My Thoughts after 6 Sigma Conference

Originally posted to the Deming Electronic Network, 22 May 1999. See management improvement blog for similar items.

I (John Hunter) just returned from the 6 sigma conference (the ASA Quality and Productivity Research Conference) which I recommended earlier. It helped me and I think it was valuable.

I think our Deming community can learn from the success of 6 sigma, which will help us increase the adoption of Deming's ideas. I think what we can learn amount to small adjustments in emphasis and possibly alternative implementation methods: nothing very earth shattering.

Some of my thoughts on 6 sigma based on my experience at the conference follow (for your information - Black Belts [which get 4 weeks of classroom training] are basically enhanced team leaders, quality advisors and in some ways champions - though the six sigma system also has a separate champion roll).

Most important:
  1. 6 sigma is similar to TQM in that it is not really defined
  2. The 4.5 sigma limit plus 1.5 sigma shift basis of the name 6 sigma is basically irrelevant (if GE, for example, was convinced that the 4.5 plus 1.5 was wrong the only thing that would change is the name). It 6 sigma a poor name? In my opinion, yes. Do you wish "Profound Knowledge" had a different name?
  3. 6 sigma is another flavor of Quality Management (in my opinion - 6 sigma people don't agree [do Deming types see Deming as a flavor of QM? - while I think the Deming method is the best way I know of, I can understand, people viewing it as a flavor of QM]).
  4. Companies that do 6 sigma well are doing a good thing. Not as good as if they would do what Deming says but if the choice is between United, for example, using their current management practices or adopting 6 sigma (based on GE or Allied Signal) I hope they adopt 6 sigma. I think a company that adopts 6 sigma (in a proper manner) is moving in the right direction (not something I see when ISO 9000, for example, is used).
  5. Short term dollar savings are very important (to such an extent that it is a weakness in my opinion - however it also makes it easier for typical management to buy in)
  6. Black Belts are chosen from the fast track management types. This provides some real advantages to 6 sigma efforts and I think it is wise (though I would chose others in addition to the fast track types).
  7. Black Belts work full time on 6 sigma projects (not always so at Allied Signal). Most likely this means 2 to 4 projects at a time. They work full time on 6 sigma projects for 2-3 years before returning to where they came from. I think this is a strength of 6 sigma.
  1. Statistics plays a much larger role than in any other TQM model I am aware of. DoE (design of experiments) and other advanced and very useful statistics tools are much more in the forefront than they are in TQM normally and in the Deming community (based on DEN messages, Deming master books, Deming related conferences)
  2. To achieve Black Belt status a person must lead a project successfully (big dollar savings).
  3. Focused more on middle management and upper management than front line workers. Heavy lifting is done by BB who mainly are middle management types.
  4. GE and Allied Signal were the leading companies presenting at the conference and their models were quite different but both seem as good implementations of 6 sigma. If you want to critique 6 sigma based on it's best implementations I suggest using them (or other companies that have strong programs) and not the many lame attempts that will not measure up assuming 6 sigma is adopted in the same way all other management systems are.
  5. While 6 sigma does try and focus on the customer I think the customer is put after short term dollar costs (6 sigma people would not agree, I don't think). I do think 6 sigma does a better job of customer focus than is exhibited by most all companies.
  6. Mainly project driven
  7. Projects are chosen and designed to be 3-6 months (up to 12 at Allied Signal I think). If it is a bigger project they try to divide it into several projects.
  8. I did not notice much (if any) concern for the importance of Joy in Work...
  9. Allied Signal started with the title Operational Excellence (it would be much better if the current 6 sigma effort adopted this title rather than the other way around).
  10. GE and Allied Signal have real commitment from the absolute top (similar to Ford [maybe], Marshall Industries, and Gallery Furniture for us Deming types).
  11. Most 6 sigma efforts will be as bad as most QM efforts were
  12. 6 sigma uses a MAIC (measure, analyze, improve, control) improvement model - normally it is preceded by the define step.
  13. 6 sigma does not have enough focus on front line workers and them using improvement tools to improve organizational performance
  14. This conference typically draws close to 100 people. This year it drew over 300. This may not be relevant but maybe it does indicate something important.

I think the Deming community could benefit most from quantifying dollar benefits more, some of the statistically tools, the idea of full time Quality Advisors (Black Belts or whatever you want to call them that work full time on improvement efforts) and more emphasis on getting short term results. Yes I do realize many important benefits are unknown and unknowable. And I do realize the danger involved in short term focus (I think the Breakthrough System presented by Lloyd Provost at the last Deming Institute conference is a great example of getting fast results in a manner consistent with the Deming philosophy).

John Hunter
Curious Cat Deming Connections
Six Sigma related blog posts