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Six Sigma Is a Way of Life

The company has trained 80 active black belts.

September 18, 2003
Related Topics: Training & Development
Employees: 22,000

McKesson executives see Six Sigma as a fundamental change in the way they dobusiness. "It’s not an additional step or certification system," says JeffReinke, McKesson’s vice president of Six Sigma. "It’s how we operate."

    Before 1999, McKesson Corporation had never thought to implement a qualityinitiative. "Until the late ’90s, quality was an issue for manufacturingcompanies, not transactional ones," Reinke says. But as health-care costsskyrocketed, McKesson executives realized that the only way they could staycompetitive was to drive costs out of the supply chain.

    At the time, companies using Six Sigma were getting a lot of press abouttheir results, so McKesson’s leadership team met with Six Sigma Academy to seeif the process could transfer to the health-care-supply arena.

    In 1999 they launched Six Sigma, using what Reinke calls "a traditionalapproach." They identified exceptional employees for a four-week black-belttraining course, pulling them out of the business for two years to work solelyon Six Sigma projects. Beginning with the health-supplies and pharmaceuticaldivision, they trained 15 to 20 black belts and then reassigned them to theiroriginal business units as their teams’ Six Sigma representatives.

    Each wave of training since then has targeted a different business group, andslowly the Six Sigma philosophy has infiltrated McKesson’s business philosophy,Reinke says. The company has since trained more than 120 black belts, 80 of whomare still active.

    When the two-year commitment ends, black belts return to the business athigher positions, helping to spread the approach throughout the organization andensuring that key leaders are committed to the philosophy. "The black-beltassignment is like a succession-planning effort at McKesson," Reinke says. Thestrongest performers are chosen for the training, and they are promotedaccordingly when it’s over. "Associates know that if they want to grow inthe company, they need to be selected for black-belt training."

    But Six Sigma training doesn’t end with black belts. In most divisions ofthe company it is mandated that all senior vice presidents go through "basictraining," which introduces the Six Sigma concept and details how to identifyand scope a Six Sigma project. Across the company every manager and director isexpected to attend basic training and green-belt training, which gives them ahigh-level working knowledge of Six Sigma methodologies and why it’s importantto follow them. "They understand Six Sigma well enough to identify potentialprojects, discuss them using unique Six Sigma vocabulary, and participate on SixSigma projects led by black belts," Reinke says.

    The mandatory training also raises awareness of the company’s commitment tothe new fact-based approach to business. "In the past, requests were grantedon the basis of seniority or past experience," Reinke says. "Now,decision-makers know that every project must be supported by hard data before itcan be implemented."

    Six Sigma training also has no end-date at McKesson. The company now has fourmaster black belts who conduct all of the Six Sigma training in-house, andReinke expects the training to remain an integral part of theemployee-development process. Eventually, all teams will have a dedicated blackbelt, just as they have vice presidents and associates, he says, and everyone inthe company will embrace Six Sigma as a way of conducting business.

    And while the Six Sigma effort showed profits in the first year and eachsubsequent year, Reinke sees it as more than just a cost-cutting initiative. "Ithas helped us get better at our core competencies," he says. "Six Sigma isour culture now."

Workforce, May 2003, pp. 67-68 -- Subscribe Now!

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