Why is Six Sigma currently on a downward slope?

six sigma

I've never been a big fan of Six Sigma. As business process improvement and management approaches evolve; they've always had glaring shortcomings. 

  • Firstly, there were all the statistical tools involved - but rarely realized in most companies' implementations. 
  • Secondly, it didn't in any way integrate information technology - arguably the most powerful force available to improve (or screw up) processes.
  • Thirdly, it was too elitist. Instead of relying on expert Six Sigma "black belts" for process analysis and design, every employee should be a process improver. 
  • Fourthly, it has really only led to incremental improvements, not radical breakthroughs. 
  • Fifthly, it was not a good solution for innovation-driven work. 

I'm convinced that Six Sigma should only be used in product manufacturing; where the idea of reducing defects to one standard deviation in six really makes sense.

So what's the best alternative to Six Sigma for process improvement?

Well, there really isn't an alternative to suit all processes and circumstances. What companies really need is a combination of tools and approaches. 

Indeed, the best companies in process management already have such a combination. 

So you hear about Lean Six Sigma, which is a combination of some of the Lean approaches found in the Toyota production system and Six Sigma; but in reality; the mix should be even broader. 

Johnson & Johnson, for example, in its "Process Excellence" program, also adds a component involving radical change. Even Motorola, where Six Sigma was born, incorporates a method for creating revolutionary process improvements.

Companies should also integrate certain techniques to combine process change with the information systems they install. 

Business process re-engineering is the only process improvement approach that really had this objective in any substantial way; but it was flawed in other respects, and is not a stand-alone method of choice either. 

At Air Products and Chemicals, which has had one of the most successful process change programs in recent years; the company used a hybrid approach to process change that closely matched the SAP system it was implementing at the time. Shell has a major effort underway to implement a common version of SAP and improve processes at the same time. 

Indeed, it's not easy to change both things at once; but it's ridiculous to change the processes and ignore the IT department.

When companies start to get excited about process improvement again, they shouldn't focus on just one method of doing it. 

A hybrid and combined approach is really the only approach that makes sense.

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Author: NAJI Faouzi