The Sovereignty of Six Sigma


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These days, there are not many high-rollers when it comes to the full-scale deployment of Six Sigma.  While this trend will likely continue for large-scale companies, mid-sized organizations will probably pick up some of the slack.  However, it is doubtful that most small businesses ($100M and less) will ante up to using the more classical forms of Six Sigma, especially the mountain of “mom-and-pop shops” in the world.  The resource base of small organizations would simply be crushed by the astounding weight of classical Sigma.  Hence, the recent industry-wide effort to whittle Six Sigma into a few toothpicks.

Unfortunately, attempts to down-scale, dilute or otherwise shrink the classical form of Six Sigma has met with very limited success, where success is defined as a significant and verifiable movement in the needle of business.  Perhaps such efforts continue because so many of the younger, less experienced Six Sigma consultancies lack the leadership backbone to tell their prospective clients what they really need, which may not be in their showcase of offerings.  They are afraid of losing a potential client, so they adopt a “sell them whatever they want and we’ll make it happen” kind of business philosophy.

Sadly, such programs are often hyped as “innovative interpretations” of the original recipe, but in reality, are nothing more than a restricted collection of simple tools, only loosely connected by the DMAIC methodology.  While these programs are long on palatability, they are often woefully short on power.  As a consequence the ROI of Six Sigma projects plummets.  In many project cases, the aggregation of cost-avoidance coupled with an array of estimated soft savings defines the client’s idea of what it means to make a business improvement.

Like a miracle diet, prospective clients are led to believe the consultancy’s reduced-fat brand of Six Sigma will somehow taste better and have greater nutritional value while being sold at a highly discounted rate (when compared to their historical convention).  To make things even worse, the client injects cost-avoidance and good-will projects.  Of course, the resulting blend of tools, methods and specialized projects are packaged in the box of Six Sigma and then promoted to the world as something new and innovative  – even before the hybrid program bears fruit.

Almost without exception, the hybrid program winds up being “proprietary in nature” or “company confidential;” consequently, the overly hyped program is not open for public scrutiny.  Generally speaking, the use labels and claims are frequently used to mask the true sub-standard nature of their intellectual property, not safeguard the value of its originality, uniqueness or economic worth. Other’s simply justify their diluted Six Sigma program on the grounds that it’s less stressful on the client’s organization, faster to implement and easier on the pocketbook when compared to traditional deployments.  Some even insist their weakened programs will produce the same if not better results.  In some instances, such well-intentioned consultants actually come to believe their own promotions.

Essentially, many of today’s Lean Six Sigma consultancies tell their clients what they want to hear, not what they need to know.  For the client, this unscrupulous but survival oriented consulting strategy sometimes translates to the purchase of a poor curriculum that’s linked to a low-grade online learning system.  Even worse, the deception is sometimes driven by emotion-centric advertising such as “Get Your Black Belt Certification in Just Three Days by Enrolling in Our Six Sigma Email Correspondence Course – 100% Pass Rate for just $99 – Money Back Guarantee – Corporate Licensing Available.”

Perhaps these so called consultancies are better described as “paper mills” that operate on the periphery of industry’s radar screen.  They fly low and fast and often fail to grasp the defining differences between a good capitalist and an opportunist predator.  Usually, their sales practices are built around the Darwinist philosophy of ensuring short-term subsistence, which often entails publishing false and misleading sales collateral, as well as the public bashing of branded, well respected Six Sigma consultants and businesses.  In their mind, “the means justifies the end” in an economic climate of “eat or be eaten.”

For example, consider a seminar called Six Sigma for Leaders that was hosted by Global Productivity Solutions (GPS).  The seminar sales brochure cited Gary Cone as the training leader.  It also states that Gary is the Godfather of Six Sigma and original Co-Founder of Six Sigma.  Of course, these claims are demonstrably false (as backed by hard documents).  In reality, Gary was only tangentially involved in the initial up-tick of Six Sigma at Motorola and even then, only after it had already been designed, developed and communicated by this writer and Bill Smith.  On his LinkedIn site under section labeled “Summary,” Gary paradoxically says he wants his epitaph to read: more interested in principle than money.”  Needless to say, such marketing tactics don’t quite fit in box called “Consulting Ethics and Best Practices.”

Essentially, deceptive consultants that blend truth and fiction in the namesake of marketing are much like intellectual prostitutes roaming the streets of Six Sigma looking for their next customer. Their boardwalk enticements quickly fade once the transaction has been consummated.  They prospect for naïve individuals and unwitting organizations that are attracted to glitzy promotions supported by inflated credentials made of silicon.  Almost inevitably, they tout quick fixes and simple solutions using what they often call short-cycle low cost training.

Thus, unscrupulous consultants are able to leverage an organization’s blinding drive for short-term profits. Such consultancies are not looking to develop a long-term relationship that breeds mutual success, only a short-term arrangement that generates large amounts of cash with no performance commitments.  Worse yet, they know there is no “vice squad” to move them off the street.  So, they take the mindset that: “We have the same right to be here as you.  You can say what you believe and so can we.”  On the flip side there are many well established and highly respected consultants like Dr. Douglas Mader, Dr. Steve Zinkgraph and Dr. Thomas Pyzdek, just to mention a few.  You sure don’t see these gentlemen hawking around on discussion boards like the one at iSixSigma.com.

Sadly, too many of the newer consultancies rely on deception to gain a foothold in the marketplace.  They knowingly and cleverly provide fabricated, tainted or distorted information.  Their brand of the truth is often created by the omission and commission of information.  Straight up, their goal is to lull a prospective client into a false sense of security by omitting or reshaping key pieces of decision-centric information and data.  Historically, this has been the exception and not the rule; however, in more recent times, such professional transgressions seem to be on the upswing, especially as Six Sigma practices becomes melded into other disciplines.  As one might suspect, a sluggish economy is likely to be the motivating force behind the increased usage of such practices.

The faithful promises of shady Six Sigma consultancies are many and their fruits are few.  Thus, individuals and organizations are misguided into a business relationship they often latter regret.  This is not unique to the field of Six Sigma; however, as an industry, we should look to other fields and benchmark what they have done to reduce the incidence of bad practice.  Getting good data to do this can be difficult, to say the least.  After all, no one likes admitting they were sucked into a marketing vortex of deceit and manipulation.  Consequently, those that fall prey to such consultancies tend to remain silent and lay blame at the doorstep of Six Sigma; and do so in an effort to rationalize their failure and belay criticism.  For some time, the literature has been studded with corporate stories that testify to the failure of Six Sigma.  The earmark of such testimony is best characterized by the theme: “We tried it, but it didn’t work; therefore, it’s bad.”  Here again, this trend seems to be continuing, but is somewhat balanced by the uncoordinated efforts of the Six Sigma community.

If a physician or hospital developed a deceptive marketing strategy, the resulting sales campaign would not be met with benign resistance.  Organizations like the American Medical Association would take action, although many might view the challenge to be without teeth.  Just imagine going to your doctor with a broken arm, only to be convincingly sold on the merits of an appendectomy.  Owing to this and other economic considerations, the Six Sigma industry has become “survival motivated,” especially if they are bound to brick-and-mortar offices and classrooms that require the on-going outlay of money.  This writer is reminded of the old phrase: “Desparate people do desparate things, regardless of the cost to society.”

If the Six Sigma industry is to remain intact and continue to be recognized as a professional field, it will have to adopt and brand a universal set of nonpartisan business standards, much like the “Good Housekeeping” mark or the “UL Approved” seal.  By no means is this to say that the Six Sigma industry should standardize its tools and methods, just the behavioral ethics of its practitioners and supporting businesses.  Certainly, it will not eradicate the small population of shady consultants, but it would go a long way in thinning out the herd.

It should be pointed out that the aforementioned issue is generally restricted to limited number of Six Sigma purveyors.  Though small in number, their negative impact is high.  Interestingly, suppliers of supporting software have followed a more straight and narrow path in terms of business principles and ethics.  When a Six Sigma consultancy fails to produce the promised benefits, they usually contend the client did something managerially wrong or operationally inappropriate.  Hence, unprincipled consultancies rely on “plausible deniability” when called to task on their lackluster performance. 

In most cases, when a piece of software fails to perform as advertised, the finger of blame can only be extended in one direction – to the supplier.  Consequently, software companies that undergird the Six Sigma industry are far more vulnerable to the long-term effects of deceptive marketing practices.  For this and other reasons, they tend to be more candid about their true capabilities and limitations, especially during the course of a due-diligence investigation.

For quite some time, efforts have failed to create a universally accepted Six Sigma certification or set of professional ethics.  This is largely because key industry leaders have not been able to agree on a single originating source of authentication and validation.  Some say the American Society of Quality (ASQ) is a potentially acceptable source, yet others argue that, by virtue of its historical antecedents, ASQ is philosophically at odds with the nature and purpose of Six Sigma.  For example, few would debate the point that ASQ is concerned with the “business of quality,” whereas Six Sigma is centered on the “quality of business.”  In other words, ASQ is defect-centric versus dollar-centric, at least until they tasted the gold of Six Sigma.  As one might suspect, this author adamantly agrees.

Consequentially, it is doubtful the Six Sigma industry will be unified any time soon.  If Six Sigma has an Achilles heel, this limitation would likely be one of the top contenders.  As many say, the world of Six Sigma is much like the old west – let only the strong survive and may the buyer beware, although there are signs this mentality (and practice) is shifting to a more civilized view.  Analogously speaking, the old military strategy of “carpet bombing” is giving way to “precision disablement.”  Like the military, technology is reshaping strategy and tactics in the practice and support of Six Sigma.  This trend will likely continue, but at an increased rate of change.

On an upshot, many would argue that even if the Six Sigma industry could manage to unify itself and adopt global standards for key consciences and conventions, innovation would likely suffer.  Opponents of unification contend that a single authenticating body – or even an ISO like system of verification and validation – would create unnecessary paperwork and induce too many drawbacks.  Of course, they extend the argument by suggesting that such limitations would be naturally cascaded into the industry’s customer base, ultimately constraining product and process innovation.

For example, opponents of the ISO system maintain that criterion-based certifications do nothing more than assure average performance remains average.  Once middle management has achieved a perceptually valuable certification, the freeze is on.  Accordingly, the organization becomes change adverse.  Thus, opponents contend that ISO does nothing more than force companies into a sustaining mode that safeguards the status-quo versus a workplace that fosters experimentation, exploration, innovation, optimization and creativity.  Figuratively speaking, it’s a standoff, not a showdown.  Both have their merits and disadvantages; however, many organizations are starting to find balance.  Thus, we have the mindset of “and” versus “or.”  As of this writing, the trend is toward exploiting the benefits of balance.

From yet another perspective, proponents of Six Sigma insist that it’s best characterized as an “open architecture environment with a strong and well defined superstructure.”  Perhaps this is saying that Six Sigma is highly adaptable to many types of applications, yet rigorous in its execution.  Advocates are the first to say that Six Sigma is process-centric, both in application and philosophy.  In fact, they adamantly believe that Six Sigma encourages innovation.  Proponents assert that Six Sigma is functionally adaptive yet carries scientific discipline.  They represent the position that Six Sigma can be easily molded to satisfy virtually any type of business need.  In support of this, proponents are anxious to point out that the problem is not the gun (so to speak), it’s the mindset, intention and motive behind the trigger.

Perhaps embedded within this on-going debate is a covert signal that heralds the need for self-examination.  Perhaps it’s high time for the industry to stop the infighting and consider “Sigmatizing” itself.  Unfortunately, this writer does not believe that such a banner will be transformed into a trend or pattern of concerted effort.  This might happen in the long-term, but not within the foreseeable future.

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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 Amazon.com. 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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9 Responses to The Sovereignty of Six Sigma

  1. Wow! I loved every bit of the article Dr.Harry.Thank you so much!

    I have to say I’m with you Stanley. We need our founding fathers to set the standard.If not all but, at least for those who really values Six Sigma for what it is to adjust one’s self. I thought ISO 13053-1 & 2 was a start, but I doubt whether Dr.Harry was involved in the whole process.

    However, I think some dollar driven organizations will still not change, but it will at least help customers/clients to differentiate what’s real SS and what’s not!

    I have couple of questions Dr. Harry;

    I see so many concepts, standards tries to piggyback on Six Sigma by referencing it to its core application methodology to survive in the market (e.g. CMMi, PCMM, COPC etc.). Even it seems good for the promotion of Six Sigma and may act as a trigger for its deployment, I always wanted to know your views on this.

    The other question is adding tools specific to certain business domains to DMAIC (for example referencing eTOM by a Telco or ASHRAE by a commissioning agent) is acceptable or it has to be called something else?

    Thank you again!
    Dumidu (from Sri Lanka)

    • Mikel Harry says:

      Dumidu Ranaweera:

      To your first question. I do like your line of reasoning with a couple of exceptions. In my opinion, attempting to attach or otherwise align certain elements of Six Sigma to other programs, initiatives and standards really fragments the synergism of the “Six Sigma System.” Granted, it may be good for PR purposes, but on the other hand, it could lead to the further dilution of Six Sigma in order to make all the moving pieces fit. Personally, I believe Six Sigma should be the umbrella under which the other programs are postured, not the other way around. Six Sigma has delivered incredible results over the last 30 years, so if its not broke, why try to fix it.

      To your second question. On the one hand, the standardization of Six Sigma has many benefits and some major drawbacks. For example, standardization greatly reduces an organization’s ability to mold it to their specific needs. The upshot is that standardization strengthens curriculum integrity, process of application and so on. This keeps everyone on the same sheet of music. At the same time, it gives Black Belts and Green Belts greater job mobility, which would not hold true without standardization. I do believe we could write an entire book of the pro’s and con’s on this subject alone.

      Thank you for your interest and great questions.

      Mike Harry

  2. Wow! I loved every bit of the article Dr.Harry.Thank you so much!

    I have to say I’m with you Stanley. We need our founding fathers to set the standard.If not all but, at least for those who really values Six Sigma for what it is to adjust one’s self. I thought ISO 13053-1 & 2 was a start, but I doubt whether Dr Haryy was involved in the whole process.

    However, I think some dollar driven organizations will still not change, but it will at least help customers/clients to differentiate what’s real SS and what’s not!

    I have couple of questions Dr. Harry;

    I see so many concepts, standards tries to piggyback on Six Sigma by referencing it to its core application methodology to survive in the market (e.g. CMMi, PCMM, COPC etc.). Even it seems good for the promotion of Six Sigma and may act as a trigger for its deployment, I always wanted to know your views on this.

    The other question is adding tools specific to certain business domains to DMAIC (for example referencing eTOM by a Telco or ASHRAE by a commissioning agent) is acceptable or it has to be called something else?

    Thank you again!
    Dumidu (from Sri Lanka)

  3. Steve Nguyen says:

    If all LSS practitioners are graphed in a bell curve shape, what percentage of us would be in 3 or 4 six sigma curve of competency and more importantly our ability to acknowledge where we are and how to close the gap in the core competency of LSS in order to be value added to businesses?

    • Mikel Harry says:

      Assuming a bell curve, 50% of the LSS practitioners would have a competency level above average and 50% below average. So, the probability of working with two “below average” LSS practitioners would be 50% x 50% = 25%. In the same way, we determine that working with 3 would be 12.5% and so on. Sooner or later you will have some incompetent practitioners on your team (if left to random chance). The larger question is: “Do you have a plan that calls for upgrading the knowledge of the lower grade players?”

  4. Stanley A says:

    Dr.- this is a good read. However, I believe in standardizing the SS practice. Innovation and creativity can still be encouraged within the industry. Look at the medical field for instance, the physicians still get board certified and there has been great advancements in medicine today compared to years ago. You and your colleagues who started SS should come together and agree on a body of knowledge which will serve as a reference for all SS practitioners. This BOK will continuously be modified and updated base on acceptable innovations and creativity within the industry. Thanks.

  5. Reblogged this on Mbarriger and commented:
    Six Sigma as a tool for companies $100M or less.

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