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The Social Success of Six Sigma

~ David Straker ~


-- Introduction -- Creating commitment -- A truer understanding -- References --



Six Sigma has a curious reputation. In some places it appears almost as 'religion', whilst others discount it as 'nothing new'. Yet it is difficult to deny the success that this approach seems to have had. Clearly, then, something different is happening. If the methods are not new, then it follows that something else is happening to make it successful.

The difference that makes Six Sigma a success is that it manages the danger zone and thus avoids the fad cycle (See Figure 1 and Breaking the Fad-Failure Cycle). This occurs both in the high level of commitment it consistently demands, and in the depth of understanding that it uses to ensure real improvements are made.

Paradoxically, much of the success of Six Sigma is due to the fact that it actively manages these 'soft' social factors, despite having a brand image of being a 'hard' scientifically-based methodology.


Figure 1. The Fad-Failure Cycle


Creating commitment

Business improvement systems are more than the bag of tools or improvement framework that other approaches have used. Six Sigma succeeds first and foremost because it addresses the question of managing the whole approach to improvement. It does this through a number of ways: some obvious and some more subtle.


Six Sigma is more than an improvement toolkit – it also engages managers in activities such as championing projects and programmes. When people are involved, they become more committed.


The cost of implementing Six Sigma is very high. For example training costs of a single Black Belt can be up to 15,000 – which is on top of which is their salary and other expenses. This payment alone is enough to draw the attention of senior company managers, who are likely to want something back for their money. Six Sigma also requires senior managers to personally invest time and attention, which only adds to their commitment to its success.


The standard approach to Six Sigma is to ‘give it teeth’, for example in the way GE requires its businesses to constantly make and report significant improvements. When managers are measured on the changes they make, then in the words of the old saw ‘what gets measured gets done’.  Black Belts are also often given positions of authority, adding to their expert power in being able to convince people to engage in improvement activities.


Perhaps it is accidental, but the psychological effects of using detailed statistics and the Eastern symbolism of martial arts leads to a mystique that often surrounds Six Sigma. Where people see something as complex, uncertain or mysterious, they are unable to categorise it in a limiting way. This mystique thus leads to self-fulfilling beliefs, where assuming the possibility of significant improvement gives space and energy for them to occur.

A truer understanding

It can be argued that deepest underlying reason for the failure of business improvement fail is a simple lack of understanding. This can occur in the identification and analysis of the problem, the identification of a solution. It can also occur in the management of improvement, from the overall programme to the implementation of change.


The classic implementation of Six Sigma includes significant education in which the traditional hurried one- to three-day overview is replaced with in-depth training that leads to real expertise. A well-educated Black Belt can approach a problem with a wealth of expertise rather than the cookie-cutter checklist of people whose training is measured on cost rather than real skill increase.


Statistics have been described as ‘the mathematics of reality’ as with proper use they can highlight real significance. This is in contrast to the many traps into which ‘intuitive’ approaches can demonstrably fall. There are many books and articles on ‘why decisions fail’, many of which are based in sound psychological studies.

Statistics also has a social dynamic in that it adds to the mystique of Six Sigma and adds credibility to Six Sigma Professionals, despite the fact that many improvements either do not need statistics or do not operate with sufficient frequency to enable significant statistical analysis.


Many previous approaches to improvement have assumed this work being done as a part-time activity by people who have other jobs. Whilst it is important to engage people who are involved in the processes to be improved, Six Sigma recognises that improvement is both important enough and difficult enough that full-time improvement professionals are a critical part of the landscape.



Success of Six Sigma

Yasar Jarrar and Andy Neely, Six Sigma, For and Against, UK Excellence, April/May 2003 highlights some of the real reasons for Six Sigma success, including education, culture and leadership. indicates some of the reported savings from the use of Six Sigma at major companies. reports on success in IT and advises taking a realistic and customising approach.

Failure of Six Sigma implementation – a discussion thread on iSixSigma around instances where the approach has failed. - gives examples where Six Sigma did not work and points out some of its limitations. includes pro- and anti- responses to an article on Six Sigma.

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