April 2001

Vol. 3, No. 4

Six sigma and more: 
On not losing sight of the big picture

by David R. Schwinn

It's been a year since this column began to appear as a regular feature of Quality eLine each month--cause enough to celebrate. It may also be time to reflect on some of the major concepts of Six Sigma that we've examined, and on the increasing awareness of Six Sigma as a part of the evolving emphasis on quality among organizations. We have in fact looked at many different aspects of Six Sigma success, and it may be time to reflect on the whole rather than only the parts.

During the last year, we have looked at the impact of Six Sigma efforts on employees, on management style, on the company's bottom line, and on the marketplace. What deserves repeating is a theme that was raised in the very first of these columns: the impact of Six Sigma on the customer. One needs to remember that reducing defects is not an end in itself, although when we look at the statistics of the bottom line we may tend to forget that. As we noted a year ago, organizations may be operating at a level of nearly 300,000 defects per million and managing to stay in business (Six Sigma calls for a level of 3.4 defects per million.) While the company itself benefits from reduction of defects, it is ultimately the customer who enjoys enhanced quality and reduced costs, and develops loyalty to a company and its products because of this improvement.

Recall, too, that when statistical process control (SPC) was developed in the early part of this century, it sometimes became an end in itself rather than a way to improve customer satisfaction. W. Edwards Deming, modern management philosopher, insisted on the "chain reaction" of product quality, that included reducing defects, improving profits, and reaching an increasing customer base. His "plan-do-study-act" cycle illustrates the cycle of improvement that brings about these benefits to the company and its customers. Like Deming, the Six Sigma approach emphasizes quality by design, with regression analysis and design of experiments offered as integral tools. But in both cases, it is possible to focus so closely on a particular feature of the approach that one loses sight of the ultimate outcomes.

As the emphasis on quality takes hold, the roles of everyone in the organization contribute to the cycle of improvement. Once again, however, it is possible to focus only on these roles as ends in themselves rather than as part of a larger cycle of quality delivery. Getting bogged down in specific management responsibilities and policies, or dwelling on whether someone is a "project black belt" or a "green belt," without recognizing the larger impact on the customer of the process, derails the long-term possibilities for improvement.

We have seen, too, that understanding organizational culture and responding to employee needs and inputs represent a part of the big picture. It's something of a chicken-and-egg question, since the "parts" of quality improvement that are brought about through Six Sigma contribute to the "whole," but if the "whole" is seen as an emphasis on improved quality and reduced costs, this in turn contributes to the integration of the critical parts.

With the caveats offered in this column throughout the year--listening to the employee, understanding the metrics, knowing when and what kind of data to collect, building an atmosphere of trust--it may seem that any of these "are" Six Sigma. In fact, they are parts of the whole. When the blind philosophers were sent, in the Sufi story, to report back on the elephant that they had been sent to investigate, each had a different "truth" or part of which he was certain. In the same way, each aspect of Six Sigma is critical to the whole. But one must not forget the elephant itself, and the ways in which various parts must contribute seamlessly to its smooth operation and ultimate benefit to the company and its customers, as well as to the benefit of the employees.

Keep in touch. You can reach me at support@pqsystems.com.

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