Refining the Aim: The Enduring Value of Six Sigma

The year was 1981. Amidst the workings of an aerospace firm, my role bore the title of “Head of Total Quality Systems” (TQS). TQS, a precursor to both Total Quality Management (TQM) and Six Sigma, came into being after a paradigm-shifting seminar held by W. Edwards Deming. This seminar, though initially challenging for my superiors, set the stage for an organizational rethink of our quality approach. Thus, TQS was born to aid us in our quest for quality.

TQS’s mission was to explore the best practices in quality, distinguish those with potential, and foster their application within the organization. Under the guidance of the vice president and his team, we embarked on a series of projects, each sponsored by a senior leader and often featuring a master’s degree holder in an engineering field. As anticipated, these projects bore fruit, achieving significant success, primarily because they focused on addressing issues that were ripe for improvement.

Though TQS shared similarities with Six Sigma, stark differences existed. A comparative look at the quality environments of 1981 and 2006 shows several disparities. Two of these are critical. Firstly, in 1981, the loftiest level of leadership actively engaged in performance improvement was the vice president. Though CEOs did extend their support, it was more often than not passive. Of course, there were exceptions, like Donald Petersen, the president of Ford Motor Co., who managed to lift Ford from a three-sigma to a four-sigma level in less than five years, reinvigorating the company’s profitability.

CEO/president supports effortsCEO actively leads efforts
Control existing processesImprove and redesign existing processes
Acceptance sampling widely used; usage going downAcceptance sampling seldom used; usage going up
Quality the only important metricCost, schedule and others are all important
Data scarcityData abundance
Juran’s breakthrough approach to quality improvement via projectsSix Sigma breakthrough approach: Juran + “Belts” + DMAIC or DFSS project frameworks
Customer is king!Customers, shareholders, employees and community are all important stakeholders.
The long term is all that mattersThe short and long term must be balanced
Quality function drives and often directs improvement activitiesSenior leadership directs change activities to drive business results
Function-oriented business modelValue-added process model
Focus on process, assume results will followResults reviewed as process outcomes
Very little proactive use of statistical methodsDesign of Experiments (DOE) in widespread use
Manufacturing dominatesService and transaction organizations also using Six Sigma
No official change agentsChange agent positions are commonplace (i.e., “Belts”)
In-depth statistical know-how the province of a select few with advanced technical education.Statistical thinking and understanding widespread due to bench strength of former Belts
Lean work flow the province of industrial engineersLean a major component of Six Sigma in service and transactional as well as manufacturing industries
Business Performance Improvement: 1981 vs 2006

The second critical difference is the emergence of a structured project framework. Motorola introduced the measure-analyze-improve-control (MAIC) model, which dramatically turned the company’s fate around from the verge of bankruptcy to a Baldrige Award recipient, even without the deployment of Green Belts and Black Belts. General Electric added the “define” stage to the framework, resulting in the define-measure-analyze-improve-control (DMAIC) approach that is now synonymous with Six Sigma.

Those who have been trained in Six Sigma process an altered way of thinking. When a CEO adopts this mindset, it permeates the entire organization. As business schools begin to teach Six Sigma’s management approach, traditional command-and-control management systems will lose ground. Organizations reluctant to adapt will find themselves at a competitive disadvantage, and the law of evolution will naturally sift out those lagging behind. After two decades and still going strong, Six Sigma continues to validate its worth, offering an enduring testament to the pursuit of perfection.