When Six Sigma Implementation Goes Wrong

  • Process Change
Many organisations use Six Sigma process methods when they are under pressure or looking for a step change in performance.

Six Sigma can work well for those objectives, particularly when combined with Lean methods. But in the practical world of Six Sigma implementation, oversights can mean both the method and its practitioners can generate exactly the wrong result.

Six Sigma is a useful process method, particularly when tweaked effectively for service businesses and smaller teams. And from a sales perspective, Six Sigma has the advantage of a presence in large firms, a strong advocacy base, a high profile, formal credentials and data-driven approaches.

But specific Six Sigma implementation issues mean that it may not always deliver what it promises.

To be clear: I support Six Sigma and am Six Sigma qualified. So take these observations as highlighting risks for Six Sigma projects.

The Starting Point Six Sigma Project

I don’t want to create a strawman here, as that is unfair on what is an excellent method. Take as a starting point a Six Sigma rollouts that include steps to:

  • create a Process Excellence team and hire a team of Black Belts
  • add Six Sigma process improvement KPIs to individual and team performance goals
  • roll out compulsory training in Six Sigma (and, hopefully, Lean methods)
  • develop process data collection and review structures
  • create a Six Sigma Corner (a public space combining displayed data, projects and resources with exhortation)
  • provide support to line staff to develop process improvement projects.

The Best Process Improvement Method: Hiring People Who Give A Damn

If Six Sigma projects focus on training staff, teaching process tools, establishing structures and finding data, they miss the most important factor in process excellence: hiring people who give a damn.

The motivated manager drives their own process knowledge. The motivated line manager builds their own supervisory and analysis tools. The motivated frontline team member looks at what they do, finds what’s broken, and finds ways to do it better or faster.

All those people have to be willing to be accountable and to hold others in their team accountable.

The first rule of process improvement isn’t about method. Relying on Six Sigma methods without addressing that rule will lead to failure. No amount of qualifications or data can make up for it.

The hiring policy is a variation on one made famous by the Sydney Swans Australian Football team:

No drones. No d*ckheads.

Missing the Low Hanging Fruit & Slowing Progress

In many large organisations there is often ‘low hanging fruit’ in process that doesn’t require an understanding of statistical quality methods, formal courses, credentials or large amounts of data. This is also true of smaller teams that may not have high volumes or a large number of activities.

If a line manager knows the steps in their process and understands basic concepts of rework and waiting time – concepts you can grasp in 30 seconds – the only barrier to immediate improvement is their own commitment. Rule-of-thumb quantification is all that is needed.

From the bottom up, team members can identify when they’re wasting their time, when another worker is slack, when a step is ‘stupid’, when a customer is being shafted. They may not have formal process vocabulary for it, but they can see it.

Remember, the outcome is productivity and quality improvement, not abstract knowledge or method awareness. A Six Sigma rollout that requires DMAIC or DMADV documentation or Green Belt qualification for every improvement project is a barrier to culture change and a disincentive for quick wins.

Quick Wins Make a Difference

And quick wins make a huge cultural difference. They create momentum. They show that the idea of Process Excellence isn’t just a senior manager’s brainfart. They motivate. They show that effort is rewarded with something concrete.

Quick wins actually support the rollout of a more rigorous method because people don’t see the method as a handbrake on real change – because real change is going on. Learning about the process method becomes an extension of what is already happening, rather than a compliance activity based on senior management dictate.

Wrong People For Culture Change

Since the days of Total Quality Management and the earliest Quality documentation and certifications, there is one personnel fact that Process Excellence managers have to face. It’s a generalisation and it’s harsh. But ignore it and Six Sigma projects will fail.

The types of people who are attracted to complex process methods, statistical process analysis, process documentation, credential-gathering and data systems are not good change managers. Leaving rollout in the hands of technically-minded Black Belts is risky.

Learn to live with that fact. Use professional change managers who aren’t Six Sigma trained. Who can avoid jargon and don’t need to prove how much they know. Who can shape a message to identify the benefit to teams rather than its statistical validity. And who don’t rely on KPIs and compliance from above as an argument for improving things.

In short, Six Sigma can only ever succeed as part of a broader change program. And that program needs the right people, and the right amount of resources.

It’s About Outcome, Not Awareness Raising

Some process programs take the view that everyone in an organisation should be “process aware”. That leads to compulsory Six Sigma Foundation or Green Belt courses for all. A project or team KPI can commonly be something like % staff trained, or % staff involved in a Six Sigma project. This mistakes a method for an outcome.

As with other programs to “raise awareness”, successful completion doesn’t change anything. Your entire organisation can have Green Belt training and no processes may have improved. You can cover every noticeboard and website header with exhortations to Watch it, Test it, Trim it (or whatever slogan you choose) and it can change nothing.

Awareness raising without visible, concrete progress simply leads to cynicism. Training people who have no organisational opportunity to do anything is demotivating. Boasting about credential rates reveals the program as pointless – boast about the savings, the quality improvement, or the customer experience. If you haven’t got any to boast about, then you have a problem.

If senior management flick a Six-Sigma-switch hoping to be seen to be doing something, and see raising awareness as an outcome, organisation teams may as well just walk around with a folded ribbon pinned to their chests.

Beware Tack-On Projects

Sometimes programs can make it compulsory – or highly desirable – for teams to deliver a Six Sigma project (perhaps for Green Belt certification). Or there can be competitions within an organisation or between regional offices.

While this can force teams to consider their processes, the danger is that it can reinforce any sense that Six Sigma is driven by compliance with senior management whim. The risk is that some teams just go through the motions for a project and exhaust any commitment to process excellence in what they see as a compliance task. All you get are tack-on projects from the demotivated, and effective projects from those likely to have been motivated to start with.

This is where professional change management can make a difference beyond KPIs and compliance.

The Danger of TQM All Over Again

The first wave of Total Quality Management in the 1990s collapsed under the weight of heavyweight documentation and process, lack of focus on outcome, and basic mistakes in change management and communications. The tools were (and are) useful. The principles were (and are) sound. Six Sigma has risen from TQM’s ashes. And it runs the same risks.

Unless Process Excellence managers address the risks I’ve identified, Six Sigma projects will run while a sponsoring senior manager has enthusiasm and a need to look good. And then, like many corporate change programs, after about 18 months they will quietly slip into corporate history.

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