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“Black Belts” Emerge from Six Sigma Quality Programs

You’ve heard the Six Sigma program can cut costs and improve your bottom line. But what is it, how does it work and how does it apply to your company?

Six Sigma is a problem-solving method which uses data to determine what areas in a company are breeding grounds for money loss. Once areas associated with loss are located, Six Sigma practitioners focus on eliminating waste and defects in those operations. The effect, for pioneering Six Sigma companies like Motorola, has been huge cost savings (the average Six Sigma project saves $75,000) and a greatly improved bottom line.

This sound good, but how is it different from other quality programs? The strength of Six Sigma comes from relying heavily on data gathered by fairly standard statistical methods like Pareto diagrams. What separates Six Sigma from other more traditional forms of improving the bottom line is the dedication and involvement of company officials in Six Sigma from the top levels of management. As a matter of fact, the tenacious dedication of Six Sigma practitioners to the improvement process is so dogged that those trained in the Six Sigma methodology have rather funny names: master black belt, black belt and green belt.

Corporate Karate
No, you won’t find Six Sigma master black belts drinking green tea and breaking wooden blocks with their bare hands around the office. They’re the people eating the jelly donuts and drinking the coffee. Master black belts are made up of the normal rank and file in your company. Black belt positions are full-time, two-year terms, while green belt positions are part-time.

Practitioners of Six Sigma are given these names because of their disciplined approach in following the program’s procedures. A company’s first black belts are typically trained through a 20-day session by an outside Six Sigma firm. To gain black belt certification, employees must complete two Six Sigma projects upon completion of the course. These projects are made of four steps: measure, analyze, improve and control.

Black belts begin their projects by seeking out an area for improvement within their company—maybe the refund process for returns is too slow or the quality of customer service is poor. Once a project is identified, the black belt gathers data about it, measures and analyzes the data and takes steps based on the data to improve and control related procedures. Ultimately, the project won’t be considered a success under Six Sigma standards unless a certain amount of money is saved (again, the average—$75,000—is no small sum) and the black belt in training must sustain the improvement for up to a year. Once the black belt has gained experience, they can become a master black belt and train other black belts in the company. Black belts, once certified, average five projects a year.

Just the Facts, Ma’am
Those trained in Six Sigma ask two questions in every project: “Why are the related procedures done that way?” and “How do you know the procedures work well (i.e. give me some data on how the procedure works)?” The resulting data from the second question is the only factor determining whether to change or maintain a policy or procedure. That’s right: the only factor. So forget how you think things might be improved. Don’t give emotional justification for why things should stay the same. The driving force behind cost reduction in Six Sigma is data, cold hard facts. And it’s up to the black belt to get the facts.

Once black belts have the facts under their belts, they look for variations that could be the source of the problem or defect. In Six Sigma lingo, the variations reveal what are called “the vital few.” These are the few factors that likely contribute to the problem, versus the many factors that initially could have been the source. Therefore, looking for the vital few versus “the trivial many,” narrows down areas for analysis.

Six Sigma in the Field
Greg Brue, chief operating officer of Six Sigma QualTech in Scottsdale, Ariz., works as a master black belt training new corporate clients to become black belts. “The first thing we do is train black belts in the company to replace us,” Brue says. “We are not a consulting firm. The goal is to install a Six Sigma program in the company by training black belts. Those black belts will in turn train others until the Six Sigma problem-solving technology is fully integrated into a company’s operations.”

Brue worked with GE on their quality improvement program, identifying problems that cost the company over a million dollars each year. “Being a black belt is not a part-time job,” Brue says, “unless of course, you have part-time problems.” Brue adds this caveat knowing that, for every company he’s ever worked with, there is no such thing as a “part-time problem.”

In another example, Brue worked as a master black belt with a wall covering company that had problems with their variances. The source of the variances, it turns out, was the cut lengths of the wallpaper rolls. The company didn’t have a reliable measuring process for cutting the lengths, so to ensure the customer was satisfied (we all know how critical this is if you’ve ever hung wallpaper - you really don’t want to go back and buy another roll) they just kept on giving the customer more stock.

According to Brue, the source of the problem (or critical to quality characteristic) was cutting the length of the roll. Once this was determined, by first gathering data and narrowing down to the vital few factors that could potentially cause the problem, a new measurement system was utilized. The company, when applying the Six Sigma program, saved $1.1 million.

Six Sigma and Corporate Culture
Six Sigma can only be a success if top management is supportive and involved with the program. As you might imagine, with so many black belts, master black belts and green belts walking around probing into problematic areas of a company, the corporate culture has to change. Lucky for black belts, Six Sigma has a way of measuring corporate commitment from the highest levels. First, they ask questions like: How much time has the company’s top executives spent talking with black belts on the phone? How often do they question changes and ask to see the data backing up that decision? Are they emailing black belts, staying abreast of projects underway? Then, the Six Sigma program sticks to its guns, by asking to see the data to backup the answers.

Another way to ensure Six Sigma is supported by a company’s top brass is the Six Sigma “champion.” A champion generally brings Six Sigma into the company, lets things get shaken up and sticks by the black belts no matter how tough the projects are. The role of the champion is to watch over the projects of the black belts and protect them when they come under fire, which undoubtedly they will.

Happy Endings
It’s easy to see why many companies are willing to introduce a data-driven, non-biased probe into the depths of their corporate trouble spots. Motorola set the precedent and hasn’t looked back since. GE continues to train more and more employees after achieving repeated success. And there’s no doubt incorporating Six Sigma into a company is a very proactive move. Many of the companies that have been most successful with Six Sigma worked the problem-solving program into areas where no alarm bells were ringing. Simply improving areas where no known problems had yet occurred greatly improved the bottom line.

May '99 News for a Change | Email Editor
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