Six Sigma Start-up at Small Companies

by Robert J. Parody and Joseph G. Voelkel

An executive chef oversees the activities of a tightly run kitchen operation at his five-star restaurant, pairing the right foods together, guiding other chefs and staff in preparing exquisite offerings on the menu. A few blocks away a frazzled fry cook hustles back and forth from the cash register to the prep table, taking orders, assembling sandwiches and making sure the burgers don’t burn in the process.

Some small companies rely on employees who are like that fry cook when it comes to attempting to implement Six Sigma. It can be a daunting task—added to an already full plate of events and activities. Unlike many larger corporations that can dedicate executive chefs—Black Belts (BBs)—to work exclusively on Six Sigma projects, smaller companies have to base their Six Sigma hopes on employees whose primary responsibilities take precedence over these projects.

Expectedly, Six Sigma projects typically start out on a small scale at smaller companies. It is not unusual for management to begin with one project and monitor the results before investing more resources into Six Sigma. The first project becomes crucial because it can be the make or break project for Six Sigma at that company.

Is there a recipe smaller companies should follow to increase the probability of getting that first big win on the first try? We will compare two actual situations in which one Six Sigma project was successful and one was not.

Situation one: A person was hired right out of college by a small manufacturing company to “do Six Sigma.” He had no real experience in manufacturing, and his knowledge of Six Sigma was based on several statistics and quality courses from school. Management told the newly hired graduate (and potential BB down the road) that it stood behind him, but this fresh face needed to “sell” Six Sigma to the rest of the company.

The new college graduate was the only person in the company who had any knowledge of Six Sigma. His first project was chosen for him before he arrived, based on a lingering problem no one in the company could figure out how to fix. The project had not been assessed in relation to others for that had a high probability of achieving a reasonably large benefit in a three to five month window of opportunity.

Situation two: A person who had worked at her company in the manufacturing department for five years was given the opportunity to attend a public program on Six Sigma that required up-front management commitment. The seasoned employee and potential BB already had strong relationships with co-workers in the department. Her management also had received formal training in Six Sigma.

As a result of that training, management mandated a BB project for her that would take priority over any other activities. The worker did, however, continue her responsibilities for day-to-day tasks to make product. The project itself was chosen by a cross functional team with process knowledge and an understanding of what makes a suitable BB project.

It is obvious which situation had the higher probability of success. In the first situation, many factors signaled the new employee—and the Six Sigma project—was set up to fail:

  • The new employee had neither the experience nor know-how to lead a team and be an effective change agent.
  • As a typical employee fresh out of college, he did not have the self confidence to make hard decisions. He also lacked the earned respect of his colleagues to be effective within the project team. With no knowledge of the organization’s politics, he was not effective outside of the project team.
  • At the onset, the selected project had low potential for success, especially in the hands of a new employee.
  • Due in part to its limited knowledge of its own leadership role in Six Sigma, management failed to substantively commit to the project.

Small Company Success

There are essentially three ingredients in a successful recipe for Six Sigma, especially within smaller companies:

  1. Management commitment.
  2. Project selection.
  3. Proven performer.

Management commitment. This is the most crucial ingredient. In situation one, management claimed it was behind Six Sigma. However, rather than make a commitment to ensure the new employee got the support he needed, management left him to fend for himself. This sometimes occurs because management does not get the level of training it needs to realize the importance of a commitment.

Even worse, sometimes the management culture is simply laissez-faire, directly at odds with Six Sigma. There should be clear and consistent management commitment. This includes, but is not limited to, all necessary training and resource allocation.

Project selection. The key to this ingredient is to find a project that will have the most impact but not take long to complete. This project should be selected by a cross functional team with process knowledge. If team is involved in the project selection, its members will feel ownership of the project and work to ensure its success.

In situation one, the project was created based on a lingering problem that couldn’t be solved. This turned out to be a recipe for failure and disaster. The team took so long to come up with a solution (a design change) that others within the organization got the impression Six Sigma was something that just couldn’t work at the company.

Proven performer. A fresh, new employee (and perhaps a potential BB) might bring the ingredients of energy and enthusiasm to a project and be more than willing to take on the world. But without established allies within the company, knowledge of systems and processes, and insight into and experience with a particular situation, results will fall short every time.

The Six Sigma project leader should be a proven performer. The person should have experience leading teams and good relationships with the other members on the project team.

Figure 1 illustrates how the chances for a successful Six Sigma project rise when these ingredients are mixed properly and seasoned to make the recipe work.

For the employees—and potential BBs—in the two situations described here, their experience (or lack thereof) with Six Sigma took each down different paths. The employee in situation two is now a manager at her company, where Six Sigma has proven successful. In situation one, let’s just say Six Sigma—and the new employee—are no longer welcome in that company’s kitchen.

ROBERT J. PARODY is assistant professor at the John D. Hromi Center for Quality and Applied Statistics at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. He earned a doctorate in statistics at the University of South Carolina-Columbia. Parody is a Senior Member of ASQ.

JOSEPH G. VOELKEL is graduate program chair and associate professor at the John D. Hromi Center for Quality and Applied Statistics at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. He earned a doctorate in statistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Voelkel is an ASQ Fellow.

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