Article Revised: April 26, 2019
Lean, Six Sigma and Quality provide a set of tools and a framework for achieving excellence in any process.Quality professionals are able to help organizations determine if customer requirements are properly defined and if the organization is meeting those requirements. Lean practitioners have a set of skills that can be used to eliminate waste in the way things are done. Six Sigma can drive variation and errors out of processes. For the sake of discussion, let’s call these the “Process Excellence Professions.” By applying these methodologies in the manufacturing arena over the past five decades the Lean, Six Sigma and Quality professions have helped increase productivity many fold, while driving errors and quality problems to levels so low that society has begun to believe that it is possible to produce risk-free products, an illusion that previous generations could not even conceive. These days when I tour manufacturing facilities around the world I find that they are able to consistently produce high quality at a very low cost per unit with very little waste.
Question: why doesn’t everyone use these tools?
Frankly, it is depressing when I leave the factory and re-enter the real world. There I encounter poor service, rampant inefficiency, horrible quality, and an attitude that this state of affairs is the best anyone can do. I believe that those working in the Process Excellence professions need to do a little soul-searching to discover the reasons why so many non-manufacturing organizations continue to ignore what we know to be valuable and highly effective frameworks, tools, and techniques for reducing variation and driving out waste and errors. In no particular order, here’s a list of things that I think contribute to the problem:
- The priesthood of job titles. Engineers belong in factories and laboratories. Black Belts and Green Belts belong in the dojo. Service, transactional and other businesses are put off by the names we give to people who apply Process Excellence principles. While I’m loathe to advocate adding more job titles, the existing choices may never feel quite right to people working in hospitals and banks.
- The jargon. DMAIC, CQTs, or SIPOCs anyone? We could do with a bit less of this alphabet soup.
- The time it takes to become trained. My online Lean Six Sigma Black Belt course takes 180 hours to complete. Quite a commitment for a working professional. I don’t advocate cutting content to satisfy an arbitrary time requirement, but I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that we are asking a lot.
- The time it takes to become proficient. Once training is complete, it takes another year or so for the practitioner to become reasonably comfortable actually using the new knowledge. Probably unavoidable, but another barrier to be sure.
- Charlatans and hacks. The Process Excellence profession is new and poorly defined, leaving us wide open for wannabes who are looking for the quick buck. This situation is slowly being remedied, but there are currently plenty of pretenders who need to be drummed out of the field.
- The lack of a standardized body of knowledge. While most experienced practitioners agree on a “starter set” of subjects that need to be covered, there is still plenty of disagreement around the edges. As evidence I point to the fact that some Six Sigma Black Belt training programs are two weeks duration, while others are six weeks. What’s up with that?
- The lack of a central accreditation body. Logically, ASQ could have served this purpose at one time. However, they chose the path of being a training provider instead, making them competitors to all other training providers. It’s tough to be objective when you are evaluating your competitor. The new International Association for Six Sigma Accreditation (IASSC) and their partner PEOPLECERT have stepped up to provide this service. However, the program is new and the number of accredited training organizations, curriculum providers, and trainers is still extremely limited. I’m proud to say that The Pyzdek Institute is IASSC accredited and hope others will join us.
- The historical origins of Process Excellence. The historical roots of our profession are in agriculture and manufacturing. The language we use reflects these origins. This will continue to impede adoption by services, healthcare, and transactional industries. By the way, it’s no accident that agriculture and manufacturing are among the most efficient and advanced sectors of the economy.
- The math. Math provides us with rigorous tools to quantify goals and progress, calculate costs and benefits, establish cause and effect, model our solutions before deploying them, and to do many other things. Process Excellence without math is inconceivable. Still, many fear mathematics and are put off by it. This is especially so in America, where public education does a poor job of preparing people for the study of math at the college level. We need to do more to help break down this barrier and open the door for our colleagues in non-manufacturing sectors.
- The mixture of soft skills and technical skills. Process Excellence requires a special mix of skills. The technical skills needed are obvious: math, statistics, etc.. But we also need to understand people skills to deal effectively with customers, team members, leaders, and stakeholders. Project management skills are a must. The ability to do preliminary financial analysis is also a requirement. It’s challenging to find someone able to deal with all of these different subjects.
- The arrogance of practitioners. While it’s okay to hold your head high when you earn your Professional Excellence credential, you must be careful not to flaunt your new status. Such attitudes are a turn-off to others.
- The added bureaucracy. Lean, Six Sigma, and Quality efforts require central organizations to get started. Ideally as Process Excellence gets into the organization’s DNA, the attitudes and knowledge of others in the rest of the organization will lead to the new bureaucracies shrinking in size over time. However, sometimes bureaucracies can take on a life of their own, sapping resources that would be better used elsewhere. Organizations that haven’t yet embarked on their own Process Excellence journey may well be wary of beginning if they hear one of these horror stories.
I’m sure that I’ve only scratched the surface here and I welcome your ideas. l’d also like to see suggestions for overcoming these obstacles to more widespread adoption of Process Excellence. Let’s see if we can help ourselves by helping non-manufacturing organizations learn to improve themselves more quickly.