3.4 Per Million

The Six Sigma Mambo

by Mike Carnell

South Beach, Miami, starts to come alive about midnight. As I travel from club to club, I am mesmerized by the dancing. I have a desire to participate, but I don't know how to dance. After a few hours of watching, I get up the courage to ask someone what type of dance the people are doing.

"The cumbia, mambo, cha-cha. You know, salsa."

I decide I need to get some lessons before I try it. The music is the same, but it sounds different coming from the sterile class studio. The instructor announces, "Men, start on the right, women on the left. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-2-3-4 ... " A few months and a few dollars later I feel like the Mambo King and head back to South Beach. By the next evening I will be known up and down the Florida coast.

The next night, I ask the perfect partner to dance. As I step onto the dance floor, I tell her I am going to start on my right foot so she needs to step off on her left. She just looks at me. The music starts, and as I step off on my right foot, I notice my partner isn't moving. "What's wrong?" I ask.

"I'm listening to the timbals for the rhythm," she says. I start to dance.

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8, 1-2-3-4-5 ... My partner stops again. "What are you doing?"

"Counting," I say.

"Counting what?" she asks.


"Are you wearing white socks? I want you to look at me, not your feet, and stop counting. You need to feel the music."

As the night goes on, it gets better. The dancing feels more natural, but nobody is doing it exactly the same way. I find my original partner. "What are the extra steps?" I ask her.

"Those are my steps. That's how I do it. It is still salsa, but it shows how I feel for that particular song."

"So I can change the steps the instructor taught me?" I ask.

"You can do what you like. That's what the good dancers do. It's a feeling. If we all followed the steps exactly the same way, the result would always be the same. We would look like the Rockettes."

Where Are the Savings?

Define-2-3-4, measure-2-3-4, analyze-2-3-4, improve-2-3-4, control-2-3-4.

My company hired a Master Black Belt (MBB) of its own. This MBB was the best statistician ever. We all wanted to be just like him. Before we did anything, we checked with the MBB to make sure it was exactly what he would do.

We created training materials just like General Electric. We looked at all the other material out there and it wasn't very good, so our team spent six months fixing all the stuff that was wrong. We wrote 29 pages on the binomial distribution alone. Ours were the best training materials ever. When our Black Belt (BB) candidates finished training, we gave them a great certificate.

We trained a gazillion people this year. We certified 99.9% of our employees. There isn't a company out there that has done this much this fast ever. We found that if we don't do projects we can train more people, and we don't have to waste all our time on site support.

The only problem we've had up to this point is we don't seem to be able to generate any savings from our projects. Although 99.9% of our people are certified BBs, only 40% of them are actually doing projects. The rest can't find anything to work on. The Champions empowered most of them to find their own projects because the Champions have too much on their plates.

We did all the training and BB empowerment we were supposed to, but we didn't get the results. Those other companies must be lying about how much they're saving. We are different. Six Sigma doesn't work in our industry.

We learned all the right steps. Why aren't we the Mambo Kings?

The Best of the Best Aren't Good Enough

Define-2-3-4, measure-2-3-4, analyze-2-3-4, improve-2-3-4, control-2-3-4.

The focus of most discussions about Six Sigma gravitates toward BB training and certification. We are constantly searching for the perfect training material, even though we're aware of the adult learning models and understand the classroom serves up superficial knowledge that is insufficient to deliver a standalone BB. The search for the perfect training material continues.

The debate over the value of merit reviews and rating systems rages on. We know they increase variability of performance and competition, but at the same time we want the best of the best. The rating system always exists, either formally or informally. Everyone always know who is the best of the best, even without a formal system. We use the system and locate the best of the best.

We place our best of the best in a classroom with our world-class training material and have it shaken, not stirred, by our very own MBB. We know the steps. Management has visions of bands of variability guerrillas roaming the company in red berets, waging war on waste. We just need to sit back and count the savings. Isn't Six Sigma grand?

Unfortunately, we missed the revolutionaries and ended up with the Rockettes. No disrespect meant to the Rockettes--they are a great example of reduced variation. They look nice and are easy to understand. They're nicely choreographed. Everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. That's easy to teach, easy to manage.

Nobody is listening to the timbals--that little sound natural dancers listen for that tunes them in to the rhythm of the music.

We take the best of the best, teach them the steps in a classroom and expect South Beach. Unfortunately, they lack context and atmosphere. The early deployments of Six Sigma were not about certification; they were about operating results that were the product of projects arriving at a solution and the implementation of that solution.

The original BBs were considered the best of the best according to whatever rating system was in place. They did not become super problem solvers because the use of statistics had suddenly raised their level of performance from mediocre to high. They already had the rhythm of the process; Six Sigma just turned up the volume of the music.

Maintain Your Individuality

As a society, we continue to see various programs pass through our little piece of the world. Some come and go quickly; others linger a little longer. You see them passing with the middle management mantra, "It's just the flavor of the day." As Six Sigma has grown in popularity, the battles between the quality management-ites, lean-ites and Six Sigma-ites are abundant. What kills these programs?

In The Deviant's Advantage, Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker lay out a model to describe the journey ideas take as they migrate toward creation of a mass market.1 That journey has a price: a loss of authenticity so great that by the time the idea reaches the "next big thing" or "social convention," the qualities that made it effective have been so depleted the original effect can no longer be replicated with the metamorphosed program.

Benchmarking is frequently used to launch these initiatives. Studies are designed to create a measurement on which a company can gauge itself. That immediately creates a disparity that can negate even the best intentions.

The original companies that implemented Six Sigma were not interested in gauging themselves against the competition. If they were, they would have been clones getting clone results. They were fringe and edge companies (see Table 1) that were introspective, or at least their leadership was, and decided to carve their own path. That characteristic defies benchmarking.

Companies living in the "realm of the cool," "next big thing" or "social convention" environments are trying to translate a program with diminished authenticity to fit into their standardized box and have little chance of equaling the performance of the innovators.

Benchmarking the early successes of Six Sigma requires an understanding of the environment the companies lived in. It requires being able to honestly comprehend the factors that enabled the program to succeed. Cloning an MBB, copying job descriptions and requiring a certain number of projects per year will not replicate results. The replication of the factors that enabled a program will determine the success or failure of the new program.

All too often the benchmarking team doesn't ask the right questions, so it fails to uncover these key factors. To further complicate the communication process, the people at the company being benchmarked don't think about articulating some of these key factors because after a while they think, "That's just the way we do things around here." The result is most learning focuses on the visible steps a company took to improve its processes and implement the Six Sigma workplan at a high level.

Without tuning in to the timbals of your organization's culture, setting a new rhythm for your reward systems and creating an atmosphere of organizationwide empowerment coupled with accountability, your Six Sigma efforts will be reduced to a rote, mindless execution of a step-by-the-numbers dance performed in front of a disinterested, uncaring audience.


  1. Ryan Mathews and Watts Wacker, The Deviant's Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets, Crown Business, 2002.

MIKE CARNELL is president of Six Sigma Applications in Marble Falls, TX. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Arizona State University.

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