Distinctive Six Sigma Framework: The Power of Change

Successful transformation often demands the amalgamation of various resources. In the business world, some argue that Six Sigma brings nothing novel to the technical toolbox used to advance business processes. Indeed, previous improvement endeavors like Total Quality Management (TQM) do have much in common with Six Sigma, including champions, improvement projects, and sponsors. Yet, Six Sigma presents an innovative element: a structured framework for change.

The infrastructure of Six Sigma enables the establishment of dedicated change agent roles, staffed by individuals with deep insight into the change process. Certain critics, notably Black Belts and Master Black Belts, may interpret this as the formation of new “elites” within the organization. While there’s merit to this view, it’s important to ask if this method of structuring change proves more effective than existing alternatives. Let’s explore some frequently suggested alternatives to the creation of a select group of professionally trained change agents:

  • Empower the Workforce: Also known as the “quality circles” strategy, this approach entails training the organization’s lower-tier employees in basic tools for problem-solving without explicit leadership guidance. When attempted in the U.S. during the 1970s, results were lackluster. In contrast, Japanese enterprises, with longstanding company-wide process improvement practices, reported notable success.
  • Equip the Managers: This strategy involves training middle and senior management in change agent skills—an excellent proposition. However, without altering the organization’s basic structure, there’s no clear pathway to apply these skills. Trained managers frequently return to their original roles, and over time, their skills and self-confidence diminish. Six Sigma change agents learn by doing, emerging confident in applying Six Sigma methodologies to various scenarios.
  • Engage Existing Experts: Six Sigma’s tools aren’t groundbreaking. Many professionals, such as industrial statisticians, ASQ-certified quality engineers, reliability engineers, and others, already possess proficiency in numerous Six Sigma tools. However, successful change agency involves more than technical mastery. Black Belts, Green Belts, and Master Black Belts learn tools and techniques within the context of the DMAIC approach to drive organizational change.
  • Establish Permanent Change Agent Roles: One could argue for making the Black Belt role permanent to maximize training use. Yet, rotating individuals through the Black Belt role enhances the pool of management staff with Black Belt experience, offering a broad, process-oriented perspective that’s invaluable in top-tier roles. The continuous inflow of new blood into Black Belt and Green Belt roles ensures fresh perspectives and deters the development of a “us vs. them” mentality within functional units.

The unique structure of Six Sigma features a blend of temporary and permanent change agents, both full and part-time. It offers extensive technical training to a select group, moderate training to exempt employees, and basic training to the majority of nonexempt employees. Though likely to evolve in the future, this structure currently represents the most promising model for organizations eager for transformation.