Show Me The Money!

The 56th Annual ASQ Quality Congress is now history. After some reflection on my interactions with hundreds of people who visited our booth at the show, here are the trends that I perceived.

All-or-Nothing vs "There has to be a better way"
The Six Sigma world seems to be increasingly divided between the haves and the have nots, the Six Sigma snobs and the plebian masses. The reigning wisdom seems to be that to succeed at Six Sigma, you have to embark on a total cultural transformation. So you can only implement Six Sigma if you have the CEO's buy-in and deep pockets that can absorb the financial and cultural shock of training lots of green and black belts, starting lots of teams, and waiting years for results. To play at this level of the game, you have to be a Fortune 100 or 200 company; you need to be Jack Welch and GE.

Sadly, I didn't hear anyone talking about the benefits they'd achieved from implementing such a transformation. There seems to be this illusion that if you embark on Six Sigma, you'll magically be transported to a place of productivity and profitability. Nothing can be further from the truth. I heard too many stories of massive investment in Six Sigma with little return. One quality auditor expressed concern that we aren't measuring the ROI of Six Sigma; we're just fooling ourselves. After you pony up $15,000-$35,000 for Black Belt training and $9,000 for the black belt's training time and $15,000 for each team, are you going to get at least $50,000 a project?

There has to be a better way
A lot of people who stopped by our booth were from smaller companies. They fear that the big businesses will be able to outperform them using Six Sigma. Their concerns were all the same: "We can't afford this all-or-nothing, bet the business approach to Six Sigma…Isn't there a better way?"

For those of you who have been reading this newsletter for some time, you know there is a better way that produces better results with minimal risk: I told these folks about the 4-50 rule (how 4% of your business produces over 50% of the waste, rework, and delay). Then I told them how they could use the power of "diffusion" to implement Six Sigma: start with the first 4%, then the next 4%, and so on until they reach a critical mass where Six Sigma will sweep through the company, pulled forward by word of mouth. As I explained this "crawl-walk-run" approach, each person seemed to awaken from their fog of despair and envision a path to Six Sigma that was doable.

Profound Knowledge
The emphasis in Six Sigma, like TQM before it, is still on training, not results. There were entertaining sessions about how to teach quality methods using M&Ms and automated "bead" experiments. All this tells me is that most people still don't know how to transfer the skills of Six Sigma in ways that will deliver workplace results.

Show Me the Money
Because everyone wants to be certified as a black belt to enrich their resume and fatten their own bottom line, the black belt certification business is kicking into high gear. In every college town, someone is designing a certification program to crank out black belts like Detroit cranks out cars. In a couple of years, everyone will have a certification. Black Belts will be as common as high school diplomas, and just about as useless. It's not how much you know, it's what you can do with what you know.

One quality engineer expressed concern that with all of our manufacturing going off-shore to places where workers are cheap, there won't be enough work in this country for the existing quality workers. To this I say: we haven't begun to work on the quality of our service and information businesses. No matter what business you're in, there will always be a demand to be better, faster, and cheaper than your competition, and that's the heart of Six Sigma-quality, speed, and profitability.

Be a Money Belt!
The corporate jury is still out on Six Sigma. Without dramatic examples of success, Six Sigma will go the way of TQM and quality circles. I encourage you to be a Six Sigma Money Belt™. Show me the money! Develop a rich resume of successful projects that give meaning to your black belt certification. Tell your leadership, your customers, and the world how much you've saved.

Otherwise Six Sigma will die out like its predecessors. Then by 2010 a new buzzword will give life to the same improvement methods. And we'll start a new round of corporate cultural transformation and training. By then I might be jaded enough to start my own certification program and be satisfied with training unsuspecting converts in the exotic depths of statistics without regard for their success on the job.

No, probably not.

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,"

Free Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt TrainingTake our FREE Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt training online.