A colleague recently emailed me bNet’s “The Eight Stupidest Management Fads of All Time,” and Six Sigma is number 1. I can see where the author is coming from in terms of the success of Six Sigma initiatives.  He is completely correct in the fact that it is a waste of time… that is, IF it is not done correctly.

I had the fortune of being at GE in the mid 90’s when Jack Welch decided to implement Six Sigma. Six Sigma has been hugely successful at GE; the company realized $700,000,000 in cost savings just two years after initiating Six Sigma, and continues to see benefits. GE has even taken Six Sigma out to its clients and suppliers to help them to become more efficient and effective.

So why does Six Sigma fail to deliver these stellar results for most companies?  I can tell you from first-hand knowledge. I worked for two companies who failed with their Six Sigma attempts; at one I was on the executive leadership team, so I had complete insight into the process.

  1. The number one reason companies fail is that Six Sigma is not truly embraced by the EXECUTIVE LEADERSHIP team.
    1. The executive leadership team has to talk the talk AND walk the walk. You must have the steadfast support of every member of your leadership team. It was not unheard of for Jack Welch and/or his direct reports to show up unexpectedly and sit in on Six Sigma training courses.
    2.  Leadership must be uncompromising about the adoption of Six Sigma. I will tell you, when I was at GE, if you questioned Six Sigma, you better be prepared to pay the price on your performance evaluation. Like any change, employees were (at first) resistant to Six Sigma. It took time for every employee to understand “what is Six Sigma?” and “what are the benefits?” I applaud the leadership for being so harsh as to say “you will not question Six Sigma.”
    3. There must be a strong mentoring program from the top down that permeates the entire organization. GE had a superb program.
  2. Six Sigma must become part of the CULTURE.
    1. That means ALL employees are trained, involved and passionate about Six Sigma. Every employee must wholeheartedly believe that quality is the responsibility of each and every employee. But the big question is, how does one change company culture?
      1.  Require the change – GE required all exempt employees to undertake a 13 day training program and complete a Six Sigma project by the end of 1998.
      2.  Show me the money!  Evaluate and incent people – promotions and bonuses were tied to Six Sigma. In fact, one could not be promoted without being a Green Belt, and at one time employees had to attain Black Belts in order to be promoted to the Executive level.
      3.  As mentioned above, leadership must talk the talk AND walk the walk.
  3. Projects must be aligned to business goals and should be customer-focused.
    1. Part of the roll-out of Six Sigma at GE was the philosophy of “the outside looking in.” How are things seen by the customer?

Just declaring a Six Sigma initiative, training some people and running projects, will not result in success.  It must become a way of life.  It must define how your company works!