Business Week Gets Six Sigma Wrong
This week I’m in Reno at the Institute of Management Consultant’s Conference, Confab. I really like sticking my nose in a wide variety of places to see what I can bring to our work. Doing that has led me to meet a variety of insightful people.
It has also led me to places where people were doing things that didn’t make much sense. This week’s article is about such a discovery: Business Week’s June 11 cover story on the role of Six Sigma in 3M’s difficulties is a case in point.
The Six Sigma industry has great tools to offer and a tough row to hoe. Unfortunately, they have made it tougher on themselves than they should have. The real value of this was the dozens of insightful comments from Business Week’s readers, most of who agree with me!
Michael J. Webb
October 30, 2007
Business Week Gets Six Sigma Wrong
Earlier this year, Business Week published two articles that claimed Six Sigma was “so yesterday” and that it was harmful to 3M’s ability to innovate.
Unfortunately, the article advanced a number of misperceptions. Not only did Business Week get it wrong, but judging by the comments people posted on BW’s website, Business Week’s own readers disagreed with them as well.
Of the comments that took a position on Six Sigma (some focused on other issues), the majority disagreed with Business Week about Six Sigma:
“Six Sigma, So Yesterday” 23 16
It is too bad that Business Week is confused about this subject. However, their readers had some great insights that are worth distilling and thinking about carefully. I have summarized some of the more telling points below, beginning with the comments that were critical of Six Sigma.
“I Did It and It Didn’t Work”
Several critical comments were from people who had participated in some flavor of Six Sigma training or project. (Some quotes have been edited for length.)
- “Once worked for a GE vendor. Believe me, GE was the worst customer to work for because of the insistence on mandatory Green Belt certification. So dudes conjured up savings and everything was forgotten after the certification. Six Sigma ended up being an overhead and actually sucked up valuable resources into unproductive activities.”
- “One problem with Six Sigma at Black and Decker was that there were too many presentations for all these Six Sigma Black belts and Master Black belts. We had to either: 1) Change the format of the presentation, because this was always changing. 2) Re-do the calculations for correct use of the ‘tools.’ 3) Go back again and do another gauge R&R, that wasn’t quite done right. Even though you saved some money, the presentations seemed a lot more important than doing your job.”
- “Implementation of Six Sigma in our company has been about as successful as the Soviet era five year plans. It is managed by bureaucrats who are completely inflexible and openly hostile to the challenge of a creative thought process. It becomes its own Raison d’etre with its victims siphoned off from useful employment in order to work on Six Sigma promotions and presentations with no thought given to some final finished product.”
- “We were working as IT consultants as GE and Six Sigma were literally forced down our throats. We got data from a screwed up project, suggested some imaginary changes and on paper improved productivity (slogged without accounting for the extra hours), reduced the bug count (did not file bugs and fixed it without filing). Six Sigma is crap.”
Given these stories, who could blame these people? Why these things happen should be the subject of a different article, but they are certainly not the hallmark of good Six Sigma implementations.
Six Sigma vs. Innovation
A number of comments dealt head-on with Business Week’s primary contention: that Six Sigma somehow prevented innovation at 3M and other companies where it has been applied.
- “Take care not to bash Six Sigma-the problem is not with the methodology itself but rather with how it is applied. … If managed effectively, Six Sigma can absolutely co-exist with innovation!”
- “… Be careful not to toss the baby with the bath water. After all, it’s no secret that the primary driver behind Japan’s emergence as the number 1 automaker has to do with elimination of variation and achieving highly repeatable processes. I guess Toyota and Lexus’ innovation IS in the area of passionate pursuit of perfection.”
- “[This] article … may mislead readers into thinking Six Sigma concepts suppress innovation when that is not the case. Innovation is suppressed when the culture becomes risk averse. When employees are recognized and rewarded based on how much money they save the company, they will naturally divert their attention from new product innovation to process innovation.”
- “I worked there for over 35 years. I have designed, developed and patented over 30 products for 3M. The change started long before Big MC. The change came when 3M started to value education more than results.”
- “When Motorola practiced Six Sigma under the leadership of Bob Galvin (Chairman) and George Fisher (CEO) in the late 80s, Six Sigma produced significant savings and produced innovative products. Let’s not kill a sound methodology due to lack of understanding of its basic tenets, which are dramatic improvement, innovation, and shared savings. Actually, Six Sigma accelerates improvement requiring
instead of curbing innovation.”
- “Having deployed Design for Six Sigma at 3M for two years, I find this article typical of corporate wind changing. [Someone] concluded that Post-it’s never would have been made, yet when I was there the analysis I saw said they could’ve come to market seven years sooner with [stage] gates and tools to identify winners. … it took nearly 10 years of skunk-works by Mr. Andy Wong and his teams to bring brightness enhancement films (which enabled LCD panel technology) to market. As an observer, I cannot comment on how many projects should have been killed because they had little value, and how many great projects were stifled for the ‘not invented here’ politics that 3M breeds. How many other inventions, perhaps even more innovative were not brought to market successfully because their inventors did not have the skills of Mr. Wong or Mr. Fry to outlast [pre-Six Sigma] management?”
Corporate Snake Oil
It is unfortunate that the Six Sigma industry is not so good at demonstrating its value to the layman. It is also unfortunate that tools of such power get misapplied-and then blamed-for bad results. Some of the criticisms of Six Sigma at the corporate level are worth hearing:
- “It’s nice when a mainstream publication points out what many business thinkers have known for years-6 Sigma, like its many management-style predecessors, is essentially corporate snake-oil. … We bought lots of product from 3M, but suddenly, the hoops the sales people had to jump through to do their job became embarrassing, and frankly hurt their sales and their industry reputation.”
- “As a former executive turned teacher of statistics, organizational behavior and strategy, I can count on getting a rise out of my adult MBA students when I mention Six Sigma. They have all been through the “Let’s do Six Sigma” routine-the blind application of it as if it were a panacea.”
Even this college professor said, “The issue here is not whether Six Sigma is worthwhile, it is whether or not it is applied correctly.” Unfortunately, there is much evidence throughout the readers’ comments that many Six Sigma initiatives are poorly implemented. And, there are even some clues regarding why:
- “Six Sigma isn’t a panacea, but it isn’t fluff either. I have used it/seen it solve chronic problems that organizations had struggled with for decades. We never strived for Six Sigma quality levels in our processes, but by improving some key processes by one sigma level, we have saved several million dollars (real, audited results) over the last three years. By the way, there are some important processes that meet or exceed Six Sigma process levels. People would stop flying if take-off and landing process in the U.S. didn’t exceed Six Sigma levels.”
- “I was once part of a Six Sigma culture at Honeywell, formerly AlliedSignal. Our Chairman at the time, Larry Bossidy, is another former GE Jack Welch Disciple. Difference between him and those other guys is he did get the results. Larry also was staunch about going full guns on Six Sigma. Quite frankly, it did make a difference in our culture, but we could have called it anything, and selectively used specific Six Sigma Tools for specific situations and business problems that warranted them.
Often facts are a scarce commodity in an organization. Six Sigma is a set of powerful tools for identifying them. This can help distinguish innovations that work from those that don’t, which is a key ability for successful companies.
The Six Sigma community may need to improve its abilities in some areas. For example:
- Strengthen its public relations with more and simpler stories illustrating the value of its principles.
- Stop pushing methodologies “down people’s throats.” This automatically generates resistance. It is much better to help people solve problems than force them to regurgitate a methodology.
- Get away from “Six Sigma Aristocracy” where Six Sigma departments enforce their own rules that have little to do with making the business better. The point is to infuse the culture with more rational and productive practices, not perpetuate the department.
I’ve heard some interesting stories at Six Sigma conferences where companies have had to re-launch their Six Sigma initiatives (often under different names) because the old-fashioned method of sheep-dipping people in advanced statistics classes didn’t work so well. When people were given simple tools to solve real business problems instead, they achieved much better results. In fact, employees in large numbers came back requesting more advanced training.
One final comment from the Business Week site is worth closing on:
- “Having deployed Six Sigma in various forms for eight years I can only say that when it works, it works because of executive leadership. When it fails, it fails for lack of leadership and commitment to face the root problems of a business.”
- “Six Sigma is just a collection of tools in a TQM environment. To blame a method that employs ‘tried and true tools’ for failure is an attempt to divert people’s attention from the real culprit.”
Michael J. Webb
October 30, 2007