Building Frameworks for Six Sigma Success

Trendy quality initiatives usually fade before they can turn a profit. Six Sigma is different, say three companies that have trained employees to use this system of process improvement.

May 2, 2003
Trendy quality initiatives that promise revolutionary results from using morerigorous standards often fade before they can turn a profit because they requiretoo much time, money, or effort to maintain. These days, Six Sigma is thequality-management philosophy du jour. Like its most memorable predecessor,Total Quality Management, Six Sigma focuses on identifying, quantifying, anddriving out errors in business processes. It’s the way it goes about achievingresults that is very different, says Richard Schleusener, master consultant forSix Sigma Academy, a Six Sigma consulting firm in Scottsdale, Arizona. Theprocess doesn’t just add a layer of scrutiny to the production or transactioncycle, but changes the way business is conducted, he says. Projects are chosenand measured by using statistical tools rather than gut instinct.

Six Sigma projects identify a repetitive process that can be improved uponand then establish metrics against which change can be measured. It’s themeasurement, Schleusener says, and the direct connection between projects andfinancial results that make Six Sigma so appealing and successful. "When youunderstand how to identify and measure Six Sigma projects, you can resolve realbusiness problems and see the impact of your efforts."

From the beginning, Six Sigma differs from other quality programs because itcreates specialized positions in the company instead of putting additional taskson already overburdened executives. Those chosen to be "black belts," or SixSigma specialists, are removed from their jobs and assigned solely to the roleof Six Sigma project leader. Through an intensive, typically four-week trainingprogram, these experts learn the statistical, fact-based approach to identifyingSix Sigma projects, eliminating the waste, and, most important, measuring theirimpact.

But a Six Sigma initiative is about more than training a small group ofexperts and expecting them to make changes on their own, says Luca Bencini,assistant vice president at AON Management Consulting/Rath & Strong, a humanresources consulting firm in Lexington, Massachusetts. "To be successful withSix Sigma, everyone in the company needs to be involved at some level." SixSigma is a culture-change effort that requires business leaders to alter the waythey operate, he says. "They need to stop relying on experience and tenure toguide them instead of requiring hard data to support their decision-makingprocesses."

Employees at all levels have to embrace the philosophy and acknowledge thatit is how the company does business, Bencini says. To spread the culture change,executive-level leaders must champion the cause and through their own traininglearn how to communicate about Six Sigma and answer questions raised by the restof the organization. Then the rest of the population should go through basictraining and have access to information about the Six Sigma process and why it’simportant.

The human resources team should be on board from thebeginning to build an infrastructure that will support a Six Sigma rollout.

Most critically, the human resources team should be on board from thebeginning to build an infrastructure that will support a Six Sigma rollout, saysDavid Silverstein, CEO and president of Breakthrough Management Group, a SixSigma consulting firm based in Longmont, Colorado. "The human resourcesdepartment shouldn’t run the Six Sigma program, because they don’t have theclout to make it work, but they have to have strong influence in shaping it,"he says. "They supply the infrastructure that causes the Six Sigma culturechange."

There are hundreds of human resources issues that should be addressed when you begin Six Sigma, Silverstein adds.For example, you need to write job descriptions for black belts, define theircompensation packages, and create selection criteria and career-planning tracks.You also should create and implement a communication strategy that will keep theentire company informed about Six Sigma achievements. The training departmenthas to plan its delivery of Six Sigma training. While most companies outsourceblack-belt development in the beginning, within two years they typically bringit in-house, which means the training department has to be ready to develop andsupport instructors in a short amount of time.

To date there is no book or class that is specifically designed to preparehuman resources teams for their role in Six Sigma, but it’s important thatthey get some support and guidance, Silverstein adds. They need coaching fromthe vendor on what questions to ask and how to answer them, and would benefitfrom mentoring by an industry peer or someone else with Six Sigma experience."The human resources team controls the history and the culture of the company,"he says. "They are a vital part of the system that supports Six Sigma."

Workforce, May 2003, pp. 64-66 -- Subscribe Now!