Have you heard the rumor? Six Sigma is apparently dead: consigned to the annals of history as a tired and irrelevant quality methodology.
First developed in 1986 by American Engineer Bill Smith while working at Motorola, Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for process and operational improvement. It was brought to the fore by Jack Welch and Dr. Mikel J. Harry made it a core tenet of their operational system at General Electric in 1995.
Despite how long Six Sigma has been around, don’t believe everything you hear. Six Sigma – and its sister discipline Lean Six Sigma – are very much alive and contributing to business transformation projects around the world.
Today, Six Sigma practices are adopted by thousands of organizations as diverse as the British Sugar, U.S. Army, PepsiCo, The Heritage Group, Johnson Controls, and more.
What is Six Sigma?
Six Sigma is a methodology that improves the quality of processes through a series of techniques and continuous improvement software.
The ISO standard for Six Sigma describes it as a methodology for business improvement comprising of five phases: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC).
The standard says:
“The purpose of Six Sigma is to bring about improved business and quality performance and to deliver improved profit by addressing serious business issues… The driving force behind the approach is for organizations to be competitive and to eliminate errors and waste.”
That purpose is still as relevant today as it was when Six Sigma first hit the headlines in the management press.
The Six Sigma ‘fad’
As far back as 2003, talk of the end of Six Sigma started to emerge. Quality Magazine published an article titled, “Six Sigma? No Thanks” that claimed Six Sigma was part of a list of ever-failing quality trends. He insisted that, “Despite good intentions, Six Sigma can be a harmful fad. Quality trends “du jour” are part of American business culture. Quality circles, total quality management (TQM), ISO, QS, Baldrige and now Six Sigma, have all had their day as the quality solution. Employees are tired of this year’s solution.”
Process improvement is changing
The truth is process improvement approaches are changing. That’s hardly surprising given that they are built on the very foundation of continuous iteration. It seems reasonable that processes and tools designed to help you build organizational efficiency through analysis and improvement should themselves evolve over time. The past few years have demonstrated Six Sigma evolution in the following ways:
- The language is changing: Organizational efficiency and process improvement is labelled Operational Excellence, Business Transformation, Digital Transformation or a variation of these themes.
- The team is changing: Process and methodology may be seen as the responsibility of the Project Management Office (PMO), but continuous improvement is everyone’s job.
- The tools are changing: Digital tools help teams identify, and track initiatives through project portfolio management software. Bain & Company report that using PPM software will enhance Lean Six Sigma projects by providing a single source of truth to track and find value, and they can generate upwards of 30%, or more, in cost savings, while decreasing time-to-value
- Leadership remains essential: Six Sigma – and continuous improvement more generally – is a way of thinking as well as a way of working. The success (or lack thereof) of Six Sigma often depends upon having strong leadership to drive it.
Six Sigma remains strong
As a community, Six Sigma leaders and practitioners continue to engage in process methodology and best practices discussions about Six Sigma on a daily basis.
The community continues to search for strategies and best practices to help them identify areas for process improvement and transformation, and tools that will help demonstrate value streams they bring to the business. With a heightened emphasis on business transformation, Six Sigma is a robust, demonstrated topic that remains relevant for organizations today.
The ongoing need for continuous improvement
Organizations must continuously evolve, and to do so, they must identify, improve and measure. Continuous improvement leaders head up this work, cutting waste, sharing and replicating success and demonstrating the value of these changes.
Don’t let clickbait headlines and water cooler talk fool you. While Six Sigma may be changing and transforming, it’s not dead. In fact, technology can help drive your initiatives towards success.
Tech tip: Upland PowerSteering can help prioritize programs that demonstrate productivity and cost savings for your entire project portfolio. From ideation and prioritization to delivery and cost management, it centralizes all your initiatives in a single system.
PPM-native reports and analytics with drill down capability help Black Belts and process managers demonstrate the impact they are making by showing how improvements are aligned to strategic objectives.
Real example of Six Sigma success
“We’ve never done this before. And you might think we’re crazy. But we’re having fun out here.”
This was the mindset Paul Simons had while leading The Heritage Group’s continuous improvement and change management initiatives a few years ago.
Watch this recorded presentation to hear Paul talk about:
- the seven core principles that led the way for continuous improvement and change management (17 minutes)
- what senior leadership and program champions need to know to separate “important” work from “urgent” work (22 minutes)
- how project leaders can work with their finance team to move away from tracking PowerPoint dollars to real dollars in one central system (33 minutes)
He also offers some great insight into the training, project leadership, and employee recognition that kept The Heritage Group’s continuous improvement journey going at full speed.