The first time I came across a mature adult calling himself a six sigma black belt I was left feeling slightly bemused, and compelled to ask: ‘Does that mean you’re the sixth mutant ninja turtle?’
You might imagine that the black belter was not at all amused. And yet he found it difficult to articulate what he meant by the terminology.
So here’s a little overview of the concepts that underlie the somewhat juvenile nomenclature.
In the 1980s, during the height of the Western world’s attempts to emulate Japan’s quality management successes, Motorola engineer Bill Smith devised a set of statistical measures by which he could quantify to within six standard deviations of the mean the occurrence of a defect in a manufacturing process.
In practical terms this meant he was looking to measure manufacturing outcomes that could guarantee no more than 3.4 defects per million units.
To achieve such rates of defect free production, the Deming continuous improvement cycle was pressed into service once again, albeit with some Six Sigma-specific biases. So, for example, DMAIC (define, measure, analyse, improve, and control to improve existing processes) emphasises statistical calculations by which to measure current outcomes, while DMADV (define, measure, analyse, design, and verify to bring new process on-stream), sometimes also known as DFSS (Design for Six Sigma), revolves around the development of meaningful metrics themselves.
Motorola trademarked the term ‘Six Sigma’, and claimed billions of dollars in savings as a result of pursuing the associated quality management programme, but it probably owes much of its popularity to Jack Welch, an idol of the post-Reagan Republicans, who adopted Six Sigma methods as General Electric CEO during a period in which the value of the company became vastly inflated.
Over time Six Sigma also became known as Lean Six Sigma, perhaps to avoid infringing Motorola’s trademark, or to create a super-strain of quality management techniques appropriated from Japanese manufacturers.
However, lean management is more about eliminating waste in a process, while the core concern of Six Sigma is standardising a low-failure process. The most common sources of gaining efficiency using a lean methodology are in:
- transport costs;
- idle inventory;
- inefficient process, manufacturing, or transport motion;
- bottlenecks causing process or people waiting times;
- process duplication;
- overproduction; and
- product defects.
So how do mutant ninja turtles fit into that picture?
It seems that engineering-oriented nerds at Motorola either mocked or paid homage to the Japanese masters of quality management when the corporation bestowed the first ‘Six Sigma Black Belt’ title to one of their own.
But today there’s no shortage of certification bodies willing to take your money to make you a Green Belt, Black Belt, and Master Black Belt if you can meet their varying criteria of Six Sigma knowledge and experience (see, for example, http://www.six-sigma.com.au/).
When all is said and done, then, Six Sigma is an engineering-influenced methodology designed for streamlining manufacturing production processes.
Today these methods are being applied without too much ingenuity by a whole bunch of nerdy types to processes that have nothing to do with manufacturing, probably unleashing as much black belt martial arts destruction on business processes and organisations as actually improving the processes to which they are applied. You only have to look to many public sector process improvement projects, and the standard ‘customer service’ processes being applied by IT and telco firms to see the evidence.
I suspect that, as with all recently re-invented and re-branded business methodology designed for people who cannot think outside the confines of a fixed formula, the proof of the pudding when applying such methods is getting the right team to do the work. The right team being people with enough experience and critical thinking skills to be able to adapt method to organisational contexts rather than trying to change organisations to suit what is just one more model for doing things.
Some of the information here comes from my MInfTech business process management studies, but I also enjoyed a couple of other sources:
- Alan Chapman, ‘Six Sigma’, Businessballs, 2005-2011.
- Tony Earley, ‘The Seven Wastes | 7 Mudas’, Lean Manufacturing Tools, 2015.