Exploring the Six Sigma Basics

By Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

I have been working with process improvement teams (formerly quality circles), the seven quality tools, and six sigma methodologies for over thirty years. Over 150 teams have benefited from my leadership or facilitation support of their efforts to make process improvements a reality. However, I am not a certified six sigma green belt or black belt however. A good portion of my team-based work took place during the twenty years prior to such certifications going public in 2001. How effectively can I apply the six sigma basics?

When I began working with my first quality circle back in 1981, six sigma was not a fad. Also, green belt or black belt certifications did not exist, except in the world of martial arts. Back then, six sigma was simply a measure of process variation. Dr. Shewhart was one of the first to study process variation in the 1930s. Statistical process control became a business practice through the efforts of Juran and Deming, most notably following World War II. Today, the six sigma basics can have multiple meanings. It depends on whose product or services you want to work with or whom you might be talking with. What is six sigma … really?

EXPLORE MORE: How Great are Your Work Systems?

Six Sigma Basics – a Measure of Process Quality

I have not done the research to understand why we went with six sigma (3.4 defects per million opportunities) as a measure of process quality instead of seven sigma. After all, back when six sigma was really coming into vogue (the early 1990s), we had the seven habits of highly effective people, the seven step problem solving process, and other business variations of this popular number. Perhaps it was simply the fact that it was going to be difficult enough to sell businesses on the concept of having only 3.4 defects per million opportunities, no matter how lenient we were in defining what an opportunity actually was. Or, perhaps it was as simple as doubling three sigma, which was the most prominent form of sigma used for statistical process control training and measuring process variation.

This definition of six sigma is the one I most closely adhere to. Since 99.5% of all samples will fall between plus or minus three sigma in any normally distributed system, I figure that I have enough to do in reducing the variation of any process and keeping it normalized, without worrying about how to control or eliminate the remaining .5% of the samples that fall outside of this range. Hey, I think it is great if you can get to a true six sigma level of quality – I just question how many people really do it without using liberal operational definitions for what a defect really is or choosing to define what a defect is themselves instead of using primarily external customer feedback to make that determination.

LEARN MORE: How Effective is your Process Improvement Work System?

Six Sigma Basics – a Problem Solving Process

Many books, such as “The GE Way”, include the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) cycle as a key methodology for solving problems / improving a process. Over the years, I have seen five step, seven step, and even twelve step models – there are so many models out there that you might need a twelve step program if you have attempted to sort through them all! Personally, I like the combined focus and brevity that the DMAIC approach gives you … with one exception.

I worked in rapidly growing companies for the final eight years of full time work. In such cases, the Control step still applies, but to a much lesser degree. Additionally, this step might give people the impression that once we get this done, we won’t have to mess with it any more. Instead, I prefer to teach people that we need to standardize our new practices, but we also need to be reviewing key process performance and design for possible improvements on a daily basis.

This is true in any company – not just a growing one – because you can count on customer expectations changing, both in terms of what they want and how much they want. This fact makes control not only challenging, but in some cases paralyzing if you even start to think that you have this process under control so you can leave it alone. In short, each supervisor should recognize that they are responsible for reviewing and improving, when necessary, the key processes they are accountable for on a DAILY basis. To do this, they have to combine the statistical perspective (variation and defect reduction) of six sigma with the process improvement (DMAIC) dimension of six sigma.

DISCOVER MORE: Exploring the DMAIC Need for C

Six Sigma Basics – an Infrastructure for Saving Money

Reducing process errors and defects will save you money. Reducing process variation will save you even more money. Doing six sigma the General Electric, Motorola, or Allied Signal way will save you a lot of money as well. However, you won’t save more than a well-developed and soundly supported quality circle program would have in the 1980s. That’s the real irony of this ‘new’ definition of six sigma. In a lot of ways, what is now being sold as THE way to do business is essentially repackaged theory from 15 to 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, most quality circle programs in the 1980s failed for multiple reasons. First, teams were allowed to pick their own projects without knowledge of the company’s needs. Second, team members weren’t properly trained about the costs of doing business. Third, not enough support resources were provided to help guide, train, and lead teams. Finally, quality circles were seen more as a benefit for employees versus a better way to quickly complete projects.

In a sound six sigma infrastructure, leaders assign teams to those projects that will benefit the customer the most and/or save the company the most money. Black belts spend 100% of their time training and otherwise supporting six sigma teams. Green belts spend 30% or more of their time doing the same. The number of green and black belts required is based on organizational size. In short, a well-implemented six sigma program is focused, well-supported, and grounded in employee involvement.

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Six Sigma Basics – a Way to Make Money

Certifications are the main way some make money off of six sigma. I’m not talking about those companies that are trying to use these theories and tools. I’m referring to consulting groups and educational systems that overprice and repackage concepts and approaches that were first sold 30 years ago. I have also seen a variety of books on six sigma that contain many pages on the basic quality tools. In fact, in some cases, these pages make up a majority of the book.

Before you spend money on a six sigma certification, training course, or consulting service, do your homework. There is a lot of information available for free out there. Several much lower cost options exist that will get you the same, if not better, results. As with any purchase, know what you need and what you need to buy. Do you need a measure of quality, a team infrastructure, or a focused approach for saving money?

More importantly, process variation reduction, along with error and defect minimization, makes processes more predictable and customer-friendly. Leaner processes are more agile processes. Agile processes can better meet the ever changing needs of the customer, especially in a growing business. It has been my experience that predictable, low waste, low variation processes help ensure we consistently meet key customer needs. Simply put, six sigma done right will help grow your business. It will help you grow profits even if growth is not a goal.

Where Does My Six Sigma Experience Come From?

As I said earlier, I am not a certified green belt or black belt. However, I have worked with process improvement teams in seven different manufacturing and service organizations. I learned from my mistakes, just as I have learned from my successes. Additionally, I have helped train over 80 different teams. I have helped more than 150 teams achieve their goals personally as a team leader or facilitator.

Do you want to get more out of the six sigma dollars you spend and increase the likelihood that your six sigma efforts will be successful? If so, take the time to ask me some questions (my opinions are largely free). Send me an e-mail to kevin@greatsystems.com and we can take it from there.

We all need to have a well-supported, focused, and employee centered process improvement effort. We don’t have to spend a lot of money to learn how to save lots of money. In most cases, there is a local consultant in your area who will give you the same, if not better, service than a high priced, big name consultant. There are lots of us ‘old’ quality circle veterans out there. We may not be certified green or black belts, but we have met the requirements many times over.

Keep improving! Kevin McManus, Chief Excellence Officer and Systems Guy, Great Systems

www.greatsystems.com            kevin@greatsystems.com

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