Implementing Six Sigma

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Six Sigma implementation strategies can vary significantly between organizations, depending on their distinct culture and strategic business goals.

After deciding to implement Six Sigma, an organization has two basic options:

  • Implement a Six Sigma program or initiative
  • Create a Six Sigma infrastructure

Option 1: Implement a Six Sigma Program or Initiative

With this approach, certain employees (practitioners) are taught the statistical tools from time to time and asked to apply a tool on the job when needed. The practitioners might then consult a statistician if they need help. Successes within an organization might occur; however, these successes do not build upon each other to encourage additional and better use of the tools and overall methodology.

When organizations implement Six Sigma as a program or initiative, it often appears that they only have added, in an unstructured fashion, a few new tools to their toolbox through training classes. A possible extension of this approach is to apply the tools as needed to assigned projects. However, the selection, management, and execution of projects are not typically an integral part of the organization.

These projects, which often are created at a low level within the organization, do not have the blessing of upper management; hence, resistance is often encountered when the best solution directly affects another group that does not have buy-in to the project. In addition, there typically is no one assigned to champion projects across organizational boundaries and facilitate change.

A program or initiative does not usually create an infrastructure that leads to bottom-line benefits through projects tied to the strategic goals of the organization. Six Sigma then risks becoming the “flavor of the month” and will not capture the buy-in necessary to reap a large return on the investment in training.

Even if great accomplishments occur through the individual use of statistical tools within organizations, there is often a lack of visibility of the benefits to upper management. A typical missing element for success with this approach is management buy-in. Because of this lack of visibility, practitioners often have to fight for funds and may be eliminated whenever the times get rough financially.

Effective use of statistical tools often does not get recognized and the overall company culture is not affected. For true success, executive-level support is needed that asks the right questions and leads to the wise application of statistical tools and other Six Sigma methodologies across organizational boundaries.

Option 2: Create a Six Sigma Infrastructure

Instead of focusing on the individual tools, it is best when Six Sigma training provides a process-oriented approach that teaches practitioners a methodology to select the right tool, at the right time, for a predefined project. Training of Six Sigma practitioners (Black Belts) utilizing this approach typically consists of four weeks of instruction over four months, where students work on their projects during the three weeks between sessions.

Deploying Six Sigma as a business strategy through projects instead of tools is the more effective way to benefit from the time and money invested in Six Sigma training. Consider the following benefits of Six Sigma deployment via projects that have executive management support:

  • Offers bigger impact through projects tied to bottom-line results
  • Utilizes the tools in a more focused and productive way
  • Provides a process/strategy for project management that can be studied and improved
  • Increases communications between management and practitioners via project presentations
  • Facilitates the detailed understanding of critical business processes
  • Gives employees and management views of how statistical tools can be of significant value to organizations
  • Allows Black Belts to receive feedback on their project approach during training
  • Deploys Six Sigma with a closed-loop approach, creating time for auditing and incorporating lessons learned into an overall business strategy

A project-based approach relies heavily on a sound project selection process. Projects should be selected that meet the goals of an organization’s business strategy. Six Sigma can then be utilized as a road map to effectively meet those goals.

For ASQ members only – Log in to access articles on selecting the right Six Sigma projects:

Three Steps to Project Selection
To facilitate project selection and to assure a continuous flow of value added projects, identify a project selection steering committee, establish a project selection matrix, and schedule fixed customer and project evaluation meetings.

Selecting Six Sigma Projects That Matter
A strategic process management system is the foundation for building a sustainable approach to selecting worthwhile Six Sigma projects.

Use Analytic Hierarchy Process for Project Selection
The analytic hierarchy process (AHP) creates a structured baseline for continuously improving decision making processes which results in higher levels of efficiency and effectiveness.

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Initially, companies might have projects that are too large or perhaps are not chosen because of their strategic impact to the bottom line. Frustration with the first set of projects can be vital experience that motivates improvement in the second phase.

Six Sigma is a long-term commitment. Treating deployment as a process allows objective analysis of all aspects of the process, including project selection and scoping. Utilizing lessons learned and incorporating them into subsequent waves of an implementation plan creates a closed feedback loop and real dramatic bottom-line benefits if the organization invests the time and executive energy necessary to implement Six Sigma as a business strategy!

Excerpted from The Certified Quality Engineer Handbook, Third Edition, ed. Connie M. Borror, ASQ Quality Press, 2009, pp. 321–332.

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Organization-Wide Approaches