The year was 1994 and I sat in the room filled with anxious questioners. “What,” they asked, “was the usefulness of this quality system? How can it better my business?”

The quality system under question was ISO 9000. My response was something like, “In its ideal use, ISO 9000 offers an opportunity for a company to evaluate how it manufactures its product and determine whether improvement can be made. Otherwise, it’s just a piece of paper.” I stand by that statement today, and I believe the experience of many ISO-certified manufacturers bear out that statement’s validity.

In late January of this year, I sat in a conference room in Miami and heard the same questions asked of most speakers about another quality system: Six Sigma. And I have to admit, I have been a skeptic of Six Sigma for a long time. My experience with it had always been as a system that was created to keep statisticians employed and little else. Those opposed to Six Sigma argue that there should be no acceptable level of defects—nice if you can achieve it, but hardly a realistic expectation—or that Six Sigma is nothing more than already failed Total Quality Management. I was somewhere between the two positions. Until Miami.

It wasn’t the sun that affected me as much as it was listening to manufacturers—from Raytheon, Honeywell Engines, Sunbeam Products and TRW Automotive—talk about how Six Sigma worked for them. One after another talked about Six Sigma being useful only if it assisted in meeting, or integrating with, overall business goals. They talked about instances where it didn’t make sense in their company either. Top level management must bless and promote Six Sigma as a legitimate tool for it to work, they stressed.

Shades of that ISO panel 9 years ago! Talking with those presenters and others has led me to believe that, when used correctly, Six Sigma is a useful and worthy tool. It needs to be seriously considered, and with the cautions expressed at the Miami conference, by those companies looking to better their production processes, not as the only tool to use, but as part of an overall quality improvement plan. If a company does Six Sigma simply to generate more charts, it will fail.

While I don’t see implementing Six Sigma at Quality magazine anytime soon, I do have to admit that hearing such balanced, real-world experiences did have an effect. While I am not running out anytime soon to get my Black Belt, I do believe there is a middle ground to be had between the Six Sigma detractors and Six Sigma zealots. The middle ground is the place that those at the conference described—balanced and appropriate use of Six Sigma as part of an overall manufacturing improvement strategy. Six Sigma works if it is used to serve the business, rather than the business serving it.

This is a hot topic. Share your experiences and opinions with me at [email protected].