Monday, December 7, 2009

Six Sigma or not to Six Sigma? That is the question.

I was having a conversation recently with a friend who runs an academic program at a major US university. She was telling me about solving a problem in her department and how the solution was obvious so she just did it. She then related how one of her collegues protested that she should have used some six sigma tools to really understand the process before making the change. The short story is that she rejected this suggestion and just did what she knew needed to be done. A strange coincidence occured last week when Leadership Change Agent and fellow blogger Brad Kolar posted on the very same topic here. It must be something about Thansgiving that makes people contemplate their "gut feel" for things.

Of course, I think she was exactly right. This discussion reveals one of the major issues facing continuous improvement initiatives today. Doesn't matter if its Lean, Six Sigma, 8D, TRIZ or whatever the latest fad in the workplace is. If you know what to do to solve a problem, why mess around with "discovering" it. Just get your backbone up and do what you know is right.

If that's the case, then why do so many "experts" advise going through the "process" to "discover" what to do? Two reasons. First, I have found that some practitioners of six sigma have a devotion to it that borders on religious fanaticism, insisting that everything be done with six sigma. The truth is that everything should not be done with six sigma, or lean or whatever your method du jour is. There's an old saying that I like. Not sure where it came from but here it is. "When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail". What this means to me, is that we have to use different tools in our toolboxes intelligently to solve different problems appropriately. Instead of a nail, every problem is more like a snowflake, unique and different in some way from every other problem. Sure there are some common traits of certain problems, but a cookie cutter approach will only carry us so far. The second reason is really abuse of the CI method. A common misconception I hear frequently is that using the process, say six sigma, builds a solid case for management to use in decision making with all the data and statistics and stuff. The only problem is that you've spent 3-6 months to build a case to prove that you should do what you knew you should do in the beginning. The net effect is that the problem continued for 3-6 months while you deferred the decision that you knew you should make in the beginning. This is an abuse of six sigma, lean or any other CI method. It leads to criticisms of the method as slow, not innovative, or original. Abuse leads fence-sitters and non-believers to conclude that you really don't need six sigma or lean or whatever to make things better, since all six sigma does is confirm what we already knew.

So if we should not use a cookie cutter approach to problem solving, when is it appropriate to use or chose not to use a particular CI method? First, if the problem that needs to be solved has an obvious root cause and/or obvious solution, don't bother with any CI method, just summon the courage and go do it. You may need some tools to help figure out exactly what to do, but if you know, don't waste time, just go do it and start reaping the benefits sooner. If these conditions dont exist, then you really do need to consider some method to discover what is causing the problem and what should be done about it. In general, if its a variation type of problem, use six sigma, if its a waste type of problem, use lean, if its a design problem use Design for Six Sigma or TRIZ or something like that. If its a bottleneck constraint in the workflow, use Theory of Constraints(TOC). Finally, once you start to dive into the problem, don't adopt a rigid approach. Be open to use some lean to remove waste while reducing the main variation problem. If considering a waste problem, look for bottlenecks in the process and apply TOC to speed the flow throught the "factory". The bottom line is that problem solving calls for thoughtfulness, flexibility, and creativity. Above all, problem solving requires a good understanding of the different methods in the toolbox so that good decisions can be made about what to use in different situations.


Tom Gaskell said...

A great piece about choosing the right tool, not just the most convenient or fashionable. Well said! Thank you for helping to spread some common sense.

I have taken the liberty of tweeting it and re-blogging ( - hope that's OK? (If not, let me know and I will remove them.)

Jim said...


Thank you for spreading this around. I appreciate it. Its nice to hear from like minded folks out there. I've bookmarked your site for future reference. Thanks again.


Brad said...

Hey Jim,

Great post! I liked your point about people trying to use the tools to justify an obvious action. You're right, why waste all that time to do what is right.

A common mistake that people make is relying on data to prove the value of something or make a case for it. The reality is that, while data will sometimes convince someone, more often than not it just confirms their existing bias. In other words, if you need a bunch of data to "prove" that you are adding value (because no one notices otherwise), you might want to reconsider what you are doing and how much value you really add.

Jim said...


Thanks for stopping by. I agree with your point of view. I am expereincing this first hand with new responsibilities for product quality. The difference is noticable in the different actions of my team, and only confirmed by the metrics. Read chapter one of "The Brain Advantage" last night, good stuff so far.


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It is a broad concept and contains lots of techniques with which we could improve business processes. However, using theses techniques is strictly depends on how much the stakeholders want to be adherent to Six Sigma.
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