7 Ways to Avoid Deep-Sixing Six Sigma

Six Sigma is renowned for helping companies deliver near-perfect products and services. But many manufacturers are actually dissatisfied with the results of their Six Sigma projects. So what are they doing wrong?

Six Sigma is all about rooting out errors in processes and products, and delivering that savings to the bottom line as increased profitability. But while many executives and managers have embraced it because of its ability to compress cycle times, minimize product defects and enhance customer satisfaction, some are less than impressed with its results.

In fact, an Aviation Week magazine survey of major aerospace companies found that less than half of respondents were satisfied with what they had achieved from their Six Sigma projects. Some 30% were not satisfied while another 20% were only "somewhat satisfied." What went wrong? A recent Quality Magazine article says that these companies are probably failing to do one or more of the following...

1. Provide sufficient, streamlined information for Six Sigma initiatives. The Quality Magazine article recommends utilizing a "consistent set of questions to gather, sort, organize and analyze information." For example, one high-tech manufacturer instructed all of its customer support representatives to ask the same group of questions at the outset of each call to define problems and to pinpoint variations. By enforcing uniformity in information gathering, the company trimmed the average time it took to iron out customer issues by 58%.

2. Choose appropriate projects. Companies using the portfolio approach--instead of focusing on specific functions such as the shop floor and the purchasing department--tend to be more successful in implementing Six Sigma. Quality Magazine suggests plotting out all products and services in two dimensions: volume and margin. Those belonging in the high-margin/low-volume quadrant can be taken off the table. Since their high margin suggests high efficiency, such projects will most likely benefit from better marketing, not Six Sigma.

3. Anticipate future problems. Don't forget to ask the all-important implementation question: "What could go wrong?" According to Quality Magazine, "every implementation plan should include an analysis of potential problems, their likely causes, and preventive and contingent actions." Companies should turn to customers and suppliers for input and direct the team's efforts to preparing for potential stumbling blocks.

4. Listen to your customers. It's simple and basic (in fact, it's the first rule of Six Sigma!), but many are neglecting to do this. In fact, a survey conducted by Greenwich Associates found that only 3 out of 13 companies "mentioned customers as critical success factors" when they were asked to spell out what made a project effective. Many companies are mistaking the "voice of accounting" for that of the customer or placing too much emphasis on benchmarking.

5. Attack the root of the problem. According to Quality Magazine, most Six Sigma teams make the mistake of rushing into action. Pressured to make improvements quickly, they fail to fully grasp the reason for shoddy process or product performance. "Without identifying, verifying and removing the root cause of the problem, teams almost always fall short of reducing variation," says the article.

6. Follow a disciplined project-management approach. All team members should be on the same page about how to manage the project. Before planning, each team should be made to define the project's scope and deliverables. They should be armed with "clear assignments, accurate sequencing and realistic timeframes," according to Quality. Once they enter the implementation phase, they should track progress though milestones and regular reviews. For example, some companies employ a Six Sigma Project Dashboard, which lists all ongoing improvement projects and depicts how they're doing against objectives, schedule and costs with red, yellow and green indicators.

7. Take account of the "human side of change." While technically sound, many solutions can be bound for failure because they do not consider the human side, which is composed of five elements: situation, performer, response, consequences, and feedback. The implications of the project on each element must be considered. For example, make sure that people are made aware of how their job situation will change and are trained on the new required skillset.


Quality Management: Six Sigma's Seven Deadly Sins

James P. Zimmerman and Dr. Jamie Weiss

Quality Magazine, January 1, 2005


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