A Solid Foundation
by Mike Carnell

ny discussion of implementing Six Sigma is typically accompanied by a conversation around top management buy-in and the fiat that it is a top-down initiative. They are independent issues, so I’ll separate them for discussion and clarity.

Top-down is the way things happen in companies. They are designed that way to avoid anarchy. There is an alternative called bottom-up, and some people believe that exists. I believe it is a myth.

Something that consumes resources will continue to do so as long as the person controlling those resources allows it to happen or buys in. If that person does not endorse it, whatever activity is consuming the resources will cease. That person will only allow it as long as the person above him or her allows it. Is Six Sigma top-down? Yes, just like everything else that happens in an organization.

When a company declares it is doing Six Sigma, there is, by definition, some level of executive support. A company will not hire consultants, Master Black Belts (MBBs) and Black Belts (BBs), send people to training or hold team meetings if those resources haven’t been budgeted for at some level.

The process frequently used to introduce an initiative often creates a change management issue. It begins when internal salesmanship and marketing help get leadership’s approval for a Six Sigma deployment. After the ideas are introduced internally, an internal person assumes the role of information gatherer and presents his or her findings to other employees. That typically results in external personnel presenting additional information.

At this point, the change cycle has already been initiated at the executive level. The initiative may or may not survive the change cycle, but the reaction to change has already begun. I use a change model called “the valley of despair and pity city” to represent the cycle (see Figure 1).1

As the concept of Six Sigma is introduced at the leadership level, each executive has his or her own curve, and the combination of those curves makes up the cumulative curve for the leadership team (see Figure 2).

Common Problems

There will be little to no progress until the team has funding. Leader-ship’s sustained commitment largely depends on when in the budget cycle the initiative is launched. The executives made the decision so their internal clock is running, and their patience is wearing thin. Six Sigma is typically sold on financial results, and that’s what the leadership team wants to see.

Once the budget becomes available, the make/buy ritual begins. A general low level rumbling begins in the bowels of the organization as everyone even remotely associated with the initiative jockeys for his or her 15 minutes.

Should we hire consultants, hire an MBB or use the guy from the quality assurance (QA) department because he says Six Sigma is made up of the same stuff as total quality management, and he taught it in the past? Should we license material or have that guy from QA do it because he said he could write it in two weeks, and it would be better than anything on the market?

While these questions are being answered, the leadership team is anxiously waiting for the results it was sold months ago.

The instant the leadership team conveys its impatience to the Six Sigma program manager, a new sense of urgency develops. Decision time shortens, and the importance of selling buy-in to participants disappears.

BB candidates and projects are selected on the fly because someone realizes how long it takes to properly train the BBs and determines the company won’t actually see any realized savings this year (see Figure 3). The first rumblings of “They (the leadership team members) aren’t serious, they’re just doing it for show” begin to grow.

As the company moves through training, dissonance starts to come from middle management (see Figure 4, p. 68). Some common comments heard throughout the company include:

• Six Sigma took the best people.

• The BBs haven’t done anything for six months except play with their computers.

• They are working on the wrong stuff.

• Even if we finish that project this year, we won’t see any benefit until next year.

• We can’t get any results. Why not? Maybe Six Sigma doesn’t work here.

Leadership forgot the middle managers in its newfound sense of urgency, and if these managers aren’t supporting Six Sigma, then their bosses must not have bought in, either.

Change and Program Management

Change management in the context of Six Sigma involves much more than implementing the results of a BB/Green Belt project. When the discussions around Six Sigma or any other type of change begin, the effects of the proposed change start to show. People with nervous stomachs dive headfirst into the valley of despair and are followed closely by the corporate animals who fear they are out of the loop.

Managing an effective Six Sigma deployment takes more than teaching masses of people the define, measure, analyze, improve, control methodology. When done properly, a dramatic change occurs throughout the organization and at a project level.

Six Sigma program managers must have an organizationwide view of the change dynamics as the program rolls out. An effective combination of change management and program management tools makes a difference in the efficient deployment of Six Sigma. To reduce resistance to change as the deployment rolls out, the gap between groups must be closed.


It is critical for a company to do some basic planning when a deployment is launched. A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis is a basic change management tool that can be used in the beginning phases of a deployment to characterize the organization.

The analysis is subjective in nature, but the level of subjectivity can be substantially reduced if the team uses artifacts from previous activities. The completed analysis will serve as a guide to the program designers who are looking for leverage points to increase the effectiveness of the deployment.

Deployment Plan

The most basic program management tool is a deployment plan made up of a Gantt chart and a communications plan. These allow for planning beyond scheduling training and supply a much needed timeframe.

A Gantt chart allows the company to identify which resources are getting involved and at what point. It allows the company to develop a dependency matrix so the resources surrounding the BBs can be given priority in training and communication.

To properly manage the Six Sigma program, the company must also have a communications plan. Effective communication is a two-way process. Ideally, everyone should know everything as soon as the information becomes available, but that type of communications plan has a low probability of success.

When deploying Six Sigma, the company will experience extensive changes beyond the immediate projects. People associated with the belts and training need to be communicated with before the activities begin.

An effective communications plan needs stratification. The communications plan must consist of more than a company newsletter or an e-mail distributed to all staff because different people and different organizational layers have their own communications preferences.

This does not mean the company should create a communications plan for every individual. It should also think twice about posting notices online if a large portion of employees do not have internet access.

Stakeholders Analysis

Once the company has developed an organizational strategy at a high level, it needs to become more tactical. Some of the more basic change management tools can be applied to reduce resistance to change.

A stakeholders analysis allows people to systematically review the individuals associated with a program or project and score them based on how they are reacting to a change.

This tool normally runs on a scale of –2 (strongly against), -1, 0 (neutral), +1 and +2 (strongly supportive). In the Six Sigma vernacular, this measurement system is deficient. It can be improved by developing characteristics for each category, which will allow for a more consistent rating.

The second step in the stakeholders analysis is to identify whether each stakeholder’s score is adequate or if it needs to be at a different level of support. Not all stakeholders need to be at the +2 level. The initial score determines the stakeholder’s “as is” position. He or she also needs a “should be” score. This will allow the company to identify which individuals need to be included in an enrollment plan.

Enrollment Plan

Enrolling someone’s support can be as simple as a face-to-face conversation or as complex as a class or site visit to a different facility. These plans need to be developed on an individual basis. They require a clear understanding of what type of communication and what type of individual a person responds to. Building a plan does not necessarily ensure change, so it needs to be monitored for effectiveness. If there is no change, then a new plan must be created.

The first six months are the most critical in a Six Sigma deployment. For some, it is an opportunity to engage in something exciting and new. For others, the deployment represents the unknown and is a source of emotional stress.

That stress will manifest itself in resistance to change. By using these basic tools, a company can reduce the amount of resistance its BBs will encounter, and it will have a solid foundation on which to build its deployment.


1. Val Larson and Mike Carnell, “Developing Black Belt Change Agents: Surviving Pity City and the Valley of Despair,” Aug. 12, 2002, www.isixsigma.com.

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.


66 I JANUARY 2005 I www.asq.org

The Valley of Despair and Pity City

Five basic tools can help companies fight resistance to change.




Leadership Team Change Curve

Executive Frustration




68 I JANUARY 2005 I www.asq.org


Middle Management Frustration

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