Eight Step Road Map for Successful Six Sigma Implementation

Lokesh R

Before I get into the road map for successful implementation of Six Sigma, let me start with a question here. Is your organization ready to implement Six Sigma?

If you weighed your pros and cons and believe that Six Sigma will help you in organizational excellence, then you are ready.

Here are eight steps for successful Six Sigma implementation.

Step One: Burning Platform and Shared Vision

In order to implement or even think about implementing Lean or Six Sigma methodologies, we need to have a burning platform. The burning platform could take several forms: "We are suffering huge quality losses and it accounts for more than 45 percent of our costs," "our competitors are gaining our market share every quarter by 12 percent," etc. Without a burning platform like this, organizations seldom have the motivation to implement TPS (Lean) or Six Sigma or TQM or any continuous improvement initiative.

Many are cynical about implementing Six Sigma. They'll ask: Why Six Sigma? Why Quality? Why Process Excellence? It does not help, so why do we need to do this? Often we in the Six Sigma fraternity have to meet and manage such cynics, and the only way to counter this pushback is to have a common vision across the organization, such as, "If I had a choice I would like to be best rather than biggest."

Let me tell you how a seemingly small e-mail from a software programmer leads to a common standard across the whole of IBM; this is just an example of having a common understanding or vision across an organization.

Louis Gerstner, former Chairman of IBM, normally received almost 100 e-mails a day from employees at various levels. One day, a software programmer sent him an e-mail detailing the complicated system of internal procedures required to obtain software from another division. "Going through that much bureaucracy for a $100 IBM product is ludicrous," wrote the programmer.

This was brought up during the next meeting, and a couple of days later a message went out from the chairman stating, "Henceforth it will be our policy to share with our colleagues enthusiastically and without added cost whatever we develop."

Now having said that, I want to be best rather than biggest; how do I spread this vision, which is the first step in successful implementation? Let me start this with what we did in our company. When we started our journey, the Process Excellence team wanted to make Six Sigma a great success, so we ensured that the CEO was the first person in the company to understand Six Sigma and to be trained on the methodology.

With this task accomplished, everything else started falling in place since Six Sigma became a vision across the organization. Hence to drive organization vision and value across our workforce, customers, partners and suppliers, we needed to have our key leadership aligned towards a common vision. This ensures that the organization environment is amenable to change and able to drive change, leveraging innovation and technology as the key tools.

Lastly, we need to take action to attain our vision; this ensures that we gain visibility and strong support from leadership. Leadership sponsors ensure we meet our organization vision, thereby attaining excellence.

Step Two: Resources

Now let me get into step two of success. It’s pretty simple: You pay peanuts and you get monkeys, and your entire Six Sigma plan is heading towards disaster.

This is true to any resource. As Robert Bosch says, "He has lots of money since he pays good wages." Do not hesitate to hire the right resource at the right price. This is applicable to any resource, be it man, material or technology.

Resources alone do not help us in ensuring we are successful… we need to deploy them as a team, and this team should act as a change agent. As an organization we must emphasize empowering the team to carry out the initiatives, and hence we need domain expertise and knowledge.

Let me share a personal example on selection process. We had finalized a candidate for a Black Belt position in our customer service process. During my interview I asked him, "What was the most wonderful experience in your life," for which he replied, "The six months I spent working in a farm with no people, no telephone and no tension."

Here is a candidate who was saying he wanted no connectivity, and we were looking to hire him for a customer service-oriented position. I ran to my boss and told him he might not fit in, but the damage was already done; he was hired, but he left within three months. The point I am trying to make is it’s not only money but also the fit of the resource which matters.

We need to take care of our resources both in terms of wages and also the resource fit and commitment to implementing the shared vision.

Step Three: Teach

As the proverb says, if you give a man a fish he'll eat for a day, but if you teach a man to catch a fish he'll eat for a lifetime.

For Six Sigma to survive for a lifetime, we need to teach, or rather train, our resources to be powerful change agents. This can be attained by ensuring our leadership team is 100 percent trained as well as our grass root level team.

Hence, any amount of Six Sigma Yellow Belt,Green Belt, or Black Belt training is good to increase organizational awareness and to increase our QDNA. Ultimately, success lies in implementing at the grass root level, and for training it’s absolutely necessary that the resource has good mentoring skills. There is also a saying, "You can lead a horse to the water, but cannot make it drink." So the resources identified for training should be the right resources and should share the organization’s shared vision.

[eventPDF]Step Four: Prioritize

You have a vision, which has ensured you get the right resource, and now that you have organization-wide awareness at the top and at the grass root level, next comes the prioritization.

Have we listened to our customer? Is it linked to our business goals? Have we done a thorough CTQ tree analysis is what we need to first ensure that we do?

We need to learn what to overlook and where to take risk, and the question here is how good we are in terms of risk mitigation and expectation management in terms of meeting the key expectation of our organization’s goals.

Step Five: Ownership

With ownership comes empowerment and a sense of pride, and here integrity plays a key role that ensures that we have team commitment, accountability and engagement. Just like the golden rule for real estate is "location, location, location," the Golden Rule for a Six Sigma Black Belt is "relationship, relationship, relationship." This is the key for success in terms of driving commitment, accountability and engagement since it ensures proper ownership in the whole process.

Step Six: Measurement

Creating a measurement system ensures a proper baseline. To ensure that we achieve a set target, we must have an objective decision making analysis of variation.

The key for measurement is to get to the cost of quality right. When I had just completed my engineering degree and was working as a trainee engineer in an engineering firm, I was posted to the field warehouse to take stock of all the nuts, bolts and other parts, and now I was in a situation where I thought, "Hey, what I am I doing here? If I start counting each and every nut I will be spending weeks doing this task, which is not a right way to measure." I did not want to spend weeks doing this since I would not learn anything, so I devised a way to count the nuts and bolts by working on a system of weighing the parts in large batches and converting the same into units. When my manager found out I took only a fraction of the time to count from the earlier method that had been followed for years, I was moved to field engineering, and I went on to handle the complete field quality within six months.

"What can’t be measured cannot be improved," but we need to devise a right way to measure to ensure we are on a faster pace to achieving objective decision making. Having too many measures on our scorecard shifts our attention away from the critical few. We need to identify and measure the key leading indicators instead of measuring the many lagging indicators (which is a pitfall most organizations fall into!).

Step Seven: Governance (Review)

The key to project or program sustenance is to have a proper (required) governance structure. Improper governance/poor governance/too much governance can lead to the vision falling apart.

A business quality council at the top level of the organization can smooth and clear all hurdles; this would create synergy and also clear ways for adhering to timelines.

Proper governance would help us create a best practice sharing forum, which would help to replicate Six Sigma projects and would also highlight key challenges. Without governance (regularly scheduled productive meetings/reviews), course correction and guidance to the organization’s employees would be affected and ultimately the vision would be lost.

Step Eight: Recognition

Rewards and recognition plays a key role in ensuring that a Six Sigma team does not resign and renegotiate. Rewards and recognition are what create energy in the implementation system both at the top level and the grass root level and drives innovation throughout the organization.

Proper rewards and recognition ensures there is consistency in achieving excellent performance. Let me quote my personal example on reward and recognition at a grass roots level. During my days as a Quality engineer we got a note from one of our biggest customers whom we used to supply springs; they are one of the largest automobile manufacturers in India and we were supplying springs for them. The note was to reduce the price of our springs by 10 percent, and we were in a fix. We did everything possible. Many changes happened across the company; improvements ensured we could reduce the price by around seven percent but we still needed a three percent reduction. My boss who was a well know quality expert asked me to go to one of our key suppliers who supplied spring wires and work with the supplier to reduce the cost of making wires.

Let me tell you, the first day when I went for a meeting with the supplier we did a whole lot of talking for almost five hours, and guess who was there in the meeting? We had the engineering head, quality head, Operation and design chief. Every one talked and we came to the conclusion that price cant be reduced since we had to import the bearing, which we used to wind the wires and this used to wear out every month due to increased weight of the spring wires and we had to change them often increasing the manufacturing cost.

I went back and told my boss I had a brainstorming session, and we came to the conclusion we could not do anything. He was silent for some time. Then he asked who were in the meeting. I told him all the heads who attended. The moment I said that, he said, "You are stupid." He asked if there was anyone in the room who was an operator or anybody who deals with the machine at the ground level. I said no.

He told me to go back again talk to the grass root level operators. I went back the next day and had a meeting with the operations team, which included a person whose job was just to shift the bundle of steel wires to stores. I made sure he was part of the brainstorming session. He said since we have the winding machine placed on the ground and the drawn cold wire winds on the winder, all the load of the wires gets onto the bearing. He asked us why don’t we have the winding machine installed from the ceiling so the wire load does not fall on the bearing but instead fall on the winder? Finally we did have a solution: The bearing that was wearing out in a month gave three months life, which eventually decreased the cost.

I still interact with this person; he has been promoted from a store operator to a foreman in the company. That’s recognition and he is still in the company..

Conclusion of the Eight Steps

In summary, the eight steps for successful Six Sigma implementation starts with having a clear vision (which originates from a burning platform), which ensures organizational alignment, By ensuring we hire the right resources (by not paying peanuts) we will have an organization-wide QDNA which will transform the organization into a productive, synergistic, continuously improving organization.

Complete awareness at both the top and grass root level, prioritization and ownership, a proper measurement system, and governance will be key for Six Sigma project implementation. Finally to conclude we need to ensure that the team is empowered and recognized so that we do not end up with resignation and renegotiation. (Click on diagram to enlarge.)