The Truth About Six Sigma (Part I): Bake it into your Operation!


Where was I? Oh, now I remember! All the talk about Six Sigma… it’s the latest thing, it’s just a bunch of old techniques, it can perform miracles, it can do a lot of damage if you’re not careful.  There’s a lot of meaningless chatter on this subject, but fear not… I’m here to help you! When you sit back and put all the information together, the answer is pretty clear. Of course to fully understand the issue you need to also read tomorrow’s Blog, but when you but the two together I know that you’ll agree with the conclusion I’ve reached. And what is that conclusion? Simply put, you NEED to adopt Six Sigma in your operations! Let’s take a closer look, and you’ll see why!

Every system or philosophy in existence has problems. Your current operation has problems. The real question is, “Will some other system take me farther than what I’m using today?” In almost every case, Six Sigma will do this. Why? Well, it’s not really a single system. It is a collection of processes that has been refined and expanded over time, bases on what worked and what doesn’t work. In fact, then next Six Sigma specialist you work with was probably trained in Lean Six Sigma. By incorporating Lean methodology, it addresses more projects that are more focused on speeding up turnaround than reducing costs. As time goes by, and Six Sigma moves deeper into service delivery (instead of just industrial processes) it will probably incorporate additional tools and might even break into “Six Sigma for Services” or “Six Sigma for IT” or other more specialized versions.

Think of Six Sigma as a cookbook. It provides detailed instructions on how to prepare a large number of time tested recipes that guarantee satisfaction. Have you ever picked up a cookbook and scratched your head when you read an instruction like “pebble the butter”, or wondered what you’re supposed to do when a recipe requires ingredients that are not locally available?  Six Sigma explains every single step. For those foodies out there, you may have seen the show, “America’s Test Kitchen”. Go watch an episode on YouTube. They pick a recipe, identify potential problems with the recipe (or inconsistencies in the results), experiment by modifying different variables and then determine which set of variables produces the greatest positive change. Roasted potatoes not crispy enough? Which variety of potatoes are you using, how thickly are they sliced, what type of oil is used and at what temperature? Very, very Six Sigma-ish. Have you ever had an aunt or a grandmother that made some truly wonderful dish, but when you got the recipe it never came out quite the same way? Maybe it was her old stove or the antique pots  to maybe she left out just one critical step or ingredient. Whatever it was, you just couldn’t get it right. However, if you tried using methods of observation, experimentation and measurement you just might get a lot closer to the family recipe (or maybe even an improved version). Still not convinced that your kitchen could benefit from Six Sigma? Just try the American Test Kitchen version of Buttermilk Waffles and you’ll be a scientific improvement evangelist!

The real argument for Six Sigma is simply that it works. Just like any cookbook you may like some recipes more than others, or certain cuisines are more to your taste than others. You can find the dishes you like, with a little experience under your belt you can even improvise. The cookbook means that every time you’re faced with a new culinary challenge, you don’t have to figure out everything on your own and experiment on your dinner guests. Every cookbook you see today builds on previous cuisine (all of that French “baste it in the oven for three hours in a bucket of butter”), but may also incorporate more recent techniques (steaming vegetables in a microwave). Six Sigma is continually adding new information and techniques, but is based on time tested “recipes”.  In fact the very core of Six Sigma, is the bell curve. Do you remember that from math in college? It’s a graph with a big hum in the middle (that represents the majority of the cases you are examining) that tapers off to the left and right. This “bell” is a normal distribution. For example, a “C” grade would be in the middle of the curve, and “F” and “A” grades would be to the far left and right…. Most people get a C, some get D’s and B’s, and just a few get A’s and F’s. The farther you move to the right, and away from the middle, (i.e. the more Sigma’s) the better the quality of your grade. Well, the Bell Curve started getting used as a term in the late 1800’s, the methodology was used for astronomy in the early 1800’s and the underlying math was developed in the mid 1700’s. About the same pedigree as a classic French meringue for dessert. What have we learned?

  1. Working without a cookbook is difficult, leads to reinventing existing recipes and could give your clients indigestion if you’re not careful.
  2. Like any recipe book, Six Sigma is not perfect. We will all like some recipes more than others, and sometimes we will need to alter an old recipe to make it work for us..
  3. Six Sigma is a very large and flexible cookbook. It is continually incorporating new methods, and much of the core process is very old, going back to the earliest days of statistics.
  4. Looking at an existing process, and applying a step by step Six Sigma approach, can identify problematic or “missing” steps that can improve your processes (or waffles… as the case may be).

Six Sigma can benefit your organization, today! Making the decision to move full speed ahead should be as easy as pie, and that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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