Six Sigma Success Must Begin at the Top - ASQ

Six Sigma Success Must Begin at the Top

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By Frank Caplan, editor-in-chief, Quality Engineering
frankcaplan@cco.net

During the late 1970s, Bill Smith and I worked for the communications group of Motorola Inc. in Schaumburg, IL—he in one of the product departments and I in group staff. We had numerous discussions about his ideas for driving quality forward and controlling it at low parts per million (PPM) levels. Ultimately, Bill developed what became Motorola’s Six Sigma approach, initially oriented to that PPM objective. Key to its success and expansion to cover every kind of activity in the company was the total commitment and participation of Bob Galvin, CEO of the corporation.

Among the many things Bob did was reset the agendas for all the business unit staff meetings he attended. Rather than letting the quality subject remain in its historical position of last on the agenda (and frequently eliminated because of time constraints), he decreed quality was now always to be first. After that point in the discussion, Bob would leave the meeting.

His message was clear—if the quality objectives were met, everything else would follow satisfactorily. If those objectives were not met, the rest of the agenda would have been devoted to excuses and finger pointing. He then saw to it quality objectives were extremely challenging by demanding large rather than small percentages of improvement, which had been the previously accepted approach.

Another interesting feature of this approach was Bob would not permit the quality manager to present the quality report. That report had to be provided by the top business manager. As a result, the business manager had to understand the quality figures to be able to defend the report if it was challenged. As Bob said, “The quality manager only organizes the data; the rest of the team produces it.”

Another report I’ve heard makes a strong point. Bob asked the head of the legal department how long it took to get a patent issued after the decision was made to apply for one. The reply was “about two years.” Bob pointed out the half-life of new technology was very short by comparison, and, to obtain the maximum benefit of the company’s intellectual property, the patent time figure should be less than 90 days. By looking at the operation as a process, the department reduced its total time to somewhat less than that, with the shortest time reported at 17 days.

Not many companies have the special circumstances that supported Bob Galvin’s role in the Motorola Six Sigma story. However, the general format of accepted organizational structure of a Six Sigma project provides for a leadership group of some combination of top level managers and identified project Champions, the latter either being members of the leadership group or reporting directly to it. As long as those leaders have the capability, commitment and clout to ensure the process is carried forward without interruption, they can achieve results comparable to Motorola’s from the application of the concepts and methodology of Six Sigma.

My point is one with which I’m confident most of my colleagues would agree. With active, consistent, innovative, continuous and widely apparent participation by top management, much can be achieved from programs like Six Sigma. Without such involvement, even the best of programs cannot be effective in reaching full potential.

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