What Is Wrong With Six Sigma
Six Sigma is a highly disciplined process that helps companies focus on developing and delivering near-perfect products and services. ‘Sigma’ is a statistical term that measures how far a given process deviates from perfection. The central idea behind Six Sigma is that if you can measure how many “defects” you have in a process, you can systematically figure out how to eliminate them and get as close as possible to ‘zero defects’.
While Six Sigma does have its own benefits, its efficacy can be deceiving. Hapless managements, anxious to save on costs, eagerly lap up the promises offered by Six Sigma projects. In the process, however, they might lose much more than they gain.
More hype than substance
The hype surrounding Six Sigma has resulted in companies rushing to adopt its techniques for either non-existent or ridiculously easy-to-solve issues. A sample of issues that were solved in Six Sigma projects in many companies included saving paper by using printers judiciously, saving electricity by re-arranging lighting patterns, saving water through recycling techniques, saving fuel by ensuring that employees work from home, etc. Such problems could easily have been solved with a little common sense. However, Six Sigma enthusiasts are eager to prove that their services are indispensable. In fact, to show enormous improvement leaps, they sometimes allow the wastage to continue. They then bloat wastage estimation figures before descending on the problem to solve it the Six Sigma way, thus demonstrating substantial savings. At the end of the day, a routine problem that could have been resolved by a layman was marked as a Six Sigma problem that required phenomenal effort, man-power and resources to be fixed.
A Six Sigma team begins by analysing problems, some of which may not even exist. They convince managements that such ‘problems’ if ignored can result in huge losses. Trivial issues are blown out of proportion. Employees are terminated. Over a period of time, the team can even start creating new issues that need new solutions.
Six Sigma techniques include Fish Bone diagrams, DAMIC, DPMO, and Pareto analyses. Since the volume of data that needs to be studied even for trivial problems is immense, several software tools have begun flooding the market. Consequently, organizations are now faced with the additional problem of training their team not only on Six Sigma techniques but also on Six Sigma software.
The consultants’ tribe, always quick to see an opportunity, contributes to the propagation of the six sigma hype by promising astronomical savings and various coloured belts to companies practicing Six Sigma. A few organizations, so swept up in the hype, boasted that even their pantry and cleaning staff flaunted Six Sigma black belts.
Is Six Sigma good for all processes?
Each metric in an organization will have a limiting value which is a function of processes enabling their technology and organizational capability. Only a process re-design will reduce the sigma level below the limiting value. Individual heroism may provide short term benefits, but will not be sustainable without long term investments.
I am not arguing that a Six Sigma certification is absolutely unnecessary. It is crucial to use it, for instance, in space missions and machines that replace critical human organs. However, trying to apply the Six Sigma rigour to all applications and processes is not only impractical but a bad business decision.
Conventional statistics is enough
In my opinion, Six Sigma teams entirely ignore the importance and efficacy of continuous, datadriven improvement. Six Sigma techniques are not fool-proof. Errors are bound to creep in.
The solution lies in discussing and debating organizational problems and opportunities in a data-driven and consistent manner. Calculations needn’t be perfect in every instance. But ignoring math and statistics is a bit like suggesting that one should never start jogging to lose weight unless one’s jogging technique is already perfect. Progress can be made even if our technique is terrible. Not to start at all has far worse repercussions than starting poorly.
In my opinion, the best Six Sigma programs today no longer focus on simple defect reduction. Many don’t even teach Z-scores or process capability indices. Management Gurus such as Deming, Shewhart and Wheeler have realised this. They instead believe in a much more sophisticated and nuanced view of statistics as a tool to drive continuous improvement. Their statistical techniques, if understood well, can yield spectacular solutions to complex problems.
Common mistakes to avoid
Organizations that decide to embark on a Six Sigma project need to a do few reality checks. They should first study their processes and data for obvious variations. Doing so might help them discover simple solutions to problems that may arise. In this way, both time and cost are saved upon. Six Sigma techniques may result in marginal improvements. But the cost involved can make it an unworthy effort.
My parting advice to Six Sigma enthusiasts is to use Six Sigma as the mascot for your organizations quality improvement programme but not to try to track its numerical value or put it on your balance scorecard.
Head -Strategy & IT Consulting
McCarthy & Menon Consulting Pvt.Ltd.,India.