I happened across an article, just a couple of weeks ago, about the alleged demise of Six Sigma. (Read the article here.) Now, I’ve never been either a huge fan or a detractor of Six Sigma. I myself am not a Six Sigma any-kind-of-belt but I took a fair amount of statistics in college and grad school, some of it pretty advanced. All to say, I’m aware of both the utility and the limits of statistical tools of the sort Six Sigma practitioners use. I’m also aware that Six Sigma isn’t just a bundle of statistical tools, rather it’s an overall approach to analyzing and addressing variation of both processes themselves and the outputs they deliver. Finally, I’m aware that, the only thing the media like better than boosting a particular management “fad” (and I use that term cautiously, mainly because I don’t like it. It’s most often used by lazy journalists writing the sorts of articles I’m about to refer to)…is tearing management “fads” apart. The article in question isn’t quite the latter but it is a good example of an article that gets a lot of stuff wrong as it makes the case that Six Sigma is, perhaps, passe`. Mind you, it’s not a bad article…in fact, it’s well worth reading. But…well, let’s take a look at the article in a bit of detail and I’ll go over some of my quibbles.
Awhile back (too much of awhile back), I posted about an article I’d read on the Industry Week website about six sigma and team problem solving. (Here it is, if you want to take another look at it.) In that first post, I ranted a bit about the worst condition highlighted by the IW article: incompetent managers. I promised I’d make some comments about the inept approach to problem solving described in the article in a followup post. Well, three months later, here’s that followup post.
Let me start by saying that I don’t want any of my remarks here to be seen as anything like a defense for the utterly, abjectly vacuous leadership described in the IW article. When nincompoops take up space in the C-suite, no tactic, no tool, no approach, however well conceived and implemented will save the organization. It’s doomed to a long, slow, tortuous demise. (Trust me…I’ve worked for such organizations.)
But the truth is…our antagonist didn’t seem to have learned much at his six sigma training. Let’s look at the evidence for our indictment. The article says that our six sigma guy and the team used the DMAIC approach to team problem solving but we aren’t provided with much that indicates that he or the team actually followed the DMAIC path. In fact, the path they actually did follow looks more like:
- Make a chart based on only one of the many possible relevant metrics
- Jump to conclusions
- Present a limited solution that fits the conclusion jumped to.
Now, the article does say that the team spent several weeks in meetings and analysis but doesn’t give us much as to how that time was spent. It’s not hard to imagine the team spending its time and energy discussing how it was going to go about getting their penny-pinching bosses to spring for the new computer system.
The question posed by the IW article is: Would Dr. Deming have been a proponent of Six Sigma. But the example described in the article doesn’t really help address the question because it doesn’t really portray six sigma methods, and certainly not DMAIC.
Within the next few weeks, the blog at Employer Resource Council in Cleveland will start posting my series on DMAIC, so I won’t go into any detail here as to how that approach should actually be undertaken. (I’ll post a link when it shows up.)
Team problem solving can be hard work. It can be fun, too and is nearly always effective given adherence to the process and senior leadership that isn’t bereft of even a scintilla of intelligence. There’s nothing like implementing a solution developed by a team and seeing that solution work to motivate associates at all levels in the organization. Everyone in the organization needs to keep in mind, though, that it’s not “six sigma”, or “DMAIC”, or any other set of tools that contains the magic. It’s smart, committed leadership getting smart, motivated employees involved in making continual improvements to all aspects of the business. I’m pretty sure Dr. Deming would have been on board with that.