Spring Forward, Fall Back

This mantra of daylight savings time that I learned as a kid seems to hold true for Six Sigma as well. Back in February, Quality Digest's survey found that most large companies were springing forward with Six Sigma and then falling back two-three years later when time, money, lack of ROI, or a change of CEO cast a shadow over the promise of Six Sigma.

I recently spent some time with a large power company that had actively pursued quality in the 1980s under the leadership of one CEO, only to reverse course during the 1990s under another CEO. Sadly, most of the skilled quality personnel left during that period. And now, in 2003, they're returning to quality under the Six Sigma umbrella and they are using a version of my crawl-walk-run approach to do it.

Rather than invest in massive training programs, the quality staff is quietly finding operational VPs that want to cut costs and boost profits. Then they use the methods and tools of quality to make those improvements and convince the VP that Six Sigma can help them 1) get ahead personally, and 2) move the company forward as well. This develops buy in to create additional projects and weave quality into the fabric of the department.

Has your company jumped forward? Are you falling back? Are the returns less than expected? Is your leadership changing?

Here's what I've observed: Every company needs two key mindsets: 1) innovation, and 2) improvement. Six Sigma is the best method around for making improvements when you have linear cause-effects. (Other methods are required when you start to investigate circular or systemic cause-effects.)

Breakthrough improvements in speed, quality, and cost often lead to streamlined and simplified products and processes that lead to innovative insights. The innovations need continuous improvements to survive and thrive. And the cycle of innovate-improve starts all over again.

The good news is that the Six Sigma mindset can benefit any company, large or small, service or manufacturing, profit or non-profit. The bad news is that you will need to keep reinforcing it forever so that you keep springing forward and rarely fall back. And the crawl-walk-run approach described in Six Sigma Simplified is the best method I have found to take baby steps with Six Sigma that produce giant leaps in performance.

This is what the science of complexity and the system thinkers call a "vicious reinforcing loop." Tiny causes have big effects that become self-reinforcing. They lead to more small steps that deliver big results and so on. As you do this, you will systematically weave Six Sigma into the fabric of the business, making it hard to rip out with each successive change of leadership or change in market conditions.

Six Sigma isn't a panacea-a cure for all things, but it is extremely good at what it does well. Get the Six Sigma mindset inside your company so that you can continue to spring forward and stop falling back.

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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