Six Sigma and Applied Behavior Analysis

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Often referred to as a business management system, “Six Sigma” is constituted by a hierarchical cadre of highly trained improvement specialists commonly referred to as Black Belts, Green Belts and so on.  These specialists plan and execute improvement projects that target pre-defined bottom line benefits.

To achieve their project goals, Black Belts and Green Belts implement the DMAIC Strategy (i.e., Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control) by the progressive application of data-driven tools, such as statistics and analytical graphs.  Hence, the Six Sigma motto: “Let the data do the talking.”  In this way, the cadre of specialists can statistically assure their core processes are sufficiently capable of resolving key operational issues that verifiably link to the “needle of business,” so to speak.  In this way, process performance is firmly connected to selected business objectives.

To this end, Six Sigma improvement projects are identified, selected, chartered, and executed.  Generally speaking, such projects are most often centered on the improvement of process capability.  This means that Black Belts and Green Belts must identify the “vital few” process variables and then control those factors to their most optimal operating conditions over time.

Like triggering a chain reaction, the collective improvements in process capability underwrite the resolution of pressing operational issues that moves the needle of business in a favorable direction.  Such is the Six Sigma Way.

However, in many of today’s organizations, Six Sigma practitioners have failed to discover the tremendous business opportunities that lie just beneath the surface of process optimization.  This happens because most Six Sigma projects are process-focused and adjustment-centric.  As a result, the Black Belts (and even the Green Belts) become preoccupied with finding the right “knobs” to turn.  Of course, they proceed by turning those knobs until the problem “disappears.”

After realizing the improvement in process capability: a) the resultant savings are verified; b) the project is closed; c) the rewards are rightfully bestowed and; d) the Black Belt (or Green Belt) is given another project, or returned to the general workforce with greater stature.

As the practice of Six Sigma continues to evolve, the Six Sigma community (and its thought leaders) must remain steadfast in their quest to identify and execute projects that drive substantial bottom-line results.  This is definitely the right thing to do.  However, managers and practitioners must now be equally vigilant in selecting projects that deliver recurring benefits that are sustainable over time.

To realize this vision, Six Sigma practitioners must now look beyond the technological antecedents of process capability.  They must now consider the human factor. This means that we must increase our resolve to identify and improve the human behaviors that underpin the longitudinal success of our daily operations.  In this way, we can proactively assure the realization of immediate benefits, but do so without leaving any recurring benefits on the table, so to speak.

To move the recurring benefits off the table and into the organization’s coffers, we must provide our Six Sigma practitioners with new knowledge, skills and resources.  We must give them the capability to make lasting behavioral improvements to support the optimal operation of highly capable processes.  By doing so, we can avoid the unnecessary extinction of beneficial work habits and the consequential degradation of process capability.

To realize this intent, model behaviors must be identified, verified and subsequently documented in the form of procedures and operating policies.  By nature, if the model behaviors are not sufficiently reinforced through meaningful and substantive mechanisms (such as personal rewards and operating policies), the model behaviors will naturally be extinguished over time and revert to their previous paradigm or original pattern.  At the same time, the benefits associated with such on-going behaviors will also evaporate.  On the other hand, if such behaviors are optimized and made reliable, the recurring benefits can be continually harvested.

Owing to the merits of these arguments, it becomes obvious that we must now identify and successfully leverage the behavior-centric aspects that fortify process-centric projects.  So, whenever a Six Sigma project is aimed at the optimization of process capability, we must charter a supporting project (of a parallel nature) that is designed to concurrently optimize the human contribution.  As would be expected, there is often a great monetary value attached to this strategy.  To realize this additional project value, we must start including human behavior as a contributory agent.  By doing so, we can begin to enjoy higher projects yields with a greater return on the total project investment.

Thus, we can embed our technological solutions with the model behaviors that will sustain the gains, so to speak.  But without such purposeful consideration, the inherent capability of our core processes can only be conditionally improved, which means they cannot be optimized to their full potential – and that means leaving hard cash on the table.

In the light of such logical reasoning, this thought leader has turned his attention to the inspiring power afforded to us by a proactive disciple within the field of psychology.  By linking the best practices of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to the field of Six Sigma, we can create additional benefits that are made to be recurring and sustainable over time.  Through this well established and mature science, the business impact of critical human behaviors can be made more measurable, reliable, verifiable, repeatable and accountable.

A tall order indeed, but this field of study has the data to substantiate their claims.  Even more amazing is that such professionals have been working in the area of process improvement for many years, even longer than Six Sigma has been around.  So make no mistake, they know what they’re doing.  They know how to drive and sustain model behaviors.  They know how to deliver substantial benefits in a highly reliable way.  In this context, the field of ABA is a natural and synergistic partner to the practice of Six Sigma.

No longer do we have to “leave money on the table” after a project has concluded.  No longer do we have to walk away from a completed project knowing the workforce will not be able to sustain the optimal process conditions.  No longer do we have to use pop-psychology to augment our process improvement projects. We now have an ally in the war on variation.  This means that others have heard the clarion call and risen to the challenge.  The field of ABA can help us battle rising costs while concurrently improving our product quality and customer satisfaction.  So put Google to work and check out what ABA is all about.  You will make some discoveries that are more than worthy of your time.

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Copyright 2013 Dr. Mikel J. Harry, Ltd.

About Mikel Harry

Dr. Harry has been widely recognized in many of today's notable publications as the Co-Creator of Six Sigma and the world's leading authority within this field. His book entitled Six Sigma: The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations has been on the best seller list of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Business Week, and He has been a consultant to many of the world’s top senior executives, such as Jack Welch, former CEO and Chairman of General Electric Corporation. Dr. Harry has also been a featured guest on popular television programs, such as the premier NBC show "Power Lunch." He is often quoted in newspapers like USA Today and interviewed by the media, such as The Economic Times. In addition, Dr. Harry has received many distinguished awards in recognition of his contributions to industry and society. At the present time, Dr. Harry is Chairman of the Six Sigma Management Institute and CEO of The Great Discovery, LLC.
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2 Responses to Six Sigma and Applied Behavior Analysis

  1. Siggi Sigurdsson says:

    Fantastic post! I suggest people acquaint themselves with books by Aubrey Daniels and Leslie Bracksick to learn more about ABA applied to business.

    • Cloyd Hyten says:

      Aubrey Daniels (ADI) offers a book (“Sustain your Gains”) and a workshop (Behavioral Lean Sigma) on integrating applied behavior analysis into Lean and Six Sigma applications.

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