Six Sigma Today: is it actually that important?

Nowadays we may find some companies that heavily criticize Six Sigma, maybe because they tried to apply its principles and failed, or because they don’t quite trust that a 30-year-old quality management process can still work for their industries. The truth is, if you are a strong advocate for Six Sigma-based continuous improvement processes, you should already be familiar with such opinions. This article intends to clear the air around what many think about Six Sigma, talking briefly about what it is,  its history, some reasons why companies don’t think it actually works, and if it is still relevant today.

What is Six Sigma

When we think about Six Sigma, a good way to describe it might be comparing it to human behavior. When we start a new job, enter university, open up a new business or try a new sport, humans tend to make many mistakes (about 30 to 50% of the time), which according to sigma, means they are operating between 1.5 and 2.0 Sigma on a scale of 0 to 6. We learn from our mistakes, and keep to improve our performance to an acceptable level. What we consider are Type “A” people are those whose sigma strives for 3+ performance or an error level 5% or less.

Keeping in mind our previous comparison, we can define Six Sigma as a well-defined, customer focused management system that aims to deliver near-perfect products or services. Its main goal is to reduce defects and variation so that processes are more consistent and predictable.

A Short History of Six Sigma

This manage system was originated by Motorola in the 1980s. Since then it has been used by companies and manufacturers to come as close as possible to the “non-defect” ideal. It is based on the DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve and control) cycle to reduce process variation, thus eliminating product defects by ensuring processes are consistent and predictable. In the end, historically this has represented considerable savings for the companies which rely on this method.

The term Six Sigma was first coined during the 1980’s.  In statistics, the term “sigma” refers to standard deviations. When talking about manufacturing processes, the term sigma is related to deviations of a particular process out of specification. By adopting the DMAIC cycle combined with a data-driven approach to detect “defects” in processes, companies started to use Six Sigma’s continuous improvement methodology to achieve the zero-defect ideal.

What has historically made Six Sigma so popular is the money companies have saved thanks to it, we are talking about billions of dollars. No other methodology comes close to Six Sigma for saving that kind of money.

Six sigma for dummies_david kiger
Image courtesy of mjtmail (tiggy) at Flickr.com

Why Companies Think Six Sigma Does Not Work

Six Sigma has been rebranded in time, what we used to know by that term is now called Lean Six Sigma, which claims to mix both “lean manufacturing” and Six Sigma, ensuring the best of both methods. The debate on whether or not Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma is viable could last forever, but there are fundamentally three criticisms that keep showing up when discussing this matter:

  1. Six Sigma as a one-dimensional philosophy: The method focuses so intensely on cost reductions that does not care about quality management.

  2. Six Sigma as a short-sighted business approach: Many seem to believe that Six Sigma does not imply cost reductions over the short term. There are many cases where Six Sigma initiatives didn’t last much before hitting the proverbial wall.

  3. Six Sigma as an outsourced service: It is also seen as a “secret” discipline where high-paid consultants are the only ones in charge of passing the information. These almost sectary beings are certified as Black Belts or Master Black Belts.

To read more about some Six Sigma criticisms, you can click here.

Is six sigma still relevant today?

For the most part, Yes, Six Sigma is still relevant today. It is a methodology that has become a standard issue for new manufacturers who want to gain credibility as high-quality business partners.

The Six Sigma continuous improvement philosophy agrees with ISO 9001 standards in many ways, however, Six Sigma is not applicable to every quality management issue, since the context where the company exists may limit its application.

The methodology has for sure evolved in time and is still the only business process that aims to achieve continuous improvement of each process. Nowadays Six Sigma focuses primarily on the customer requirement, efficiently managing business processes, effectively guiding people through change and making business decisions based on data. It must be said that in order to stay relevant, what we now know as Lean Six Sigma has changed to provide leaders with the necessary skills to effectively achieve meaningful business improvement success across any industry.

To read more about why Six Sigma is still relevant today, you can read our article How Six Sigma has become one of the best quality systems

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