According to one noted blogger, three sigmas ought to be enough. More importantly, though, is the question of whether we should use any sigmas whatsoever.
Over at Lexican, Steven Levy offered some refreshing words. First:
I get heartburn when people assume or suggest that process improvement and Six Sigma are synonymous.
It should be obvious that Six Sigma is just one tool that can be used to attempt to make businesses more efficient, but the marketing budget and the groundswell for the “cottage industry” is tough to ignore. More insight from Levy:
Three Sigma represents about 7 defects per 100 “things” — widgets manufactured, processes run, documents reviewed. As a manufacturing standard, it’s pretty minimal, but it’s a reasonable human standard.
As a manager, say, did I get 93% of my interactions with my team “right”? I don’t know, but I think that would be pretty reasonable, especially if I were quick to fix the other 7% if pointed out to me. (I had only two managers in all my years in business who came in around this level; I worked for each of them for a long time because they were skilled managers.)
The things that are hardest to measure are also those that matter most. The Six Sigma methodology is designed for things that are easy to measure, that are “cookie cutter” (or stamped out with a mechanical jig). Misapply it, and you can do as much harm as good. You can’t write off the nuances, the gray areas, the conditions encountered for the first time.
The best hitter in baseball hits at a One Sigma level. The best putter in golf putts at a Two Sigma level. Three Sigma’s not as easy as it sounds.
Failure is crucial to human learning. A methodology where we are aiming for near-zero defects is probably going to be demoralizing at best. However, the essential component of improvement is the analysis of the improvement. This is where Levy misses the mark:
Ultimately, my methodology is pragmatism and practicality. Use what works. Borrow liberally. Focus on the destination more than the path.
A Wall Street Journal article tackled a similar topic, bringing up why so many Six Sigma projects fail.
They typically start off well, generating excitement and great progress, but all too often fail to have a lasting impact as participants gradually lose motivation and fall back into old habits.
Many teams reported their achievements incorrectly, giving a false sense of success. Because the director continued to communicate only about projects that were showing excellent results, it took several months for the division vice president to become aware of the widespread failures and reluctantly inform the company’s top executives.
Executives need to directly participate in improvement projects, not just “support” them. Because it was in his best interests, the director in charge of the improvement projects at the aerospace company created the illusion that everything was great by communicating only about projects that were yielding excellent results. By observing the successes and failures of improvement programs firsthand, rather than relying on someone else’s interpretation, executives can make more accurate assessments as to which ones are worth continuing.
We should be realistic, emulate successful patterns, and borrow from experts. However, there is tremendous danger in focusing on outcomes. Although it may sound counterintuitive, we need to put business process transformation ahead of results. Individuals are most empowered to make smart choices when they focus on their own work, not someone else’s goals. Process-oriented thinking helps ensures that failure leads to learning rather than losing.
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