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Sick Sigma

2818_aXX1X I love learning new things from the Wall Street Journal.  Every day, there are great articles about virtually every facet of business, just waiting to be absorbed by my eager little brain.  But some days, there's a bonus article which just validates things I had already intuitively figured out... but then somebody smarter than I goes ahead and does the research on it and writes about it.

Such is the case with today's Satya S. Chakravorty's article about "Where Process-Improvement Projects Go Wrong."  As any reader of this blog already knows, I'm a pronounced Six Sigma Cynic, not because I don't believe in quality initiatives as a whole, but rather because Six Sigma is simply rehashed and repackaged TQM that is generally poorly implemented AND institutionalized (see Deming's 14 points) in most organizations.  And according to Chakravorty's research, 60% of all Six Sigma corporate initiatives fail to yield the desired results.  (Insert shocked face here.)

I liked how the article summed up the four major findings behind the tepid success:

First, the extended involvement of a Six Sigma or other improvement expert is required if teams are to remain motivated, continue learning and maintain gains. If the cost of assigning an improvement expert to each team on a full-time basis is prohibitive, one improvement expert could be assigned on a part-time basis to several teams for an extended period of one to two years. Later, managers could be trained to take over that role.

Second, performance appraisals need to be tied to successful implementation of improvement projects. Studies point out that raises, even in small amounts, can motivate team members to embrace new, better work practices. Without such incentives, employees often regress to their old ways of working once the initial enthusiasm for Six Sigma dies down.

Third, improvement teams should have no more than six to nine members, and the timeline for launching a project should be no longer than six to eight weeks. The bigger the team, the greater the chance members will have competing interests and the harder it will be for them to agree on goals, especially after the improvement expert has moved on to a new project. And the longer it takes to implement improvements, the greater the chance people and resources will be diverted to other efforts.

Fourth, executives need to directly participate in improvement projects, not just "support" them. Because it was in his best interests, the director in charge of the improvement projects at the aerospace company created the illusion that everything was great by communicating only about projects that were yielding excellent results. By observing the successes and failures of improvement programs firsthand, rather than relying on someone else's interpretation, executives can make more accurate assessments as to which ones are worth continuing.

While all good and valid points, I would add a fifth item to these:  Most six sigma and lean initiatives focus too much on the process and not nearly enough on the inputs and outputs which bookend the process.  It's like ooh-ing and ah-ing over power tools but never building anything or having a state of the art kitchen but always going out to eat.  People care more about the accomplishments, the outputs.  Every system allows for some degree of inefficiency; some even mandate it.  This is why I completely downplayed the role of the transformation process in SWAT - Seize the Accomplishment.  Those tools all exist, and they make sense.  But if your organization can't master Chakravorty's four points (with my one addendum), no number of master black belts will help your organization get from point A to point B (but you will wander very efficiently).


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Josh Nankivel

I disagree with the second point to an extent.

Those familiar with research on functional fixedness and hygiene factors may know that in tasks requiring higher cognitive functions and creativity, problem solving, etc. the carrot-and-stick approaches with monetary compensation just don't work.

Now, the "performance review" should be a lot more than just a potential raise in salary but unfortunately in many organizations that is exactly what it is, and all that it is.

I'm led to believe that monetary incentives can be effective only in the short term and for routine work. Perhaps people are becoming unmotivated in the late stages because managers are trying to bribe their employees into being motivated, even when the employees are not bought into the change.

It's better for employees to be empowered, see how the changes will improve their working environment, etc. It's not real motivation unless they are doing it because they WANT to do it, no bribes attached.

Josh Nankivel

Timothy Johnson

I would agree with you on that point, Josh. Compensation and reward are tricky minefields, and Herzberg would be proud of you for making the point. Organizations do a sub-par job of rewarding employees for behavior and aligning the "feedback loop" with the output.

Too few employees are invited to WANT Six Sigma... it is thrust upon them by executive brain fart. So they go through the motions of the chosen few Master Black Belts, and then undermine the efforts (either consciously to maintain the status quo or subconsciously through apathy to the initiative).

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I think that #2 is valid. I have seen it in my employees, the promise of a raise is always motivation to work harder and at a higher quality. Then you have to follow through or else they are always chasing their tails. Good post, your addition is well warranted.

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