I have seen 6 Sigma implementations attempted at a few businesses and must say it’s not a magic pill, silver bullet or golden goose. GE made 6 Sigma famous as the latest and greatest “innovation” to take businesses to “world-class” standards. If you haven’t heard of it until now, good.
What you don’t hear about 6 Sigma and GE is their failure to fix the quality and service issues in GE’s appliance division. As an owner of a new home fully equipped with GE appliances I speak with some authority when I tell you GE has serious problems in their appliance division in spite of their 6 Sigma efforts. Our GE refrigerator, stove, microwave and dishwasher ALL required service within three years of purchase. GE “service” was horrible and we are gradually replacing ALL of our remaining GE appliances.
What is 6 Sigma? “Their” answer: DEFINE, MEASURE, ANALYZE, IMPROVE, CONTROL (DMAIC). Translation: Bury them in BS. Produce enough graphs and charts and all your problems dissolve. People don’t matter. Make “perfect” processes and compel people to follow them and you’re on your way to the elusive world-class performance you’ve always dreamed of.
I’m not against 6 Sigma, or TQM or Continuous Improvement or KAIZEN or Tae Kwon Do if you are willing to do it right. But doing it right doesn’t mean bringing in a “black belt” consultant and paying him thousands of dollars for graphs, then thousands of dollars more for reports, then thousands of dollars more to develop “processes”. You’ll end up far worse off than you were before “improving”. Why spend a fortune to bog your business down with cumbersome procedures? The consultant will eventually leave. Failure to meet objectives will be your fault and that of your organization for not being 100% “in”.
Morale will drop to an all-time low. Nothing can kill morale like a consultant. I’ve seen it happen. And I’ve talked to many executives who rue the day they started down bumpy 6 Sigma road.
If you are considering a 6 Sigma expert, I recommend you try a few things on your own first. If these simple things don’t produce positive results, 6 Sigma will be a disaster. If they do help, you probably don’t need a 6 Sigma black, green, or fuchsia belt.
  1. Define a problem. It doesn’t matter where you start (gasp!).
  2. Set up a simple means to measure the problem. For example, if you’re getting too many customer complaints, count how many complaints you get per day and keep a log. Easy.
  3. Think about the problem and look at your measurements. Are things getting worse? What’s a reasonable goal for improvement?
  4. Try something to fix the problem. (Duh.) This is where the “consultants” will fail to deliver yet THIS is the most important step. Ask the people who deal with the complaints for suggestions. If the floor is dirty, talk to the guy with the broom!
  5. Look at your measurements. Are things improving? Ask around, “what else can we do to improve this situation?”
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Keep cycling through the process.
I’ll offer two tips to doing your own 6 Sigma program. First, keep in mind that the answers to your problems are within your company—somebody has the solution. Start looking for answers as close to the problem as you can get. In other words, if the problem is in the receiving department, talk to the guys on the dock.
Second, it’s very important to enforce compliance with the changes you implement. If management doesn’t support the changes in a meaningful way the program will fail.
That’s it. If you know where and how to look you can find brilliant innovations within the confines of your own business.
Shameless Promotion: Before you hire a consultant, please talk with me. I’m not a consultant, I actually work. You want your business to improve and you are willing to support change? Good, let’s get started. I know where to look for your answers and I can build trust with your people. I developed the 3Es Business Improvement System to help your business grow and remain profitable for the future.

Chris Reich, Author of TeachU’s Business Talk Blog