Risk Free Way to Implement Lean Six Sigma

Over half of all TQM implementations failed. In the language of Six Sigma, that's one Sigma…an pathetic track record. And if you study how most companies are implementing Six Sigma, you'll find the same old formula that ruined TQM:

1. Get top leadership to commit to widespread implementation.
2.Train internal trainers (Black Belts) to minimize the costs of training everyone
3. Internal trainers train team leaders (Green Belts)
4. Start a bunch of teams
5. Hope for the best.

Everyone points to GE as a leader in Six Sigma, but if you look more closely you'll see that Jack Welch had already created a company that managed and even embraced change. So implementing Six Sigma wasn't as hard as it might be in other organizations.

Many people I talk to in various industries say that they tried TQM and it left a bad taste in their mouths. So Six Sigma not only has to overcome resistance to change, but also the bad taste left by failed TQM implementations.

So how do you implement Six Sigma in a way that's risk free? By using the proven power of diffusion (see The Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers). Over 50 years of research into how changes take root and grow in corporations and cultures suggests a much safer route to successful implementation of Six Sigma or any change.

The employee body can make three choices about Six Sigma or any change: adopt, adapt, or reject. In a world of too much to do and too little time, rejection is often the first impulse. People rarely adopt methods completely, so there must be room for adaptation to fit the corporate environment. There are five factors that affect the speed and success of Six Sigma adoption:

1. Trialability-How easy is it to "test drive" the change?
2. Simplicity-How difficult is it to understand?
3. Relative benefit-What does it offer over and above what I'm already doing?
4. Compatibility-How well does it match our environment?
5. Observability-How easy is it for leaders and opinion makers to see the benefit?

You can also speed up adoption by letting the employees decide for themselves to adopt Six Sigma rather than having the CEO decide for them (although this is how we keep preaching success-get the CEO to commit to widespread change). So, to maximize your chance of success and minimize your initial investment:

  1. Start small. Forget the 80/20 rule. Less than 4% of any business creates over half the waste and rework. So you don't have to involve more than 4% of your employees or spend a lot of money on widespread training to get results. Get an external Six Sigma consultant to help you find and create solutions using the tools and methods of Six Sigma. Your employees will learn through experience which is far more valuable than classroom training.

  2. Set BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals). Go for 50% reduction in cycle time, defects, or costs. When you're just starting out, big reductions are often easier to get than you might think, so why not go for them? This also telegraphs the message to your teams that this ain't continuous improvement.

  3. Fly under the radar. Most companies broadcast their Six Sigma initiative, and employees think: "Here comes another one." This usually stirs up the laggards and skeptics-what I call the corporate "immune system." You are much better off to make initial teams successful and let the "word of mouth" spread through informal networks, because this is the fastest way for cultures to adopt change.

  4. Create initial success. In 1980, the company I worked for brought in a trial of 20 TSO terminals (to replace the punched cards IT used). They selected a small group of programmers to use the terminals. The buzz from this one group caused TSO to be immediately accepted and integrated into the workforce. Do the same thing for Six Sigma. Only start teams that can succeed. Make a small group of early adopters successful. Then another, then another. 

    When the pioneers (early adopters) become successful, they will tell their friends. The pioneers will convince the early settlers who will eventually convince the late settlers. No one will ever convince the laggards and skeptics; they have to convince themselves..

  5. Fight the urge to widen your focus; remember the dark side of the 80/20 rule: 80% of your effort will only produce 20% of the benefit.

  6. Simplify. Using simple tools like line graphs, pareto charts, and fishbone diagrams, you can easily move from 3 to 5 Sigma (30,000 parts per million to only 300) in 18-24 months. There are lots of complex tools like QFD and DOE in Six Sigma, but you won't be ready to Design For Six Sigma (DFSS) until you simplify and streamline your existing processes and lay the groundwork for it.

  7. Review and refocus. Once you solve the initial 4% of your core problems, start on the next 4%, then the next. Diffusion research has shown that somewhere between 16-25% involvement will create a "critical mass" that cause the change to sweep through the culture.

Good News about Productivity and Profitability
When you focus on the 4% that creates over half the waste and rework, your initial teams get big benefits: 50% reduction in defects, waste, and rework and $250,000/project improvement in the bottom line. By the time you've worked your way through the first 16-20% of your problems, you will get 80% (the 80/20 rule) of the benefits of Six Sigma. And you'll have minimized your costs of implementation. Now you can grow skilled internal Black Belts from your initial improvement team members. And you can begin to think about DFSS to design your processes to deliver Six Sigma quality.

Six Sigma payoffs are huge, but you may want to consider using the power of diffusion to ensure that the methods and tools take root in your business and flourish. But it's up to you. You can choose the conventional wisdom which gives you only a 50-50 chance at success or choose the power of diffusion which increases your odds substantially. Haven't you waited long enough to start making breakthrough improvements in performance and profitability a permanent part of your business?

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537, support@qimacros.com."

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