Is Six Sigma Dead?

Is Six Sigma Dead

Now that one of Six Sigma’s biggest supporters is cutting back its investment, is the writing on the wall?

Xerox, the Connecticut-based printing and business process outsourcing giant, has publicly acknowledged that it is cutting back on efforts and jobs related to Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma.

In a memo to employees this fall, Xerox president of corporate operations Herve Tessler said this, “having met our goal of embedding the principles and practices of Lean Six Sigma (LSS) within the business … we no longer have a need for a centralized LSS function and will disband the corporate LSS team.”

You can form your own opinion, but to me this sounds like the politically correct way of saying that the implementation of Six Sigma is no longer a priority.

Where it all began

Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for process improvement developed by Motorola in 1986 and made famous by Jack Welch’s implementation at General Electric in 1995.

The system aims to improve the quality of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of errors and minimizing variability in business processes through the use of statistics-based, quality management methods.

Each Six Sigma project carried out within an organization follows a defined sequence of steps and has quantified value targets, for example: reduce process cycle time, reduce costs, increase profits, and increase customer satisfaction.

Becoming an expert in Six Sigma is a science. As you become more knowledgeable, you proceed from a novice Yellow Belt to a head-of-the-pack Champion, and through the last years of the 20th century and the first years of the 21st, an entire industry sprung up around training employees in Six Sigma.

How the mighty have fallen

It seemed like Six Sigma might be a trend that withstood the test of time – until now.  I was interested in a recent study cited by FLO Partners that documented the gradual downfall of Six Sigma. The results illustrated that Six Sigma “has continued its decline from the heady heights of 2005 when 71 percent of respondents reported using pure play Six Sigma to 33 percent in 2013.”

“Companies are moving away from overly structured and rigid approaches to process excellence. Instead, many are taking a more pragmatic approach and drawing on a wide range of tools that fit the business situation and need,” commented the study.

But why now?

There are several reasons why Six Sigma might not gel as well in 21st century organizations. In her article for the Huffington Post, Ruth Henderson, president of Whiteboard Consulting, explains that the need for flexibility in today’s service-driven organizations plays an important role.

“Traditional and, dare I say it, soon to become old school methodologies like Six Sigma are based on strict methodologies that work really well in some organizations – usually those in a manufacturing or highly repetitive/operational industry,” she says.  “In other industries, particularly serviced-based, these methods have a more difficult time taking root.”

On Forbes.com, Rick Smith has another idea. He suggests that systems like Six Sigma squash organization’s attempts to be innovative. “As a result of Six Sigma or similar approaches, many organizations are operating at very high levels of efficiency,” he says. “But as leaders now shift their focus to the acceleration of growth, they are discovering that the very culture of little to no variance that allowed them to achieve their efficiency goals is suffocating their growth potential.”

But variance, says Rick, is essential for innovation and growth. Six Sigma encourages us to avoid it, but we should actually be promoting it if our organizations are to remain competitive. “Success requires embracing the alternative paths that markets randomly present in order to find an organization’s unique place to grow and thrive.”

Do you still use Six Sigma? Do you believe it has a future in your organization?

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  • Andy Urquhart

    Six Sigma was based on a false premise .. the premise all process steps/stages are dependent. They are not .. and we don’t live in a ‘semiconductor world’ … even though we’re surrounded by their devices!

    In truth, most jobs come from mechanical assembly operations, where components are mostly independent of one another, which is why I like to recommend Dr. Kitano’s article – The Toyota Production System: One by one Confirmation. I’m not going to rude and provide a link to my own website, but interest parties may like to investigate ‘kanban matching!’

    Regards,
    Andy

  • glenstewart

    Consider a generational shift from methodical planners and managers, to a more impulsive leader who “wants it now”. The interesting thing about the later, is that their vision is short, and they don’t know how they got where they are (no plans or records to trace the trail). How do you fix something when there is little documentation?

    I didn’t think Rick Smith’s article was beneficial. It seemed to suggest that deep thinkers are inflexible, and that inflexibility is evil. A well developed vision requires discipline to stick to, and short-sighted people struggle to make the long-term investment because they want instant gratification.

    So at present, I fear the pendulum is swinging too far into the impetuous direction. A well formed team will be a blend of long-term deep thinkers, and shorter-term agile thinkers who flex. If they respect each other and leverage each others skills, they’ll reach the long term goal by quickly reacting to roadblocks along the way.

  • @Alexandra,

    Believing that you would allow us to differ with the theme. The phenomenon mentioned by you has been there always there and would continue to be there in the future too. But the reason of so-called backfiring of Six Sigma initiatives at some organisation has nothing to do with the Six Sigma itself.

    We have been witness to most organisations taking the fundamentally wrong notion of Six Sigma. We have always made a very consistent effort, training after training, to secure the correct notion of Six Sigma with all of our corporate clientele.

    With thanks,

    Luminis India