【Three】Whatever Happened to Six Sigma？
Feb-24，2022 | Oliver Staley
Original writer：Oliver Staley
The Great Muddle
While GE’s management was hitting the limits of Six Sigma inside the company, outside it the system was spreading far and wide. It quickly became unmoored from its manufacturing origins, and was sold as an instant fix for companies and careers mired in mediocrity.
While reputable schools and institutes offered rigorous Six Sigma training, it fell into the hands of hucksters and snake-oil salesman who peddled Six Sigma to would-be business moguls, like Jack’s magic beans.
There was an explosion of management books featuring Six Sigma, offering everything from study guides to tailored applications for healthcare and accounting to the inevitable Six Sigma for Dummies. There were coffee mugs.
Six Sigma became “ritualistic and cultish” because its practitioners focused on its nomenclature and methods without understanding the theories undergirding them, according to Steven Spear, a lecturer in organization at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
“You take the tools that help you manage uncertainty and you get rid of the underlying thinking, and you’re left with just the tools,” he says. “That’s how you get to be ritualistic.”
It didn’t help that Six Sigma has no owner, accreditor, or even a commonly agreed upon body of knowledge.
The fluid nature of Six Sigma, and its potential for almost unlimited abuse, was explained by Mikel Harry, a former Motorola executive and colleague of Bill Smith’s who became a Six Sigma evangelist and founder of the Six Sigma Management Institute.
Six Sigma could be pretty much whatever you wanted it to be, Harry, who died in 2017, explained in an interview with Quality Digest magazine. “Six Sigma is not an absolute; it’s a vision,” he said.
In its first iteration, at Motorola, Six Sigma was about defect reduction, he said. Its second act, at GE, was about cost reduction. “Six Sigma Generation III” was a system of value creation applicable to anyone, Harry explained. He gave an example of a house painter with four employees who wants to adopt Six Sigma:
He reads about Six Sigma and asks, “How can I go do it?” He’s not going to do reproducibility studies, and (statistical analysis). He needs a simpler and more fundamental form of Six Sigma. … And so that person believes he’s practicing Six Sigma. Well, he is. It’s a matter of degree.
The American Society of Quality, or ASQ, a non-profit membership organization founded in 1946, is perhaps the biggest provider of Six Sigma certification, but it is far from the only one. Once limited to green and black belts, white, yellow, brown belts, and “master black belts.” are offered by a bevy of organizations. The rise in popularity of Lean, a parallel system of Japanese-inspired process improvement that focuses on reducing waste, has led to a blending of the two, and an even greater proliferation of courses and certifications.
Pity the Six Sigma novice sifting through offerings that range from ASQ’s 134-hour, $12,649 Lean Six Sigma black belt classroom course to an online green belt course available for $69 (with a Groupon coupon) from the Management and Strategy Institute.
“Six Sigma is like the wild, wild west,” says Marv Meisner, who teaches non-credit Six Sigma certificate courses through Villanova University. “Anyone can do training, anyone can offer accreditation.”
Meisner says his program is rigorous and, at $4,300 for a 160-hour black belt course, it’s not cheap. He said one of his challenges is explaining to prospective students why his product is superior to the budget offerings. And despite the competition and decline in broader interest in Six Sigma, he’s as busy as ever.
“Our business here at the university has never fallen off,” he says. “We have 5,000-6,000 students a year, every single year.”
The continued demand for Six Sigma training speaks to the enduring value of Deming’s principles. When used in the proper context, it works, and for manufacturing engineers, it still holds value. But it is best thought of as skill, not an all-encompassing management philosophy. Spear of MIT compares it to vocational training, like that given to electricians and plumbers.
Six Sigma today
GE discontinued Six Sigma as a company-wide initiative more than a decade ago, but it’s not extinct at its factories and offices around the world. It’s still implemented at various businesses to solve specific problems, said Linda Boff, GE’s chief learning officer, in an email. “Six Sigma is still an important tool in the GE toolbox.”
At GE Aviation, for example, a green belt is still a minimum requirement and the unit is offering refresher courses to employees who haven’t received Six Sigma training in the past three years. But GE is no longer monotheistic, and will embrace whatever system works best, she said.
Elsewhere, interest in Six Sigma has waned in part because it was successful: American manufacturing has reduced its defects, and quality is no longer a top-level concern. “In core manufacturing, you can say we’ve wrung out if it what we can wrung out of it,” says Rob Toole, a partner at Kona HR Consulting. “Now, software drives the process.”
As a consequence, Six Sigma credentials are no longer held in the same regard. “When you see Six Sigma on a resume, it’s like, ‘that’s nice,'” Toole says with a shrug.
Systems like Six Sigma appeal to managers because they are rooted in the pursuit of predictability, and all managers crave predictability, says PwC’s Pino. Knowing a business had been Six Sigma’d was a comfort to business leaders, because it means they have one less thing to worry about.
But simply following the steps of a process is no longer a guarantee of success, if it ever was. Business is increasingly complex and interconnected, and it seems unlikely any single system can tame it. The smart enterprise of the future will need a constantly evolving rotation of systems and skills, employed by adaptable and flexible workers. They will be harder to teach in a course, but they may outlast all the fads and fashions that preceded them.