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Some People Don't Like Six Sigma. Why Deal With It?

by Michael Webb | Comments (0)
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As Tom and I were writing the book more than a few people encouraged us to drop Six Sigma from the title, and indeed drop the Six Sigma jargon all together. For example:

"I think you fail to serve either yourself or your audience by forcing them to understand the jargon of [Six Sigma] … Readers don't want an education, they want help."

"Six Sigma has a negative connotation, especially among many sales managers."

I knew we would get some of these reactions, yet I was surprised by how strong some of them were. Six Sigma is controversial because companies that have made the cultural transitions have seen huge improvements. Six Sigma definitely has something to teach us. Yet learning it can be difficult, in part because some people in the Six Sigma industry (certainly not all) have a reputation for being preachy, doctrinaire, and even arrogant. Then there are those managers who use Six Sigma ideas incorrectly.

The concern is captured by David Skinner, President of Holiday Group in Seattle WA, and a long time reader:

"One of my problems with Six Sigma applied to service/knowledge workers, including sales people, is that as a practice it came out of manufacturing - where most of the process work is done mechanically. I feel it is important that the solutions we apply to our 'social processes' have a heart and not be mechanical or worse 'blame seeking' rather than process seeking. My philosophy is: Don't look for the culprit, look for the cause.

"I look to Deming in this matter where he says 80% or the problem can be found in the process, another 16% in management that have the power to avert such things and a very small responsibility lies with the 'knowledge worker'.  While this is a generality of course, it certainly has kept my company focused on 'process solutions' that make people work better and smarter and not blaming people for problems beyond their control.

"… My point is, I don't hear a lot about 'enlightening' management to their role in the process improvement and . . . thusly they use primitive, negative and authoritarian management styles that miss the point of Six Sigma. In the end it's Six Sigma for People."

I agree totally, David. In fact, you've pinpointed one of my primary objectives: I wanted to help senior executives see that the marriage of sales and marketing and Six Sigma (done correctly) provides a better way of leading and managing their organization.

There is a flip side to this coin. People in the Six Sigma industry also struggle to get companies to do things correctly. It has sophisticated and subtle power, and attempts to make it simple for people can backfire. For a fascinating perspective on this, check out "Dumbing Down Six Sigma" by Dr. Mark Kiemele of Air Academy Associates, a leading Six Sigma training and consulting firm.

In the end, Kaplan Publishing (formerly Dearborn Trade) asked me for a book on applying Six Sigma to sales and marketing. Although it is possible that the ideas in the book could have been expressed without bringing in Six Sigma, that would have been ignoring a powerful body of knowledge. Tom and I worked hard to minimize the jargon, and to demonstrate why it was necessary in the places where it could not be avoided.

Any approach with real potential is going to take some effort.  "Sales and Marketing the Six Sigma Way" shows how these two disciplines complement and strengthen each other. At the very least, companies will find ways to improve their sales and marketing game along the way.

Michael Webb
July 14, 2006

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