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Curing Lean Six Sigma Weak Points

Posted by Diane Kulisek on December 14, 2009

The following question was asked on LinkedIn by Bill Rushmore, Principal at Rushmore Technologies, a degreed Chemist and Engineer:

For those who have experience with Six Sigma or Lean Sigma, what is the one (or two) weak point(s) that you would fix with a Six Sigma or Six Sigma project? I am looking into how to improve Lean Six Sigma and have my own factors. I am looking for other opinions or experiences to expand the possibilities.

Diane Kulisek’s answer, one of many posted, was selected by Bill as the ‘Best’ Answer.  Here it is:

I think two things need to change:

  • 1.) There needs to be less emphasis upon the correctness of the terms used to describe what is being done and more emphasis upon doing it; and
  •  2.) There needs to be less elitism associated with those accountable for employing the methodology.

Let me say I believe that Six Sigma and Lean will continue to be terms used for at least the next five to ten years, however, I also have started to hear many of the same criticisms of “Six Sigma” and “Lean” that I used to hear in relation to “SPC”, “Quality Circles”, CPI and “TQM”. All six of these terms (Six Sigma, Lean, SPC, Quality Circles, CPI and TQM) entail top management support, problem-solving methodologies, process improvement tools, and, potentially, improved value or economy. All six of these terms could also be costly to implement. All six of these terms are subject to failure during top management changes. All six of these terms also, unfortunately, can be categorized as “fads”. When you peel back the glitzy layer of names, they are all essentially the same thing. You can garble them up with new terms to describe old concepts. You can claim that they do things differently from one another (which they certainly do, slightly). You can say that the next one made the previous one “obsolete” or old-fashioned (which is not necessarily the case)…. but the bottom line is, they all have so much in common that you can pretty much expect Six Sigma and Lean to take a nose dive the minute enough negative momentum about “THOSE words” has been achieved…. and it’s on it’s way.

My advice would be to stop using trendy words like “Six Sigma” or “Lean” and talk about the fundamental tools being used. More people will understand and the continuity will be better through the turmoil of management changes. So, that’s the language aspect of it.

Secondly, business managers were taught to beat the “quality-is-everybody’s- responsibility” drum for decades. Then, along came Six Sigma. Only the best/brightest were drafted into the Six Sigma ranks. Their grasp of finance needed to be as great (or greater than) their grasp of technology or methodology. They were subjected to extremely expensive (often) company-sponsored training programs…. out of which they emerged, with the green beret of the Six Sigma special forces. Proud and overly confident, many freshly-belted (pun intended) Six Sigma initiates blundered out into the production workspace only to be shot down by older, wiser and angrier personnel lurking in sniper positions.

 The elite division of class that is so often identified with the “Six Sigma” black belt mystique has created far more problems, in my opinion, than have been solved. In fact, I would venture to say that there are more people working to be sure a Six Sigma Black Belt falls smack dab on his or her nose than there will ever be willing to help them in an otherwise just cause. The problem is that nobody likes to be treated as a “lesser than”. Six Sigma Black Belts (and even other belt designations) seem to be taught a smugness that acts like a bullseye on their butt cheeks and foreheads.

My recommendation would be to get rid of the title. Again, focus upon the fundamental tasks being performed. Define the roles from the perspective of basic tasks. “You will be accountable for improving the performance of this process. Accordingly, you are henceforth our Process Improvement Project Manager.” EVERYbody can understand what THAT is.   Well okay, maybe not everybody…  but more than understand ‘six sigma black belt’.

What is a “Six Sigma Black Belt”? It’s an abstraction, especially for those who have NOT (nor likely ever will) been through the training to become one. Why create mystery where openness is the key to improvement? Why create an “elite class” when collaboration at all levels of the organization will be essential to creating desired change? It’s counter-productive, at best. Drive out the use of the terms “Six Sigma and Black Belt”. Use role definitions and job titles that EVERYBODY can understand… and support.

Postscript from Diane:  I suppose it might be worth mentioning that I’m actually starting to see the word ‘quality’ reappear in job descriptions, perhaps not in the titles, but in the responsibilities.  People in charge of hiring people who need to know how to use quality improvement tools and methods have not yet become quite bold enough to venture that a rose is a rose by any other name, but they have begun using ‘other’ terms to avoid using “six sigma’, ‘lean’ or ‘lean sigma’ in many of the more recent position descriptions I’ve been seeing on the open job market.  Examples of ‘new’ quality-related titles include: “Continuous Improvement Project Manager”, “V.P. Organizational Excellence” and “Director of Business Performance Reporting”.  It is …. a start.

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