 percent.

As part of the solution, the company formed work cells and new teams, each of which own the entire process. Wheelock was delighted by the enthusiasm; as management increased its level of interest, employees followed suit. With the application of SPC by a wave-solder operator, the process was placed under better control and then applied to all printed circuit boards. From this, Wheelock found that there were better yields without touch-up (95%), which eliminated 10 operations and produced annual savings of $435,000. Wheelock’s successes demonstrate that judiciously applied modern quality initiatives such as Six Sigma can be valuable even to a smaller company. By designing Six Sigma into an ISO 9001 base, Wheelock is creating a structure that will maintain the gains. Wheelock is moving toward Fusion Management.

About the author

Stanley A. Marash, Ph.D., is chairman and CEO of The SAM Group, which includes STAT-A-MATRIX Inc. and Oriel Inc. This article is adapted from Marash’s forthcoming book, Fusion Management. Fusion Management is a trademark of STAT-A-MATRIX Inc. ©2002 STAT-A-MATRIX Inc. All rights reserved. Letters to the editor regarding this column can be
e-mailed to letters@qualitydigest.com.