Is Six Sigma Dead?

Is Six Sigma Dead?

This was the title to an article published in the October 2011 edition of Quality Progress. Since then, there have been other articles asking, “Is Six Sigma Worth it?” “…Is it a Fad?” “…Is it Still Relevant?”

Over the past 10+ years, articles have been proclaiming the end is near for Six Sigma. But, before the eulogy starts, let’s explore exactly what Six Sigma is. When I ask business leaders what Six Sigma means to them, the following are some of the more typical responses I get.

  • project-based improvement methodology built upon the DMAIC phases (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control),
  • measure of quality based on the concept of Defects per Million Opportunities (DPMO)
  • decision making process based on using data to identify the key inputs (X’s) that influence a critical process output (Y) – thus Y=f(X),
  • collection of analytical and statistical tools aimed at helping teams visualize and reduce process variation, and
  • talent development strategy (frequently based on belt ranks) to spread and accelerate the adoption of DMAIC across a company.

The fact is that Six Sigma can be one or all of these within a company. It really depends on how the leaders in the company choose to embrace, develop, and deploy Six Sigma in their organization.

Keep in mind, the roots of Six Sigma can be traced back over 200 years. This is thanks to the works of many contributors.

  • Eli Whitney and Henry Ford (late 18th and 19th centuries, respectively) with the need to have consistency in producing interchangeable parts;
  • Shewhart and Fisher in the 1920’s, which led to statistical process control (SPC) and the Analysis of Variance (ANOVA), respectively;
  • Gossett and Pearson in the early 20th century leading to T-tests and Correlation/Regression, respectively;
  • Deming and Juran promoting the use of statistical quality control methods in Japan in the 1950’s, which sparked the Japanese quality revolution;
  • Motorola forming a set of quality practices in the 1980’s, which became the early concepts of what we know as Six Sigma today; and,
  • GE making Six Sigma a central part of their business strategy starting in 1995.

So with all this history and the wide range of how Six Sigma can be used within a company, can we really proclaim that the tools, methods, and techniques that make up modern day Six Sigma are no longer useful to a company and its people?

Let’s face it, a tool is only as good as the skill of the practitioner that uses it, and a methodology is only as good as it serves to enable a leadership team to achieve its goals. As business goals evolve so, too, must improvement methodologies.

The real question is not whether Six Sigma is dying, but how is it evolving and integrating with other proven and emerging improvement methods? To name a few:

  • Lean, which was merged into a single integrated improvement method called Lean Six Sigma (LSS) by the George Group in early 2000;
  • More recently, the Theory of Constraints (TOC) and Lean have merged with Six Sigma into what is called TLS;
  • Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM) takes elements of TQM, Lean, and Six Sigma to create a hybrid method focused on reducing lead times, especially in high variety-low volume environments; and,
  • Training Within Industry (TWI) combined with Toyota Kata establishes a cultural foundation of essential supervisor leadership skills within rapid, adaptive thinking patterns.

While the need for a phase gated project-based style of improvement method may be giving way to shorter and more frequent Kata-based improvement cycles, the fact remains that making better decisions faster using objective sources of data will never go out of style. The name may change, but the need for people to have skills to analyze data effectively and objectively will only become more important as the advent of Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to evolve.