It was summer camp and I was 12 years old. The game was called “Capture the Flag.” The goal is for one of two teams to capture the enemy’s flag, and return it to their base. Our battlefield was spread over a huge forest with rolling hills.
I was determined to be the hero from my team, and I set out to be the first one to find the enemy’s camp. The only problem was, the camp location was not revealed to us, and we had to search quietly to find it, or risk capture. A kid could not ask for much more excitement than this.
I navigated myself on a trajectory that would be anything but a straight line; I wandered far and, after some time, I resigned myself to being lost, presuming the game was over. The next challenge was to find my way back to my camp, hopefully in time for dinner, and before it turned dark.
As I approached my camp, I could hear voices. But as I got closer, I realized that this was not my camp at all….it was the enemy! I had traveled so far that I passed their camp and was approaching it from behind. I hid behind a bush with the flag clearly in sight.
There are not many moments in life as exhilarating as this—my heart was pounding as I calculated my next move. I could see a boy guarding the flag, pacing in front of it as it hung from a tree. I waited until his pacing took him as far from the flag as he was likely to go. I then bolted from behind the bush, grabbed the flag, and headed down the hill toward my camp. I could hear the captured “soldiers” from my team cheering, and I could hear the enemy chasing me. I was a hero after all, on my way to victory.
And so I’ve come to describe the incredible feeling that comes from discovering the flag that represents the “moment of truth” in a Six Sigma project. Six Sigma projects focus on the single variable (“the critical X”) that has the most significant impact on process performance. It is almost always far from management’s radar, which is one of the reasons it is most difficult to find. Like wandering the forest with no reward in sight, a Six Sigma project takes patience, determination, and faith. There are many blind alleys and many false flags. But that eureka moment when you discover the critical variable within the process you are studying is the same way that I felt when I captured the flag.
When it comes to Six Sigma, the ends justify the means. Most other improvement methodologies address low hanging fruit, or worse, rely on fear and intimidation to improve process performance. With Six Sigma, it’s not about the people, it’s about the process that stands in their way of producing good results. And it suggests that, if you can find that single input variable that has the greatest impact on output—nothing else matters as much.
Applying Six Sigma cannot be explained in a single column, but there is one simple question that could force your organization to embrace its data-driven approach to improvement. It starts with taking a control chart of a poorly performing process. Take your pen and circle the data points on the side of the chart that represent the best demonstrated performance of the process. Gain agreement that the circled data points represent “good” performance. Ask “if we can be this good some of the time, why can’t we be this good ALL of the time?” Somewhere in the data lies the answer. It will be hiding in plain sight, just like the flag.
Returning to my childhood adventures, I am disappointed to report that I did not return victorious to my camp. About halfway to my camp, running like I’ve never run before, I fell down in a ditch. A teammate was wandering near me, and I handed him the flag and directed him to carry on the task. He took two steps, fell down, and was captured, while I was completely ignored (the enemy was understandably very focused on the boy holding their flag). He became a prisoner and folk hero as the only member of either team to have actually touched the enemy flag; I became a blank data cell. Don’t get me started on the danger of handoffs!