Six Sigma
Last Word


Last Word

The Emperor's New Woes, Revisited

What has Six Sigma done for General Electric?

I work for the Six Sigma poster company, General Electric. And I suppose I should note that I've asked Quality Digest not to publish my name or anything else that would identify me. I still have a few more years left with the company and would like to leave on my terms.

 There's an expression that pretty much describes Six Sigma's infiltration at GE: If your only tool is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.

 It used to be that I (a trained industrial engineer), in the normal course of my day, would observe quality or process problems and take appropriate action to analyze and correct them. I could often do this very rapidly so that we would enjoy the benefits of the changes immediately. But with the introduction of Six Sigma, such a logical system is no longer possible.

 With Six Sigma, if you don't run the gantlet of Six Sigma paperwork (charts, reviews, critiques, etc.) for every little thing, you're wasting your time. You see, now at GE, the litmus test for any employee is Six Sigma credit, a fact that I noticed while completing one of my first Six Sigma projects in order to earn my Green Belt certification.

 One part of my Six Sigma project process is enduring a conference call with a bunch of younger people who are supposed to "critique" the project. (This amounted to them telling me how I could change the fonts or add different bullets and colors to my PowerPoint presentation to make it more appealing). I rolled my eyes, muttered, "Wow, thanks for your input," and went on. I explained that while I was doing this project, I had found and fixed several other processes. I was immediately admonished by one of the Black Belts for doing so. She told me I should've turned these into Six Sigma projects. I explained that it made more sense to me to quickly make the fixes so we could start reaping the benefits right away. Her retort was, "If you didn't do it in Six Sigma, then it didn't happen." Of course, her metric of preference was dollar savings from Six Sigma projects. She couldn't care less that what I did was the right for the business. She, like many other Six Sigma "devotees," was only interested in managing her career.

 At GE, we're warned that we'll be coded a "4" (the lowest possible performance rating) if we don't become Green Belt-certified within a certain period of time. No matter how well we perform our jobs or what our knowledge or contribution to the business is, we won't be considered for any promotions until we are Green Belt-certified. Employees could even face termination (which they like to call "lack of work" here) if they don't get certified. And the Green Belt is just the beginning: If you want a big job, you have to be a Black Belt.

 There are a lot talented people at GE who are the best in the business in terms of customer satisfaction or employee relations, marketing or sales or operations management. These are the people who built our business into what it is today. Now, these same employees who have done so well in their careers and for GE are told they have to learn how to do chi-square tests, linear regression analysis, etc. Incredibly long work hours are being extended as employees try to learn how to take something as simple as a productivity project or a new product idea and make it fit the Six Sigma template. I say from experience that Six Sigma is a nightmare and a total waste of time and effort in 95 percent of its applications.

 CEO Jack Welch is fond of saying that he hates bureaucracies. Yet, with Six Sigma, he has created one of the biggest, most burdensome bureaucracies I've seen in my 30-plus years at this company.

 In the '80s and '90s GE made a lot of noise about eliminating middle managers. GE is now in the process of replacing them with Six Sigma Black Belts. However, the Black Belts lack what the middle managers had: experience and success. Now, it doesn't matter whether you've ever produced a good or a service. If you can do statistics, make nice PowerPoint presentations and become a Black Belt, you're considered exceptional management material.

 Six Sigma is a parasitic disease that's growing on GE and robbing it of a lot of its talent. Experienced employees are either leaving due to exasperation or being forced out because they don't want to deal with the cookie-cutter approach that Six Sigma forces on a manager. These same employees have made millions of dollars in sales margins or in savings for GE over the years, yet they're being replaced by a new breed of employee that has great breadth of knowledge but little depth. And it's not GE's best interest they have at heart, but their own careers. It doesn't bode well for GE's future.

 So, no matter how much you hear about Six Sigma being GE's future, remember that it's all just hype to fool the stock analysts who are too timid or too ignorant to say, "Hey, look, Jack has no clothes…" Our only hope is that the new guy won't let GE make the same mistake that Motorola made in the late '80s and '90s. Motorola's only tool (Six Sigma) cost them dearly, as it will surely do to GE--and many other organizations--if we don't wake up soon.

Menu Level Above

This Menu LeveL

Menu Level Below

[Contents] [News] [WebLinks] [Columnists]
[Harrington] [Crosby] [Six Sigma] [Godfrey] [Townsend] [Marash] [Last Word]

Copyright 2000 QCI International. All rights reserved.
Quality Digest can be reached by phone at (530) 893-4095. E-mail:
Click Here

Today's Specials