Why I don’t do Six Sigma

Six sigma tool kitI get a lot of calls asking if I “do” Six Sigma. While I use some elements of the Six Sigma tool kit, no, I don’t do Six Sigma.

I am not a black belt or even a green belt. Now, the reasons are not what you might be thinking. I am familiar with Six Sigma. And I have seen it work very well in many organizations. When I worked in GE, you could not avoid it. GE was an early adopter of Six Sigma. Many GE alumni went on to spread the gospel in other companies.

What is Six Sigma?

In a nutshell, Six Sigma is a structured approach to reducing the number of defects that result from business processes. In service terms, you can use the term error rather than defect. Sounds like the perfect thing for me to be doing for my clients.

So why do I steer clear of Six Sigma? Well, it’s not because the majority of Six Sigma initiatives fail, although they do.  Between 60% and 74% depending on whose surveys you read.

And it is not because I believe Six Sigma projects suffer from all the usual defects of big corporate initiatives, like poor project management, scope creep, and lack of senior executive support. All the usual suspects.

Mostly, I avoid it because it does not work in the kind of areas I specialize in.  time. There are simply some places that do not benefit from the full Six Sigma treatment. By that, I mean the general area of knowledge work. AKA, back office, white collar, electronic processes. So right there, that’s most of the work  we do in North America.

Now, there are bits of Six Sigma that I happily and shamelessly steal. For starters, I find that the DMAIC  (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) stuff works well. It is a good discipline. But one to adapt, not follow slavishly.

Six Sigma Tool Kit

The 5 Whys tool is great for getting to the cause of a process issue.  It does not rely on statistical methods and bunches of data. Two items that are often in short supply in the real world of office processes.

Likewise, I make use of fishbone diagrams. People can understand cause and effect diagrams without lengthy explanations. They are a great way to structure problems solving.  But in fairness, fishbone diagrams were in use decades before Six Sigma.

The part that I am really skeptical about is Measure. The M in DMAIC. Trying to measure messy transaction flows in an office processes is really, really hard. It’s just not the same as, say, measuring the deviation of the diameter of extruded plastic in parts per million.

Six Sigma works best when there is very little variation in a given process. It really needs tons of data to shine.

Six Sigma Weakness

And going through the whole method, it is pretty ponderous. Meaning slow. What you need is something that produces results quickly. Not something that soaks up resources and training for months before it delivers.  Not to mention that is expensive to train or to hire in consultants with the right certification.

Six Sigma weakness

The other weakness of Six Sigma in an office setting is that it focuses on a single process at a time. Nobody even thinks about that. But people working in offices work on multiple concurrent processes. Unlike assembly line workers, they are rarely dedicated to one single process.

Their problem is usually not with the steps in any particular process. Instead, what screws them up is switching between processes. That is where office people’s efficiency suffers. Every time they switch from one thing to another, there are tiny built in delays. And those add up to something that is utterly invisible to Six Sigma. It does not even consider them.

So no, I don’t do Six Sigma. I don’t recommend it for the typical office environment. Unless you have highly repetitive processes that people are more or less dedicated to, it’s not the right approach. That’s not to say you can’t borrow from the Six Sigma tool kit. Just don’t drink the Kool Aid.

So when it is a single process, you don’t need anything elaborate to produce a result.

For 90% of the organizations I come across, what works best is something simple. You can map a process on a whiteboard with a group of people in an afternoon.

People who are using the process don’t need data to tell you what is going wrong. They have been doing it forever and they are dying to tell you. I just give them that opportunity. Sometimes, I feel like a  lightening conductor.


9 Responses to Why I don’t do Six Sigma

  1. Jorge May 30, 2016 at 8:40 am #

    Dear Ian,

    I’m surprised not to read more comments on your web…

    You have came up with a great, not to say amazing, site. I’m reading one post after another and each of them are giving me some precious information I need to finish a project I’m involved in right now. That “feeling” is not easy to find nowadays, you know?

    Thanks, thanks a lot!


    • Klaus October 20, 2016 at 8:18 am #

      I feel exactly the same. This website is explaining well what business process is all about. I totally agree with his thoughts on Six Sigma.

      Keep up the good job and thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.

  2. MS July 12, 2016 at 11:05 pm #

    Real world,No-nonsense insights that are implementable.
    Amazing work!!
    Thanks a bunch for giving lean answers 🙂

  3. Terry Hopper January 12, 2017 at 5:14 pm #

    Hi Ian, I’m blown away by your down-to-earth approach to process improvement. Your blog is excellent!

    I work in a similar field and try to adopt a similar approach. But this is quite rare, with most other consultants using acronyms, jargon or Japanese.

    Please do have a look at my post ‘7 signs a process is broken’ where I interpret the 7 ‘wastes’ of Lean. http://www.middlestone.ltd/blog/signs-a-business-process-is-broken

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Strad March 8, 2017 at 2:54 am #

    I love what you are saying here, there are items in the six sigma tool kit that have been brought into it because they work – DMAIC, 5 whys, Fishbone existed outside of what is now six sigma. There are plenty of tools in Lean, Six Sigma, Agile and other business systems that can used to create the best work flow for an individual business. The fun bit is knowing which tools fit which business and how they should apply it :-).

    I loved novel application of six sigma in terms of statistical process control where it was appropriate, a great way to help find oddities in flow of work, but to me six sigma has drifted so far from the process control roots it has grown into branded lean.

    • The Process Consultant March 8, 2017 at 7:59 am #

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t want to say that six sigma is useless, but I agree it has drifted from its roots. I see some consultants using it to charge more than they should. A bit like stores that doubles the price for a tee-shirt because it has an upmarket logo on the front.

  5. William Folde III July 30, 2017 at 8:53 pm #

    Six Sigma is a fancy and expensive way of saying and practicing “Micro Management”. Using Common Sense is far more successful and it’s FREE.

    I would not hire anyone that has “bought into” Six Sigma. You’ll
    spend too much time and money fix their mistakes, and deprogramming their micromanagement/six sigma mindset.

  6. Purvi Desai May 22, 2018 at 5:38 am #

    Hello Ian,
    I agree with each and every word you have mentioned in this article.
    Truly insightful.
    Limiting Six Sigma methodology to non statistical approach is the best when dealing with small to mid size organizations having varied type of projects.
    I appreciate all your articles. You made me read most of them in a single day !!!

  7. Sadique Salim February 9, 2019 at 1:10 am #

    Nice article.

    I would say that we tend to forget the Six Sigma Tree: ground fruits, low hanging fruits sweet fruits, top fruits etc. NOT EVERY PROJECT IS SIX SIGMA. if you know the cause and solution, just do it instead of going through the whole DMAIC. I remember Dr. Harry said that Six sigma is an umbrella under which various tools and techniques are brought in. So we should take it as it is. If you have a toolbox and only need the screw driver, don’t bring the hammer out.

    However I disagree with your assessment that six sigma looks at a process. Tough the statement is correct, it doesnt tell the whole truth. What is a process? a process can be a two step one or 200/2000 step. It depends on the value it can create. and the process mapping actually starts from SIPOC and stakeholder analysis, so to try to say that six sigma projects are done in isolation is probably not right.

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