Steve Wise discusses what leaders need to do to ensure Six Sigma success.

When we talk about the process improvement methodology known as Six Sigma, it is not something that an individual, a department, or even a sector of an organization decides to adopt on a whim. To employ Six Sigma, it has to be viewed and embraced as a cultural change throughout the entire enterprise. An optimal and successful Six Sigma implementation is possible only when it begins at the very highest levels of leadership and achieves “buy-in” from rank and file, and everyone in-between within the company.
 
Quick Recap: What is Six Sigma?
 
To recap from Part 1 in our series: Six Sigma is a data-driven approach to eliminating defects in a process with the goal of six standard deviations between the mean/average of a collected quality data set and the nearest specification limit. This will result in 3.4 defects per million opportunities. One of the main strategies for implementing Six Sigma is the DMAIC approach, which describes five steps for process improvement: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control.
 
Declaration of War
 
Although it’s a data-driven approach, Six Sigma is human powered. It relies completely on the imagination and initiative of employees at all levels. As a philosophy, Six Sigma recognizes that defects are costly and must be eliminated. From an organizational standpoint, Six Sigma represents a company’s declaration of war against inefficiency and waste.
 
However, wars aren’t fought by “generals” alone. You also need the front-line “soldier” on the factory floor. Yet it falls to a company’s leadership to energize, set the course, and lead by example.
 
A Six Sigma “army” absent commanding and inspirational leadership will falter. Why? Uninspired employees that are compelled to apply Six Sigma under duress are like a band of deployed mercenaries who are only there to collect a paycheck. On the other hand, an inspired and unleashed band of brothers (and sisters) dedicated to the cause of defect reduction and cost savings is a force to be reckoned with.
 
Success Metrics
 
InfinityQS has multiple Six Sigma Black Belt executives on staff and Six Sigma Green Belt–certified account managers. These individuals have demonstrated a thorough understanding of Six Sigma principles and how they can be applied to process improvement goals. In a Six Sigma organization, everyone in the workforce—from the newest White Belt to a Master Black Belt—is called upon to find root-cause problems and is encouraged to offer a solution.
 
If one looks at the classic Six Sigma idea, it’s all about identifying “hidden factory” activities to eliminate root causes. The hidden factory is a set of unofficial activities in the process that creep in over time and introduce inefficiencies in that process or require rework on non-conforming output.
 
Six Sigma works to eliminate hidden factory situations by setting goals, questioning the status quo, and removing defects, inefficiencies, and redundancies. In a customer service setting, for example, a call center is tasked with calling back customers. If your goal is to return calls within 30 minutes, you put a metric on that and keep track of how often you go past 30 minutes. Based on this information, you can work to improve call back time.
 
Walk the Walk
 
As I’ve stated, an effective Six Sigma program starts with the very top of an organization, but employees need to believe that it’s more than just lip service. Leadership has to walk the walk. They have to make it very clear to everyone in the company that the Six Sigma philosophy is the company’s culture and that they are practicing it themselves.
 
Former General Electric (GE) CEO Jack Welch is the best example of walking the walk. In the mid-1990s, Welch wholeheartedly embraced Six Sigma and made it a part of GE’s corporate brand. But more than that, Welch believed in Six Sigma. He lived it and his conviction was infectious. That belief helped propel GE, an already strong company, into a corporate powerhouse by saving it billions in defects and waste. (Check out Part 2 of our Six Sigma blog series, which includes more on Welch and the history of Six Sigma).
 
Seeing is believing. If your workers see you, their boss, speaking with conviction and acting according to Six Sigma, they’ll embrace it themselves. Follow up beyond lip service with a meaningful reward or compensation system. You need a culture that all but demands that employees submit improvement ideas, and you need an infrastructure that permits management to take the best of those ideas and advance.
 
Manufacturing leaders must be prepared to make a multi-year, cultural and financial commitment to Six Sigma. It’s not something to try out for a year and see if it works. Walk the walk, promote it, pay for it, and be prepared for some initial setbacks. If you’re not prepared to go all in, Six Sigma won’t work for you. 
 
Remember: You employ an army of idea generators. Educate them, empower them, and unleash them.

Read more of the Six Sigma blog series:
 
Steve Wise
By Steve Wise
Vice President of Statistical Methods
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