May  2002

Vol. 4, No. 5

Six Sigma and More: Continuing What Would Deming Do

by David R. Schwinn

Deming's Fourteen Points, which we have been discussing the past few months, again provides a focus for reflecting on Six Sigma. "Improve constantly and forever every process of planning, production, and service," Point 5 of the Fourteen Points of W. Edwards Deming, a surprisingly clear perspective on Six Sigma.

At first blush, Deming seems to agree with the Six Sigma approach here. But six sigma capability is NOT continuous improvement. From a practical standpoint, most of us have a long way to go before we reach six sigma capability, so maybe Six Sigma and continuous improvement look a lot alike. Six sigma capability is decidedly not perfection, that yearned for but unattainable condition. So Six Sigma is fundamentally at odds with Point #5. We cannot go to sleep when we reach six sigma, regardless of how many processes have been improved. Improvement of processes alone is not enough.

As a matter of fact, a slavish dedication to six sigma capability may take us in the wrong direction. A friend, mentor, and colleague, Jamshid Gharajedaghi, has said that success in the game changes the game. Once Henry Ford gained success at mass production, others copied him. General Motors, for example, began to catch up as they adopted his techniques. GM offered colors other than black. Even then, Ford refused to see that customer expectations had changed. Style, color, and choice had come to be more important than price to consumers, and he did not recognize this change.

In the mid-seventies, Japanese automakers began to offer cars of vastly superior quality to Detroit's Big Three. Consumers again changed their minds, abandoning American cars in great numbers in order to get the quality they wanted. The information technology revolution focuses on innovation. Customers and investors have decided that new products and services are the considerations that get their attention. Some of that innovation has proven unsatisfactory in performance. We may be ready for a new change. And on it goes. The point is that an unwavering focus on Six Sigma may keep you from seeing that the game has changed.

Another similarity between Point #5 and Six Sigma bears comment. Both focus on process improvement. After Deming's Out of the Crisis appeared in 1986, he gained a significantly greater appreciation for a system. A process is only a small part of a system. There are many ways to understand a system. In fact, most social systems, of which an organization is one, cannot be fully understood. We can only look upon them from as many perspectives as possible in order to try to achieve an ever more robust understanding. A traditional way to understand a system is to look simultaneously at the 5 M's: Look at people, machines, methods (processes), materials, and the environment and their interactions at the same time. In this approach, processes are only one of five elements of a system. Another point of view that I find particularly useful is to try to concurrently hold an understanding of an organization's context or environment, its stakeholder's needs and expectations, its mission, its functions, products, and services, its processes, and its structure. Here, processes are one of six elements of the view.

After all this meandering, what is really relevant to Six Sigma practitioners using Point #5 as a spyglass? I believe focusing on the continuous improvement of every process is essential. I even believe that trying to achieve six sigma capability may be a worthwhile goal in the short term if it is developed participatively with a plan. But I also believe that focusing on process improvement without a longer, broader viewpoint is very dangerous.

As always, I appreciate your comments and questions. I'm at

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