August 2002

Vol. 4, No. 8

Six Sigma and More: 
Caroline and Sustainability

by David R. Schwinn

I am writing from my granddaughter Caroline's home.  Being with this little 17-day old miracle, combined with attending a meeting a few days ago, reminds me that I have borrowed this beautiful blue planet from her and all her brothers and sisters around the world.  I fear I have not been as good a steward as I might.  Our globe is a little more polluted, a little more populated, and a little more resource poor than when I came to visit.
The meeting I attended was a Board of Director's meeting of the Southeast Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. I am not a board member, but I greatly admire their intention. They asked me to help with some training and I gladly accepted. Terry Begnoche, of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers,  who had made the invitation, had noticed at a recent Capital Quality Initiative Conference that there seems to be a natural coming together of quality, learning, and sustainability. Now, I know that is not a new idea to many of you, but it is an idea worth raising, because it may open up an entirely new set of opportunities for organizations and communities committed to Six Sigma.
I believe that sustainability and, beyond that, restorability, may be the next significant business trend or, if you are not tired of hearing the term, paradigm shift. I see some firms already embracing this concept. I see a few more responsibly pursuing environmental management practices.  But I think more businesses do not yet understand the positive fiscal results that can come from using fewer resources and producing less waste from a broad perspective.
Six Sigma generally assumes that if we more often produce products and services that meet specifications we produce less scrap, do less rework, and therefore, spend less money.  A more ecological perspective can broaden our opportunities. For example, several years ago, I helped a die casting company focus on reducing energy usage. No specifications there.  We just installed some monitors, looked around for opportunities to use less energy, made a few changes, and saved a lot of money. Today, I would take a little broader view and check out alternative energy sources.  Fossil fuel won't last forever at the rate we're using it today, and the economics of alternatives are beginning to change. Look around.
Another way to apply Six Sigma methods and tools is to prevent pollution.  Because of the air and water regulations so common today, many of you are probably already working toward six sigma capability in this area. Market your success if you are not already. This is a good neighbor policy that could well turn into increased sales. I know that some of you are, in fact, improving the quality of the air and water you are using.  Another good neighbor policy worth marketing!
Over the years, I have also worked with organizations on projects simply focused on reducing the amount of material going to landfills.  There may be no clear specification in this area, but Six Sigma methods and tools certainly apply.  There is plenty of money to be saved and it sounds like another good neighbor policy to me.
The final opportunity that involves Six Sigma techniques, but goes beyond most people's ideas about Six Sigma, involves reconceptualizing product life.  Cradle to grave product design has traditionally been considered an enlightened approach.  Bill McDonough and his group have recently popularized the idea of cradle to cradle design. If we would design and produce our products so that when we are finished using them they go to the recycling, restorative, or redesign center rather than the trash dump, Caroline would likely find the world a little easier to live in.  And the early experiments seem to show that it puts money in the producer's pockets in terms of reduced costs, reduced liability, and improved customer connections.  If we as designers and producers of products began operating this way and as customers began demanding these new kinds of product characteristics, I think we would find many unanticipated benefits.
These are just a few of the ways that a more ecological perspective could broaden your Six Sigma opportunities.  You may not have quite all the tools you need but I think you'll find obtaining the tools will be much easier than changing your mind.  At least, that's been my experience.
As always, I would love to hear other views on why we seem to have so much trouble 'sticking to the diet. '  I'm at


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