With the attention Six Sigma has been receiving, I thought it might be interesting to offer my perspective as someone who worked from the inside of a large organization to launch a major Six Sigma initiative.

Six Sigma has been on the fast track since coming to prominence in the late 1980s. For executives always looking for a magic formula Six Sigma was seen as their silver bullet, but left many disillusioned.

The problem is that companies need a better understanding of what Six Sigma is and what it isn’t, or what it can and can’t do. Six Sigma, like its predecessors, is not a cure-all—as likely no future single initiative will be either—but that won’t keep industry leaders from hoping.

The techniques grouped under the Six Sigma banner have broken out of the confines of the quality world and become a way of life for countless organizations. After its initial successes in the manufacturing sector Six Sigma expanded into the manufacturing back offices and the service sector. With Six Sigma initiatives delivering significant results, executives wanted to maximize those benefits into areas which Dr. Joseph M. Juran and other quality professionals believed represented the major cause of poor quality and excess cost.

The term Six Sigma has been expanded to include almost everything. However, to most practitioners, Six Sigma is synonymous with the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology and its associated bundle of tools.

The DMAIC methodology provides a structured framework for solving business problems by assuring correct and effective execution of processes. DMAIC involves defining a problem precisely; measuring to clarify it; analyzing the associated process to uncover the problem’s root cause; improving the process by considering alternative solutions and implementing the best one; and controlling the process through ongoing measurements to ‘hold the gains’ as Dr. Juran would say.

At least part of what has made Six Sigma so successful is that it is packaged in a way that makes it relatively easy to implement. An organization deciding to implement a Six Sigma initiative need not wonder how to get started. The path is precisely prescribed plus there are countless models of organizations that have already shown the way.

Six Sigma, however, is more than just a toolkit. It embodies a philosophy that focuses on many themes: customers are central to survival; carefully selected metrics measure all aspects of the business; facts rather than opinions drive decisions; involvement of everyone is critical; and endless pursuit of process excellence results in greater product performance and customer satisfaction.

Ironically, considering that Six Sigma has brought more prominence to the world of quality after barging onto the scene, Six Sigma, even with all the positive coverage, has been the object of a significant amount of criticism and controversy. One critique is that it merely repackages quality improvement principles and techniques. Two common characterizations are that Six Sigma’s nothing more than “Total Quality Management on Steroids” or “Juran Methodology on Steroids.” These may or may not be the case but it is still irrelevant.

In the business world, results are what count and the majority of Six Sigma organizations report significant success. Because it requires senior management support and leadership, Six Sigma has achieved a level of energy and commitment far beyond what other programs have been able to receive. Additionally, while the basic Six Sigma tools may be largely familiar, the framework into which they are applied and the overall structure of a Six Sigma effort does distinguish it from other approaches.  

One other common criticism is that Six Sigma solves rather than prevents problems, which promotes a “find it and fix” mentality. In some organizations there might be a vein of truth to that myth; however, this is the fault of leadership rather than process. Also, with the advent of DFSS (Design for Six Sigma) the focus is to design products so that they not only meet customer needs but prevent non-conformances from occurring.

Six Sigma has long since left its precise definition behind to become a generic term that embodies a disciplined pursuit of performance excellence. The same response applies to other technical criticisms such as the claim that the 1.5 sigma shift that attempts to correct for the inherent process inconsistencies actually distorts the results. Criticisms like this are beside the point! Six Sigma may not be perfect or ideologically correct, but, with the proper leadership and understanding, it works and its success is deserved.

 The very success of Six Sigma, however, carries the seeds of its own downfall. As its bounds become ever looser with expansion into the back office and service arenas, Six Sigma is becoming separated from its technical origins. In thinking it a silver bullet with magical powers, Six Sigma has become vulnerable to the overreaching that has caused the demise of so many other powerful business ideas. This certainly presents another ripe opportunity for the quality professional to come to the rescue.