Quality Magazine

Management: The Secret to Sustaining Six Sigma

September 7, 2012
The Secret to Sustaining Six Sigma
How do you sustain the improvements that are the result of a Six Sigma project?

Developing measurements with meaning. Source: The Right Measures: The Story of a Company’s Journey to Find the True Indicators of Its Success and Values, CRC Press, 2012

For that matter, how do you sustain your Six Sigma efforts as an organization? These are the questions that challenge many Six Sigma practitioners on a daily basis.

As with any continuous improvement system, too many people view the concept as “once and done”; incremental improvement is acceptable. Too many organizations let their Six Sigma initiative end at the conclusion of a budget cycle; or worse, it dies a slow death due to lack of interest and/or attention. However, there are some organizations that continue to be industry examples of how to successfully use Six Sigma as a journey of continuous improvement.

Pictured above is the value cycle. Source: The Right Measures: The Story of a Company’s Journey to Find the True Indicators of Its Success and Values, CRC Press, 2012

Organizational Success

It may be easy to say Six Sigma efforts should start at the top of your organization, but is this statement true? Absolutely. Before you can ever conduct a Six Sigma project, strategic efforts must identify the what, where and when for projects. It is not just about completing projects to reduce variation and defects in the process. The organization’s executive leaders must understand and embrace the continuous improvement philosophy. It is these leaders’ responsibility to ensure that the topic of continuous improvement is always on the minds and lips of the management team. But, it is every level of management throughout the organization that must make it a reality.

Managers must “lead” Six Sigma and any other continuous improvement methodology in use by the organization and demand and ensure that these efforts are sustained on a daily basis. And when we say “demand” we are not just suggesting that managers bark orders at their employees. Managers must demand it through their own actions, through their expectations, and through their mentoring and guidance of the workforce. You cannot just expect project teams, or departmental teams, to report out a Sigma level and accept this as good enough. Likewise, management should not allow any team, department or division to flood upper management at any level with everything they measure. This shotgun approach to measurement reporting does nothing but cloud over the purpose for measurements.

This is where the concept of finding the right measures comes into play. Organizationally, the management team must develop strategic goals and objectives. Ultimately, these goals and objectives are where the success of the company both starts and ends. Once these goals and objectives are determined, then the team must agree upon Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the overall organization that tie directly to the strategic goals and objectives.

Moving down through the various levels of the organization, managers must then identify their own key metrics for their area of responsibility. At each level, there should be no more than three to five total metrics being reported to the managers above them in the organizational structure. Some of these metrics must be tied to the key metrics of the operational level above, better yet, tied directly to the KPIs of the organization. And most, if not all of these metrics must have meaning to the employees in the value stream. They must tell the employees who work at this level how they are doing on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Additionally, every employee should understand how their work directly affects each of the measures in their area and the relationship of how these measures are linked to the measures above them.

As you go deeper into the organization, this process is repeated. Ultimately, from top to bottom, the metrics create a chain-like relationship so that employees working at any level of the organization actually understand how they impact the overall KPIs. Once this is structured correctly, a commitment must be made by all members of the management team to use these metrics to show success (and failure) throughout the company.

Simplifying the way a company reports its measures is only the starting point though. And if companies would be honest about this issue, they would admit that creating and living by your metrics is actually the second step. The first step requires an organization to take an in-depth look at the values that drive the organization. After all, values are the fundamental building blocks of any organization. Your values in turn shape the vision and actions of the company.

Simply stated: you measure what you value. These measures directly influence how people work (and behave). To take it one step further, how people work affects organizational results. The outcome is that if an organization will subscribe to this philosophy and have strong values, in the end the organization will create a culture that self-perpetuates its success. This cultural model is the basis for ensuring that the company will embrace the right key metrics, use the data for its intended purpose and not allow persons in the process to become roadblocks by not measuring the agreed upon data, or by flooding the process with too much data.

The final piece required for successful sustainment is accountability. If senior level people are not held accountable for the success of Six Sigma, then it won’t work. These managers and leaders need their measure of success to be directly tied to the initiative’s success through employee reviews and compensation, for example. If your company does not already stress the importance of accountability for individual and organizational success, additional emphasis may be required through education and possibly even a change in the way individual performance evaluations are conducted.

At the Project Level

Once a company creates an overall strategy for sustaining Six Sigma, then the attention will often shift to long-term sustainment in areas where Six Sigma projects are conducted. At the conclusion of a Six Sigma project, one of the toughest tasks to accomplish is in determining what measurements will be maintained, and for how long, to show the success of the project. Do you measure everything? Do you report upstream all that you measure? Are you measuring things that make sense to the employees working within the value stream?

The answer to all of these questions is to create a small group of key metrics that demonstrate to upper management, as well as to those employees within the value stream, how the improvements are being maintained long term. For most value streams, it is possible at the conclusion of a project to identify three to five metrics to use as a scorecard for showing success. At a minimum, some of the metrics must be tied to the key metrics of the operational level where the project was conducted or better yet, tied directly to the KPIs of the organization. Additionally, most of these metrics must have meaning to the employees in the value stream.

The best way to accomplish both of these requirements is to hold discussions with both management and employees conducting the work to help with the identification of metrics. By involving the appropriate personnel, it is possible to create ownership in the metrics. And where there is ownership, there is a greater chance for success.

Beyond this, one must look back to the Shewart Cycle of continuous improvement. Whether you want to call it PDCA or DMAIC is not as important as understanding the basic concept of measuring what is important, understanding the results, making improvements and monitoring for future improvement.

It is Still Continuous Improvement

As you look closer at the techniques discussed here, it is very important to remember that this is continuous improvement. There are people in the business world today that think that continuous improvement is just the act of finding defects and variation, non-value-added work and a lack of flow, and then improving the process. These same people fail to realize that measuring the right things in the right ways is also a critical piece of continuous improvement. And of course it’s not about once and done; it’s not about measuring and reporting everything; it’s about creating an environment where your measurements have meaning and they pass the test of time.

Yes, you will still measure more than you report. Yes, you will still need to review measures and change what you measure from time to time as your company’s success, values and needs change. And most importantly by doing this, you will create a culture that is self-sustaining. You will create an environment where Six Sigma can live and breathe as a part of a very successful organization.

So what is the secret to sustaining Six Sigma? It is choosing the right measures for success. The measures you put in place to make decisions. The measures that you ask each and every employee to live and work by. It is choosing the right measures, adopting a culture for success, and holding everyone accountable to these measures. By embarking on this journey of defining the right measures for your organization, you can discover the secret of long-term sustainability of Six Sigma. Q

For more on Six Sigma, visit www.qualitymag.com :

Learn Six Sigma Tools in Project Execution

Can Six Sigma Be Adapted to Look at Innovation?

An Overview of Six Sigma