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Quality and productivity initiatives have come and gone during the past few decades. The list of "already rans" includes quality circles, statistical process control, total quality management, Baldrige protocol diagnostics, enterprisewide resource planning and lean manufacturing. Most have been sound in theory but inconsistent in implementation, not always delivering on their promises over the long run.
One of the more lasting of the many initiatives has been Six Sigma. General Electric defines it as a breakthrough for "consistently developing and delivering near-perfect products and services, based on looking ‘outside-in.'"
But there is real danger in many organizations' use of Six Sigma ending up in the dustbin of history. An Aviation Week magazine survey of major aerospace companies concluded that, ". . . less than 50% of the survey respondents expressed satisfaction with results from their Six Sigma projects; nearly 30% were dissatisfied and another 20% or so were only somewhat satisfied."
Companies have found that many Six Sigma interventions have not delivered on expectations. Inevitably, these interventions have fallen victim to the following seven factors or "sins." Any one of these sins can turn the initial enthusiasm for Six Sigma to a desire to look for yet another silver, quality "bullet."
1. Inadequate information
Today's volume of quantifiable information is overwhelming, and organizations often succumb to the tendency to gather and analyze all of it. Successful Six Sigma initiatives include streamlined information gathering and retrieval systems that avoid information overload and limit analysis to relevant, accurate data.
Information inadequacy can also stem from faulty assumptions, especially those related to product cost and value. For example, standard costing approaches typically underestimate the cost of low-volume products and overcost high-volume ones. This can dramatically skew Six Sigma project selection and results documentation.
To ensure adequate information for Six Sigma initiatives, use a consistent set of questions to gather, sort, organize and analyze information. One high-tech manufacturer trained all its customer support representatives to ask the same questions, designed to obtain a tight description of the "what, where, when and extent" of a problem, and to look for unique features and key changes each time a problem arose. By reducing the variation in how information was captured at the outset of a call, the average time to resolve customer problems was slashed by 58%.
2. Selecting the wrong projects
Selecting inappropriate Six Sigma projects is widespread. The Aviation Week survey observed that 60% of the companies in the survey selected opportunities for improvement on an ad-hoc basis or within specific functions, such as the shop floor or the purchasing department. Very few, 31%, rely on a portfolio approach. Companies that do manage the Six Sigma pipeline using portfolio techniques tend to see better results.
Some reasons that organizations select the wrong projects for Six Sigma include:
• Picking easy, operational wins, as opposed to zeroing in on projects that advance the business strategy. Organizations need a set of strategic criteria against which potential Six Sigma projects can be evaluated and projects that do not meet these should not be considered.
• Sidestepping the "right" Six Sigma projects because they are perceived as too difficult, too contentious or too tough to measure. In some cases, projects are overlooked because they entail challenging or phasing out "cash cows" or other products or processes that are past their prime. Many companies begin their Six Sigma programs by going after low-
hanging fruit to build success and momentum. These organizations need to ask: "What message does this send?" and "How will we transition to attacking the few critical issues that will determine the fate of our business?"
• Attempting to solve a marketing problem with a manufacturing solution. Take this test: Generate a
scatter-plot of all products or services in the two dimensions of Volume and Margin. Chances are that the products and processes that fall in the High-Margin/Low-Volume Quadrant would not be good candidates for Six Sigma improvement. Given their high margin, significant efficiency has already been achieved. The issues here are obviously not manufacturing ones; they call for improved marketing, and traditional Six Sigma can't help.
3. Creating solution-caused problems
Four of the most powerful words in the language of implementation are: "What could go wrong?" Forget to ask this question when implementing a solution or making an improvement, and difficulties will occur. Every implementation plan should include an analysis of potential problems, their likely causes, and preventive and contingent actions. Involve customers and suppliers in the analysis and focus the team's efforts on the high-threat deal breakers.
4. Serving the wrong customer
A basic element of all Six Sigma projects involves listening to the "voice of the customer." Yet, in practice this focus is often perverted or diluted. A survey conducted by Greenwich Associates concluded that,"Strangely absent from most user responses was any mention of the customer. When asked on an unaided basis to define a successful project, only three out of the 13 companies mentioned customers as critical success factors, despite the first rule of Six Sigma-listening to the voice of the customer."
One way in which organizations turn a deaf ear to customers is by confusing the voice of the customer with the voice of accounting. Consider the many companies that have used Six Sigma methodology to improve customer support, especially in help-desk environments. The so-called improvements they've made-seven-tier voice mail systems, confusing help screens and downright useless Web sites-may be cost effective, but they deflect the customer's voice and try his or her patience.
Over reliance on benchmarking can also distort the customer's voice. Sure, it is advisable to be aware of the competition's best practices and innovations. But, it's important to remember that their strategy may be quite different from the manufacturer's, their problems unique to them and their solutions more fitted to their own culture or customer base.
5. Leaping to the fix
Far too many Six Sigma teams end up brainstorming improvement ideas prior to fully understanding the cause of poor process or product performance. When attempting to correct problems in a work process, most teams immediately leap to action. While this is understandable, given the pressure to get processes up and running, it's a tremendous time waster. Without identifying, verifying and removing the root cause of the problem, teams almost always fall short of reducing variation.
6. Faulty implementation
Six Sigma interventions are projects. Without a disciplined project-
management approach, count on running into these difficulties:
• Unclear project objectives. The team spins its wheels, asking over and over, "What are we supposed to accomplish?"
• Shoddy sequencing. Construction workers are told to put up drywall before the wires have been run through the framing, or paperwork is filed with the Federal Drug Administration before drug trials are completed.
• Ineffective resource planning. Surprises keep cropping up during implementation: "Joe can't go to your meeting," "We've got an emergency in our department," or "There's nothing in the budget for overtime."
• Under involvement. Appropriate stakeholders are ignored at key milestones; when a tough problem needs to be solved, a controversial decision is made or a critical approval is needed.
• Over involvement. People are involved unnecessarily, leading to protracted decision making, delayed approvals and status reviews that take longer than the work itself.
• Ineffective or delayed monitoring mechanisms. The team's ability to react is impaired, leading to the
all-too-familiar, "Oh, sorry, that already shipped."
• Lack of formal project evaluation and closeout. "Lessons learned" do not get captured and communicated. The same problems crop up in subsequent projects.
To avoid faulty implementation, provide all team members with a common approach to project management and then manage the Six Sigma effort accordingly. Require each team to provide a clear definition of the project's scope and deliverables prior to planning-who's going to do what, by when. Make sure that the project plan includes clear assignments, accurate sequencing and realistic timeframes. Don't forget to think about potential problems at each step in the plan: What problems might arise? What would likely cause them? How can you prevent these problems or minimize the damage if they do occur?
Once implementation gets underway, ensure routine monitoring and control by building in milestones and scheduled reviews. Devise a simple visual that shows progress against the schedule, objectives and costs of the project. Some companies use a Six Sigma Project Dashboard on which all open improvement projects are listed. On the dashboard, they record progress against objectives, schedule and costs, using red, yellow and green indicators. A quick glance at the dashboard shows progress against the organization's entire Six Sigma project portfolio. The dashboard is linked to specific projects, so when someone needs to drill down, they can.
7. Failing to consider the human side of change
Technically "right" solutions often overlook the human side of performance. That human side is made up of five key elements, all of which must be aligned for Six Sigma to succeed: the situation, performer, response, consequences and feedback.
For each facet of a Six Sigma project, consider the performance system in which people are being asked to engage.
• Situation. Whenever employees are put in a new job situation, they need to know exactly what will be expected of them and how their contribution will be measured. And, as changes are made in work processes, they need to know how their job will change and what will be expected of them going forward.
• Performer. Make sure that the
employees-the performers-receive the tools, time and other resources needed to effectively analyze issues and implement improvements. Focus on providing the appropriate skills and knowledge to the people that are going to be running new and improved processes, and coach them as they begin to put the improvements to work. A common failure is not considering what new skills will be required to sustain the planned improvement.
• Response. To achieve the desired response from performers, set up a plan that is realistic and attainable. To do otherwise is to set up employees and Six Sigma projects for failure.
• Consequences. While moving to the "improve" and "control" phases of a Six Sigma effort, be sure to take in account one of the most common reasons for the failure of change initiatives, an imbalance of consequences. The expectations may be clear and achievable and the skills may be available, but if there are punishing consequences for carrying out their work, performers will never buy into it.
• Feedback. No matter how enthusiastic they are at the outset of a project, a lack of timely, relevant and accurate feedback is sure to take the wind out of people's sails. Everyone involved needs to know why projects, ideas or recommendations are selected; how they are doing against their targets; and what are the real results.
Six Sigma has too much potential to wind up on the "been there, done that" list of failed initiatives. While the seven sins can be deadly, redemption is possible. All it takes is disciplined thinking, a proven approach to solving problems and managing projects, and attention to the people side of performance. Q
• Successful Six Sigma initiatives include streamlined information gathering and retrieval systems that avoid information overload and streamline information.
• Without identifying, verifying and removing the root cause of the problem, teams almost always fall short of reducing variation.
• Provide all team members with a common approach to project management and then manage the Six Sigma effort accordingly.