The Evolution of Six Sigma

Evolution of Six Sigma

History is littered with the sudden advent of new paradigms that explode into second order change.  As you may already know, the advent of Six Sigma is no exception.  Given the historical continuum of quality, no one could have foreseen the coming of Six Sigma.  It was a block buster – just something that happened – forged from the steel of strong leadership and hardened by the burning need for business survival and prosperity.

When the message of Six Sigma reached several of industry’s top leaders, starting with Bob Galvin at Motorola in the mid 80’s, it quickly infected the thinking of other business giants like Larry Bossily (Honeywell) and Jack Welch (General Electric).  They used more than formal knowledge and experience.  They used their passion to drive success.  Without hesitation, they quickly embraced Six Sigma and rapidly disseminated it throughout their respective organizations.  In short order, the benefits started to flow.  At this point, Six Sigma became a self-feeding bear, figuratively speaking.

When the hard financial savings began to materialize in massive quantities, there was no turning back to things like Business Re-Engineering, or the use of Total Quality Management and Kaizen.  The second order change was set into motion.  No longer did these organizations give attention to the practice of “incremental improvement” and the philosophy of “slow gradual change.”

Six Sigma had proven itself as a tool for creating sudden and dramatic change in business performance (i.e., breakthrough).  In this regard, Six Sigma was the ideal agent to disrupt an organization’s business continuum and quickly clear a path for rapid improvements in quality, profitability and customer satisfaction.  It was rapidly evolving from a defect reduction program into a system of business management.  To this end, Jack Welch made the following observations about Six Sigma:

“The big myth is that Six Sigma is about quality control and statistics.  It is that—but it is a helluva lot more.  Ultimately, it drives leadership to be better by providing tools to think through tough issues.  At Six Sigma’s core is an idea that can turn a company inside out, focusing the organization outward on the customer … Six Sigma is fundamental education, another differentiator for you, like getting your undergraduate or graduate degree … it ties all the pieces together … This is not about sloganeering or bureaucracy or filling out forms. [Six Sigma] finally gives us a route to get to the control function, the hardest thing to do in a corporation.”

The business world was set on a new course once the “shakers and movers” of industry grasped the import of Six Sigma and then successfully leveraged it to elevate their stock valuations.  Essentially, prominent business leaders drank the cool-aide and became avid disciples.  As a result, they helped to spread the word to other CEO’s, organizations and institutions.  At this point in the game, Six Sigma became viral.  It started resonating among other senior business executives across the globe.

Six Sigma was even flaunted as the poster child for several major financial institutions on Wall Street.  By this time, the Six Sigma movement was seemingly unstoppable – fueled by the desire for faster, higher profits and the promise of increased customer satisfaction and shareholder value.  No wonder all of the hype surrounding  Six Sigma was posturing it as the proverbial “magic bullet.”  Like it or not, Six Sigma was touted as a business panacea in some circles.

However, after enjoying a decade in the business spotlight, the popularity of Six Sigma began to wane, but latter made a strong comeback.  Of recent, Six Sigma has even served as a political campaign platform for the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.  No doubt, the appeal and consideration of Six Sigma continues to be strong.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the cure-all perception of Six Sigma was overplayed.  While it delivered incredible results for those with bold courage, strength of leadership and the will to win, it could easily overwhelm consensus-driven MBA-styled business leaders.  As most of the inaugural CEO’s will testify, the implanting of Six Sigma requires a leap-of-faith; and that’s not for the faint-of-heart, or those with a mindset of risk minimization.

In a manner of speaking, to win big you’ve got to play big, which means going all-in when opportunity knocks.  This translates to putting your money where your mouth is (so to speak) and then reacting to the numbers, but at the same time, leveraging your intuitive senses, following your business instincts and calling upon your formal knowledge for what makes “good business sense.”  In many ways, there is little difference between a business executive and a professional gambler.  The only difference is that many of today’s executives are less willing to place a wager when the economy is down – even though this is when Six Sigma is most needed.

Overall, there’s been a steady decline in the number of companies that are willing to go all in (because of the executive mindset).  For some time now, organizations want to test the waters before jumping in the pool (like doing detailed pilot studies and exhaustive benchmarking before making an adoption decision).  They look for absolutes in a world filled with uncertainties.  They often seek layer after layer of demonstrated success, even if the application of Six Sigma is within their own industry in a similar company with similar products and processes.

Its amazing that after 30 years of demonstrated success, testimonies from great business leaders and reinforcement from Wall Street, senior executives seek proofs that Six Sigma will work in their company – even before they wade into the shallow end of the pool.  Even when such a high level of due-diligence is accomplished (after a considerable amount of time), they often fail to join the club, so to speak.

To encapsulate the moment, many companies are starting to say things like: “In the last several years, we’ve become really good at investigating new things – even creating new things – but we’re still very poor at adopting and using new things.  We get really excited about building an environment to foster innovation, but we become paralyzed at the prospect of actually doing it.  We know this climate must change, but none of our senior leadership team is ready for the responsibility and consequences.  So, we just continually polish our status-quo to make it look and feel a little better.  We call this continuous improvement.”

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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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