Success Secrets: Making sense of Six Sigma

Success Secrets: Making sense of Six Sigma
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First Published: Mon, May 14 2007. 12 22 AM IST
Updated: Mon, May 14 2007. 12 22 AM IST
Do you still think it is necessary to implement Six Sigma throughout an entire organization? Can't it just be spot-applied to the routine processes where it belongs?
—Arthur Mok, Cambridge, Mass.
In a perfect world, your question would make perfect sense.
Six Sigma, the intensive quality programme used by thousands of companies around the world, should just be selectively applied to the kinds of routine operations that mainly benefit from its effects.
Credit-card processing is a great Six Sigma target, for instance, as are many manufacturing activities, while creative endeavours such as producing TV shows and crafting one-off investment banking deals most definitely are not.
So, why do so many companies still stuff Six Sigma into every nook and cranny? Because they have to, especially if they are on the large side.
Small companies, because of their relative informality and ease of communication, can sometimes implement change programmes here and there and as needed.
But when it comes to introducing radical change across divisions, departments, layers and even countries, employees rarely respond with perfect gusto. They don’t say, “Hey, this new programme that’s going to screw up my job sounds just great! Bring it on!” They mutter, “Here comes the new flavour-of-the-month. If I can just ignore it long enough, it will pass.”
Such resistance is natural and can even be deserved. But if a company lets those responses play out, it will get, well, nothing in return.
By contrast, consider what happened when General Electric— the company Jack used to lead—decided to implement Six Sigma in 1995. Obviously, the roll out wasn’t without plenty of bumps, but the company did make sure Six Sigma wasn’t one of many initiatives floating around.
Similarly, a strong case for it was made over and over again. Everyone was told that if the company could reduce its ship-and-fix mentality there would be enormous market share opportunities and significant cost savings.That’s why it was urgent to install Six Sigma, a statistical ­approach originally developed at Motorola, which would wring out variation and ensure products were built right the first time and delivered according to ­expectations.
Now, when we say, “everyone was told”, we don’t mean a handful of senior executives stood on a stage once or twice a year and intoned, “Quality is good. We like quality. Let’s all work toward better quality together.”
No, we mean managers throughout the company were in something of a little frenzy. Their message was more like, “Six Sigma is all that matters. You can’t get promoted or get a raise or stock options unless you become a true believer.”
Extreme? Of course.
And yes, that extreme quality initially intruded on the activities of employees it shouldn’t have, such as marketing types designing an ad campaign. It also spawned more “look-what-we-can-do!” presentations than were necessary. Indeed, in Six Sigma’s early days, the projected gains put forth in such presentations were roughly equal to the free world’s gross national ­product.
Six Sigma did end up delivering billions of dollars from market share gains and productivity improvements, but not that much!
And yet, if a company has any scale, we’d still make the case that Six Sigma demands a whole-organization approach.
Yes, sometimes you make more noise (and work) than necessary, but when it comes to radical change, if you want to move the needle even a little, you have to holler a lot.
Our company hires the best and brightest, mainly right out of college, to join our sales organization. We then provide them with world-class training for three to five years—only to lose them to our competitors one after another when it’s done. What are we doing wrong?
—Anonymous, Atlanta
Our best guess is that your great talent is “graduating” from your great training programme into a company that hasn’t put nearly enough energy into great job content.
After all, top performers who are all fired up to conquer the world—or at least the marketplace—don’t want to suddenly be told they have to wait in line before they can make an impact. Or that they’re being placed in a small job that will lead to a somewhat less-small job, and so on.
They want to be told that their future will come as fast and be as big as they can make it. Could it be your competitors are saying that more loudly than you are?
Don’t get us wrong. Young, talented hires can’t expect to burst out of a development programme into their own corner offices. But unless you give them a way to move up quickly, with fun and challenge along the way, you’ll have to be satisfied with something it seems you already have: the reputation for being the best training ground around.
(Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about yourcareer dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, ‘Winning’. Campaign readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com. Please include your name, occupation and city. Select questions will be answered)
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First Published: Mon, May 14 2007. 12 22 AM IST
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