Six Sigma R.I.P.

If you google Six Sigma, you get the impression that it is a going concern, with all sorts of organizations offering training and consulting on how to implement it. If you dig just a bit deeper, you run into a Business Week article from June 11, 2007 entitled Six Sigma: So Yesterday? It explained how the best known Six Sigma icons, like GE, 3M, Home Depot, or Motorola were “dialing it back.” Whatever this may mean, it is difficult to imagine ambitious employees in a company showing enthusiasm for a program that is being “dialed back.”

The same article attributes the following statement to GE’s former CEO Jack Welch about Six Sigma: “Even if the concept is applied in areas where perhaps it shouldn’t be, it’ll be worth it in the long run.” It makes you wonder how he would have liked to work in such an area, with management knowingly pressuring him to implement an irrelevant method.

Now that the Six Sigma craze is over, there is no much merit in criticizing it. Ever since I was first exposed to it in the 1990s, I have perceived it as a welcome update of the now 90-year-old tools of Statistical Process Control (SPC), useful in industries where, if your process is mature, your product is obsolete. This applies in semiconductors and other high-technology manufacturing sectors, but not in mature sectors like automotive.

It never struck me as having the potential to be a revolution in business or comparable in scope and impact to Lean. Saying so 10 years ago made many people angry but I did worse: I put in writing, in an article entitled Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing that was published by the SME in a Six Sigma newsletter in July, 2002.

If you google Motorola +Six-Sigma, you learn that Motorola no longer teaches Six Sigma business improvement. Given that Motorola is where Six Sigma was invented, the equivalent would be for Toyota to dump Lean. Maybe it is time to dial down the Six Sigma training programs.