The Stewardship of Six Sigma

Authored By: Mikel J. Harry, Ph.D.

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As most of us know, Six Sigma is a fact-driven system of business management that is aimed at the realization of breakthrough performance.  Historically speaking, Six Sigma has been a top-down initiative, usually organized and led by a very special group of people – Six Sigma Champions, Master Black Belts, and Black Belts.

However, times have changed.  Today, there are few large-scale top-down deployments of Six Sigma – most being driven from the bottom-up (organizationally speaking).  As one might expect, such an inverted deployment strategy translates to new roles and responsibilities, especially for those that must govern a Six Sigma initiative and its many activities.

So as to bring the best out of people and teams, a grass-roots implementation of Six Sigma must be flexible and adaptive to ever-changing circumstances.  This is especially true when it comes to how the Six Sigma initiative is governed.  Of course, the form of governance is quite often highly dependent upon such things as, cultural diversity, prevailing competencies, resource constraints, and the goals to be achieved, just to mention a few of the many considerations.  In this context, perhaps its now time to switch our thinking to the development of Six Sigma Stewards since bottom-up deployments are becoming the rule and not the exception.

To illustrate the driving need for the stewardship role, we must consider the course of a bottom-up deployment of Six Sigma.  At the onset, Six Sigma Stewards must serve as advocates to keep the idea alive. Following this, they may find themselves in a coaching role, involved in the transfer of critical knowledge followed by the mentoring of high-potential players. After this, it is likely the Six Sigma Stewards will be called upon to lead the charge, personally demonstrating many of the principles and practices associated with the Six Sigma Body-of-Knowledge.

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The Stewards of Six Sigma must also be enablers and know how to improvise, adapt and exploit opportunities, therein driving meaningful and productive applications of Six Sigma. Along these lines, the stewards might often be expected to facilitate, manage and lead the activities of various Six Sigma teams and projects.  Very often, stewards will either directly or indirectly provide management and executive consulting along the way. Thus, it is easy to understand why it is so essential that the stewards of Six Sigma be able to quickly adapt or shift their style of governance.

In summary, a Six Sigma Steward must serve as an advocate, coach, mentor, leader, enabler, facilitator, manager and consultant (see graphic above).  As the success of Six Sigma grows within an organization, the multifaceted role of a Six Sigma Steward will likely be decomposed and subsequently delegated, especially as the infrastructure grows to support the continuance of success on a larger scale.


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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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3 Responses to The Stewardship of Six Sigma

  1. Mikel Harry says:

    Personally speaking, I believe the role of a Six Sigma Steward is reserved for a bottom-up implementation of Six Sigma. In such cases, the traditional Six Sigma roles cannot be economically or organizationally justified. Personally speaking, I do not see this role involving any type or form of formal certification.

    Very often, a company wants to “get their feet wet” with Six Sigma, but lack the faith and/or fortitude to dive into the pool’s deep end, so to speak. Consequently, a handful of early adopters, some avid believes and a few Black Belts can quietly put together a local effort to see what comes out of their efforts. If the results are positive, the successes are communicated to the next higher level.

    Until such time that the Six Sigma initiative finds its legs and produces some consistent wins, its much like a new bird just out of the nest — its fragile, unfamiliar with the environment and tries not to become a meal for some larger program or predator executive with a “anti-sigma” mentality. The objective at this point is just to keep the idea alive, get some positive buzz going, demonstrate its value to the company and begin the process of upward education.

    From this perspective, its easy to see why the role of a steward is essential for building and sustaining a grassroots Six Sigma initiative. In this context, a Six Sigma Steward is the jack of all trades and the master of none.

    For a bottom-up implementation of Six Sigma, about 80% of the initial success is about uniting a handful of dedicated people toward a common vision and then driving a few successes that can be run up the proverbial flag pole. In this context, psychology, politics, relationships and the fine art of negotiation is far more important than statistical tools, methods and infrastructure.

    Thus, over time, a grassroots Six Sigma implementation will build momentum and gain the true attention of management. At that point, the role of a Six Sigma Steward will begin to naturally decompose into the more traditional roles.

    Of course, there is far more to a bottom-up effort than what’s been discussed in this post; however, you should now have an idea of why good stewardship is important when attempting a grassroots implementation.

  2. Mikel Harry says:

    In my opinion, ISO is more of a documentation program. As a consequence, core processes can easily become “locked down” by their own documentation; thereby, discouraging further improvement. On the flip side, other ISO features are excellent. However, I’ve never heard the case where the core processes of a 4 Sigma company were improved to 5 Sigma performance as a result of the ISO certification process. Generally speaking, ISO is a good thing for a performing process (3 Sigma or less), but a major hindrance for a world-class process (5 Sigma or greater).

  3. Mikel Harry says:

    We must bear in mind that successful bottom-up Six Sigma implementations are not the general rule, but rather the exception. Generally speaking, a bottom-up implementation of Six Sigma has many obstacles to overcome along the path of its journey.

    Almost without saying, it is very difficult to build a critical mass of growth and management support while creating and sustaining a strong forward momentum, not to mention the moxy needed to concurrently knock down barriers along the way. To do so requires some exceptional stewardship skills and the persistence of a good hunting dog, not to mention the negotiation skills of a savy politician.

    A simple way to better appreciate the successful planning and execution of a grassroots implementation is to list the “evolutionary stages of deployment” on the rows of a matrix and the roles of a steward on columns (advocate, coach, mentor, leader, enabler, facilitator, manager and consultant). Then, for each row-column intersect, reason through what would be needed optimize the odds of success. Thus, you can get the “big picture” of what knowledge, skills, and tasks that will be required to initiate and govern a bottom-up deployment strategy.

    In closing, allow me to say that a grassroots installation of Six Sigma is not impossible, but to make it probable (on the first attempt) will be difficult at best. Unfortunately, the corporate world is consistently moving more towards a bottom-up strategy.

    To confound the problem even more, many companies are now attempting to create untested hybrid improvement programs that employ the grassroots method of installation. When one overlays these two factors on a “restricted cash” business model, the odds of a successful implementation are exponentially diminished.

    As unfortunate as this may be, its what’s on the plates of many change agents today. Well, it doesn’t take the Wizard-of-Oz to figure out that anyone stepping up to the plate to assume such a responsibility should own a copy of the handbook on “How to Effectively Assess and Abate Risk.” not to mention keeping an updated resume in their briefcase.

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