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by Fred Mullavey

Whether you're new to Six Sigma or have been involved in the methodology since its inception, sooner or later you will run into obstacles during its implementation. Most of these aren't due to a lack of data needed to improve a process or reduce defects, but are more human in nature. This article will look at some of the most common reasons Six Sigma projects fail, and what you can to do prevent that failure.

1. Isn't this stuff just for manufacturing?
Experienced practitioners understand that Six Sigma isn't just for manufacturing; it's applicable to all organizations interested in efficiency and improvement. But newcomers often struggle with the discipline in nonmanufacturing environments such as administration and finance, where performance metrics are harder to establish and sometimes not understood at all. Six Sigma practitioners who attempt to introduce administrative projects using manufacturing examples are positioning themselves for failure. Performance measurements must be done in terms and processes the organization is familiar with and understands.

Lacking traditional manufacturing data, performance may be tracked best by measuring mistakes. Take the case of a data-entry specialist who must repeatedly open and close computer programs, gathering information from one and inputting it to another. The likelihood of error is great. Measuring the number of mistakes made in a given period can help determine the viability of a Six Sigma project to improve data-entry efficiency. In this example, studying the mistakes and the processes that lead to them could result in the development of applications that share information automatically, reducing error rates and dramatically improving data efficiency.

2. Where did everyone go?
Everyone wants to implement Six Sigma, but not everyone supplies the resources. Many Six Sigma projects fail because of insufficient people and expertise, poor participation among team members or both.

Take the case of a company in New England. The company wanted a Six Sigma program to improve and control processes for a new contract received from a missile manufacturer. Senior and midlevel managers and first-line supervisors knew nothing about Six Sigma. Employees signed up for Six Sigma training, and all had projects to work on during the training.

Although the participation of top managers was requested in a training session to learn the basics of Six Sigma and become champions for the projects, all but one declined. Employees were required to take the training on their own time. Mid- and lower-level management never bought into the process and declined employee requests for time during their shifts to work on projects.

Unfortunately, this company was never able to establish a Six Sigma program. The culture remains the same today as it was 50 years ago.

Commitment and communication go a long way toward preventing such occurrences. Six Sigma projects are most successful when the methodology involves team members from the top down, from the boardroom to the boiler room. Management must be willing to allocate resources and participate in the staffing of diverse teams from all areas affected by the project. This includes internal suppliers and customers, and others with beneficial experience and skills.

Employee involvement is best accomplished through open communication, including an honest evaluation of the project's benefits to the organization and employees. Employees must know that employers want their input and are present in team meetings to encourage and accept feedback. A sense of ownership among team members will result in positive participation by everyone.

3. We've never done it that way
Changing an ingrained culture isn't easy. Organizations that are mired in flowcharts and the maintenance of bureaucratic boundaries are slow to change in response to multidisciplinary philosophies like Six Sigma. Organizations are prone to failure when managers dictate how workers must perform their jobs. Workers often know best how to perform tasks
and processes because they're the ones doing them.

Employees who are empowered to identify problems and institute changes become invested, with an eye on the future of their organization and themselves. Empowerment is an extraordinarily powerful tool in an organization, and one of the most effective ways of transforming a culture.

4. It's not my job
Lack of organizational maturity can doom projects and the Six Sigma discipline to failure. Maturity goes along with cultural change. Organizations are mature when members have evolved in empowerment to identify problems, recognize the need for change and offer to find solutions. With an immature organization, the response to a problem is often, "It's not my job." Mature organizations are composed of members who realize that it's everyone's job to seek solutions.

Maturity can take from two to five years. How quickly an organization matures depends in part on how well Six Sigma is supported by senior management. If they're not "walking the talk" on a daily basis, maturation will go slowly. By setting good examples, senior managers can speed the maturing process, improving Six Sigma efficiency.

5. If it walks like a duck…
If your Six Sigma project isn't really a Six Sigma project, it's doomed to failure. For example, the corporate headquarters for a well-known national company in the southeast United States decided that Six Sigma was the key to helping it improve its processes. The organization had a Master Black Belt who provided basic Six Sigma training to all employees of each corporate division. Forty hours of training was provided for employees to become Green Belts.

Division managers were instructed to complete several Six Sigma projects over the course of one year. The problem was, none of them knew how to determine what was or wasn't a Six Sigma project. Still, they wanted to comply with the directive.

One division hired its own Six Sigma Black Belt to review all ongoing projects. The results weren't good. None of the projects met Six Sigma criteria. The projects were either lean or projects in which the answers were already known by Green Belts, fixable without using tools.

To put the program back on track, the Black Belt had to identify true Six Sigma projects within the division and retrain the Green Belts, requiring them to use
Six Sigma tools in the performance of their projects.

Employees are now well-trained and eager to continue working on projects. The culture is evolving and the division is celebrating its successes.

There are two simple rules for recognizing potential Six Sigma projects: First, it's not Six Sigma if you already know
the answer, and, second, it's not Six Sigma if it doesn't provide value to the bottom line.

Because you're asking team members for an investment of time and effort, there must be a return on that investment. Team members need to know and understand that the dollar savings they create through Six Sigma can be passed along to customers, increasing the company's efficiency and market competitiveness, thus translating directly to the success of the company and its employees.

Another key to successfully understanding Six Sigma is identifying the boundaries within which team members will work. Without clear boundaries, Six Sigma projects can cut across an entire organization, often needlessly. If your initial objective was to drain the swamp, keep your project limited in scope to
the area immediately surrounding the swamp, or you could end up trying to solve world hunger.

6. That's nice, but…
Your Six Sigma effort will fail if you don't set aside the necessary time and resources. Because they're charged with meeting deadlines, midlevel managers understandably may have their eyes on a ball other than the current Six Sigma project. This is another instance where it's critical that the Six Sigma discipline is understood from the top levels of management down to the very bottom of the organizational structure. Six Sigma projects exist to increase efficiencies and drive out cost. They frequently help processes achieve deadlines. Midlevel managers who understand the benefits of Six Sigma are inherently more willing to invest the time and resources to fix mistakes, even if it temporarily reduces production or risks missing a deadline. By planning ahead, it may be possible to modify productivity and deadlines without jeopardizing client satisfaction. Remember, once a solution is found, the benefits are ongoing.

7. Whose project is this, anyway?
Diversity in Six Sigma is a necessity. Technical experts, customers and suppliers--both internal and external--all need to be involved, regardless of their department or discipline. When boundaries aren't crossed in this manner, problems remain entrenched, and the Six Sigma effort fails.

Difficulty in achieving these "meetings of the minds" is often a symptom of Six Sigma immaturity within an organization. That is, the mindset of Six Sigma as a means to efficiency has not yet been completely embraced by everyone or every department. Changing a culture never occurs quickly but will happen faster with the visible support of Six Sigma from the highest levels of management.

8. Don't force it; get a bigger hammer!
It's been said that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing; this holds true for Six Sigma. Six Sigma team leaders should not only be trained; they should be certified. Team leaders can receive 40 hours of classroom instruction, but failure is certain unless they fully understand how to use the tools. The best Six Sigma courses include classroom instruction and hands-on projects that ensure the student not only knows what a hammer is for but also how, when and when not to use it.

There are many Six Sigma courses to choose from. Some offer certification and some don't. Investigate the classes you invest in, check references and ensure that your Six Sigma students are certified Green Belts, a signal that they truly understand the methods and tools of the discipline. It will help them select the proper projects and increase the efficiency with which they undertake them.

9. I didn't know that
Six Sigma fails in many organizations due to a simple lack of recognition for its successes and the team members who achieve them. Failing to communicate Six Sigma's successes can lengthen the organization's maturing process, frustrating Six Sigma projects and participants.

Success comes with organizationwide celebration. Six Sigma successes can be visually displayed in a conference room or cafeteria, much like a school science fair. Details of the project, the problem and the solution should be posted for everyone to see. Every team member should receive credit. Successes should also be published in employee newsletters, intranet Web sites--anywhere employees may congregate and view information.

How you celebrate success is up to you. What's important is that word of your success is heard by all. Success stories serve a dual purpose by instilling confidence in employees and validating Six Sigma as an effective tool worthy of everyone's support.

10. What we've got here is a failure to communicate
Six Sigma fails when its proponents don't communicate the reasons for Six Sigma in the first place. Six Sigma's benefits and the fact that there is support for the methodology at all levels must be communicated throughout the organization. Executives, managers, supervisors, team leaders, technicians and others must be aware and involved. Information about Six Sigma and Six Sigma projects should be transmitted in e-mails, posters, newsletters and by any other effective means.

Solicit feedback. Communication is a two-way street. Feedback means the difference between telling someone something and discussing it with him or her. Six Sigma is about sharing ideas. By communicating the Six Sigma message, then asking for people's opinions, you are more likely to receive good ideas that benefit your efforts, bolster credibility and provide employee ownership of the process.

Plan for the future
Jack Welch, the celebrated chief executive of General Electric, said several times that you have to look at the future to be successful. Examine what the future holds and how you want your process or business to look in 12 to 18 months, then find the methods to get there. This is what Six Sigma is all about. By working throughout your organization to instill a forward-looking, solution-seeking attitude from everyone, your Six Sigma projects will be on track to success.

About the author
Fred Mullavey is national quality manager for Sypris Test & Measurement, a subsidiary of Sypris Solutions Inc. Mullavey is a Six Sigma Black Belt and a lean manufacturing expert who is also trained as an ISO 9001 lead auditor. Mullavey has more than 15 years of quality management experience, including management-level positions at Silverado Cable Co., Rexnord Corp. and AlliedSignal Aerospace. QD