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Too Many Six Sigma Tools, Too Little Time

Contributor: Kevin McManus
Posted: 08/04/2009
Kevin McManus
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In my previous two articles on the topic of why Six Sigma training does not work ("Are Group Dynamics Problems Compromising the Effectiveness of Your Six Sigma Projects" and "Six Sigma Failures: Why Does Six Sigma Training Fail?"), I talked about our failure to build adequate practice time into most Six Sigma training curriculums and the lack of time that is devoted to the topic of effective group dynamics management. The third key reason that explains why Six Sigma training does not work is directly related to these two problem areas. In short, we spend so much of our limited training time covering a multitude of Six Sigma tools, which one probably will rarely use, that we leave little time for skill practice, including the practice of group dynamics skills.

Think about it—how many Six Sigma tools does one really need to learn to use in order to effectively use DMAIC to make process improvements? I have seen Six Sigma curriculums that cover more than 30 different tools in one week’s time. That is a rate of almost one Six Sigma tool per hour. At best, the course attendee might get to practice using each Six Sigma tool one time on an example application, which may, or may not, be related to the types of processes they will attempt to improve post-training. In a similar vein, I have seen 70 percent of a 40 hour course be spent on statistical concepts, which most people will barely understand, let alone retain and effectively use.

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that there is a small subset of processes where ANOVA analysis, two-tail tests and design of experiments approaches are applicable. My real life work experiences, however, have shown me that in a large majority of applications, we rarely have enough raw data integrity to use these Six Sigma tools, if we remember how to use them in the first place. The typical Six Sigma project leaders will rarely come across an application where the use of such high level tools is warranted, and if they do, they will be challenged to obtain data of a high enough quality to make the use of these tools statistically meaningful. Worse yet, in those cases where I had quality data and was able to use these Six Sigma tools, my managers felt that I was showing them up because they did not understand the tools themselves. They thought I was trying to make them look bad.

Teaching Basic Six Sigma Tools: A Good Place to Start

But I digress—the primary question still remains unanswered. How many Six Sigma tools does one really need to learn to use in order to effectively use DMAIC to make process improvements? I would suggest that one starts with the basics—the seven original quality tools and the seven management planning tools. We wouldn’t be seeing so many of our problems continuing to come back, instead of going away for good, if we had a lot of people at work who really knew how to use these basic tools. If you are mistakenly thinking that there are many certified Black and Green Belts out there who know how to use these basic tools, take a quick look at how they have used them. I will almost bet that you will find people who only used a Pareto chart one or two times, who can’t tell you when they last changed the limits on their control charts or who have rarely taken the bones on their fishbone diagram out to two levels, let alone five levels via the use of effective 5 Why questioning like Ishikawa used to teach.

This situation is analogous to the golfer who carries 14 or more clubs in his bag, but never really learns to hit more than three or four of them very well (I am including the putter in this latter count). He may be able to swing each of the nine different irons, the three different woods, the pitching wedge and the putter, but he often uses the wrong club in the wrong situation, and he never really learns to use each club effectively when the right situation presents itself. If you can relate to this story, you are also probably familiar with the results such an approach gives you. The only difference here is that poorly used clubs end up in the pond and poorly used process improvement tools end up forgotten and misapplied.

Too many people leave Six Sigma training not even knowing how to use a Gantt chart to create a project plan. Too many people would struggle to describe where in the Six Sigma DMAIC process each of the seven quality tools are used. Too many people would be unable to demonstrate how they have used these key process improvement tools more than five times each in the past three years. If you have witnessed this form of Six Sigma training breakdown yourself relative to just these basic tools, just imagine how problematic this situation becomes when a whole bunch of other tools are also crammed into a 40, or even 80, hour workshop. From my perspective, it approaches the point of being truly ridiculous, and I am being very politically correct when I make that statement.

The counterargument to my complaints above makes sense, but rarely occurs. This argument is simple—the purpose of the certification project, or projects, is to practice using these Six Sigma tools. That is a great argument, but it only holds water if one’s use of these tools is monitored by a coach who has learned to successfully apply each Six Sigma tool and that coach gives value added feedback as the tool is being practiced. All too often, completing a Six Sigma project becomes more of a formality than a practice field, and in turn, little helpful feedback is given and the Black or Green belt rarely moves closer to tool proficiency.

Stick With The Six Sigma Tools That Will Make a Difference

The solution to this particular problem is simple—only teach the Six Sigma tools that are most applicable for the processes you are trying to improve, and allow for at least two hours of in-class practice time on work-related examples for each tool. I realize that if you commit to this approach you won’t have time to cover all of the fancy tools that are found in many Six Sigma curriculums, but at the same time, you might actually end up with some Six Sigma Black and Green Belts who can actually use these tools to make a lasting difference. It’s your choice—how many Six Sigma tools do you really need to become proficient using?


Thank you, for your interest in Too Many Six Sigma Tools, Too Little Time.
Kevin McManus
Contributor: Kevin McManus