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Beyond Six Sigma

~ David Straker ~


-- Focusing statistics for value -- Deepening strengths --
-- Adding critical skills -- Horses for courses -- References --


Some companies have looked at Six Sigma and declared it too different, too difficult or too expensive. Others who have been successful with the approach or who are currently in the throes of implementing it now have recognised its weaknesses and are addressing these. Thus, for example Honeywell uses what it calls ‘Six Sigma Plus’ whilst GSK and others uses ‘Lean Sigma’, a blend of Six Sigma with ‘lean’ approaches.

In improvement approaches, we can change a system in three ways. We can do less of something, we can do more, or we can adjust what we already do. The sections below consider potential in these area by suggesting:

In the end, however, the bottom line for all companies is to find what works them through an active approach of exploration and experimentation.

Focus statistics for value

The statistical strengths of Six Sigma are unquestionable, but what can be questioned is whether this is all that is needed or how universally applicable it is.

Not all problems are statistical

Although statistics can be very powerful when properly understood and applied, not all improvement problems are statistical in nature. In particular, when starting improvement activities, solutions are often simple and obvious, such as where people and processes are disconnected and the answer is simply to re-create the ‘joined-up company’.

Not all companies have many statistical systems

The historical roots of Six Sigma are in Motorola’s manufacturing divisions, where most of the problems were in repeating processes, where sufficient data was readily available for statistical approaches to be of significant value. Companies and departments which are more service- or project-oriented may have many fewer problems that require statistical skills.

Not all statistical problems required in-depth techniques

Six Sigma teaches statistics at a very detailed level, for example in the many ways of measuring process capability. When these techniques are used they are very useful, but many projects succumb to simple methods, such as those taught in ‘traditional’ SPC.

Although statistically-trained professionals can make significant improvements, the real benefits can be as much psychological as statistical. If these benefits can be retained whilst focusing skills into areas which are more appropriate to individual companies and departments, then there must be potential for even greater success.

Deepen areas of strength

Six Sigma has strengths in a number of areas, yet a good Black Belt would quickly acknowledge that there is always room for improvement in these.

Additional project management

Although Six Sigma does include a notable focus on projects, there is also scope for further improvement in this, especially if large-scale improvement projects and programmes are to be undertaken. Project management is a well-proven discipline to managing risks and delivering on-time, on-budget projects.

Deepen process understanding

‘Process’ is a subject that seems easy on the surface, but has many layers of complexity. For example, the Six Sigma focus on working from a deep understanding may be applied to human processes, such as where the process outputs are more about understanding and commitment. There are also process methods beyond those normally used, such as State-Transition diagrams and QFD methods.

Extend strategic focus

Six Sigma already has a strong customer-oriented focus. Particularly when Black Belts get involved in strategic business projects or even on the strategic process itself, then a strong understanding of strategy and its applications can be both very useful and highly credible. There is a huge strategic literature from which learning in this area can be acquired. Good strategy is a foundation for business success and a mature improvement focus will include strategic decision processes.

Add critical skills

A glimpse of traditional Black Belt training immediately shows an overwhelming focus on statistics. This gives excellent and detailed skills in this area. However, there is always an opportunity cost and in this case it is in understanding of other areas that may be of greater value.

Create deep people skills

The most difficult parts of almost all improvement and change projects are to do with people, where issues range from sponsor commitment, to resistance to change, to learning new skills. The skills in communication and persuasion of those who are leading and facilitating change can make or break a project or an entire programme. There is a huge range of potential approaches in this area, ranging from basic psychology to methods in group dynamics.

Systemic understanding

A close focus on processes can lead to the bigger picture being missed, which is where more difficult business problems can lie. A systems understanding can also help avoid process improvements leading to problems elsewhere. Useful disciplines in this area include Systems Dynamics and Supply Chain Management

Extend Creative skills

Although Six Sigma does include basic creative techniques such as Brainstorming, there is also a much wider field of creative and inventive methods. Approaches such as Synectics, CPS and TRIZ can lead to a wide array of choices for solutions to improvement problems.

The bottom line: horses for courses

A problem that any standardised business improvement system faces is that one size does not fit all. Six Sigma does a very good job of providing a number of the tools and techniques to succeed, and can be supplemented with a range of other approaches.

In the end, however, the best approach is one which aligns the approach used to the environment in which it will be used. Whilst off-the-peg approaches can give a quick start, those who win the business race are often those who spend time in ensuring their methods of improvement will continually and optimally work for them.

Building a made-to-measure improvement system is not easy. Starting with a careful assessment, a deep and systemic understanding is used to develop an aligned and aligning approach that integrates fully with the business. It requires significant investment and deep expertise, but it can be done. And the result can be the world-class company that is every CEO’s dream.



Failure of Six Sigma implementation – a couple of discussion threada on iSixSigma around instances where the approach has failed. - gives examples where Six Sigma did not work and points out some of its limitations. - In an article entitled ‘Who Needs Six Sigma Anyway?’ D. H. Stamatis points out how “Six Sigma presents absolutely nothing new to the quality field of defect prevention”. - ‘deconstructs’ Six Sigma, showing how its reported successes are not reflected in high-visibility adopter’s business results. What it does not explain is how and why Six Sigma succeeds where other programmes have failed.

Companies extending content of Six Sigma - briefly describes Honeywell’s extended approach to Six Sigma. - article on ‘Lean Sigma’ explaining how Six Sigma lacks tools to address ‘lean’ situations. reports on success in IT and advises taking a realistic and customising approach.

Project management - describes a Microsoft product aimed at supporting project management.

George Eckes and Sandra Derickson, Six Sigma Team Dynamics: The Elusive Key to Project Success, Wiley, 2002 – highlights the fact that “team dynamics is one of the biggest factors in success or failure of Six Sigma projects”.

People - highlights the need for balance between human and statistical/technical concerns.

Strategy - James Harrington explains how Six Sigma did not help Motorola when they made strategic errors.

Systems - Michael (Reengineering) Hammer points out that Six Sigma’ s project focus best works as a part of a larger process-driven programme.


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