September  2002

Vol. 4, No. 9


Six Sigma and More: 
Caroline and Sustainability

by David R. Schwinn

Six Sigma and more: David Schwinn reflects on IBM's early experiences with Six Sigma

As I read Big Blues: The Unmaking of IBM by Paul Carroll (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993), I was surprised to learn about John Akers' attempt to undertake Six Sigma as a legacy to IBM. Carroll's observations provide a nice reminder of some do's and don'ts for Six Sigma.

John Akers, IBM's CEO, was very clear about his commitment to Six Sigma, for example. His staff estimated that if IBM were to achieve six sigma capability they would add $2.4 billion directly to the bottom line. They would also begin to create more happy customers at a time when IBM could well use a few more happy customers. Carroll notes that Akers was happy to widely communicate his commitment.

While Akers spoke out on few issues, he even talked publicly about what the Quality movement could do to reinvigorate American business and held IBM up as an example of how other companies should run their businesses. He also continually talked up Quality inside IBM to make sure IBMers knew that this wasn't just another program du jour of the sort IBM had repeatedly pushed and then dropped over the years (p. 244).

Holding up IBM as an example could have been a little risky, however. It could have encouraged IBM employees to strive harder for excellence, or it could have painted Akers as a liar if employees did not see internal evidence of his pronouncements. In general, top management behavior in both word and deed is necessary for Six Sigma success.

According to Carroll, Six Sigma did not take well at IBM for several reasons. He cited a bureaucratic Six Sigma subculture of rigid requirements, and meetings, meetings and more meetings. That sounds like my experience with a manager at Ford who required that all reports come to him in the form of his 'Seven Step Process. ' Unfortunately, all issues did not fit his process well. That was not his problem. Heaven help the manager who came to him with an issue not formatted into his seven steps. A lot of time was spent fitting issues into the process and in rehearsal meetings, in order to minimize personal and professional damage.

Carroll also mentioned an overabundance of training, a complaint common to many Six Sigma efforts. My advice is just-in-time training. Give people only the training they need when they need it. 'Dumping the whole load ' only results in wasted time, effort and money.

It also sounds as if IBM was more than willing to make heavy use of the carrot and stick, especially the stick. One of the Six Sigma efforts involved the quality of phone messages.

IBM handed out brochures on 'five secrets of success for a winning greeting. ' Just to make sure everyone paid attention, IBM put together a group of phone police who spent their days calling people's phone mail to check on their messages. Offenders got a sort of citation sent via e-mail, with a copy sent to their bosses (p. 244).

Carroll also mentioned an employee perception that the results of Six Sigma success were fewer employees and larger executive bonuses. It is, of course, difficult to get employees to provide ideas about how to reduce variation when they think one result will be their own job loss. Better to assure that no layoffs will occur as a result of Six Sigma efforts. Take the savings in lower purchasing expenditures and employee attrition, so long as you have a plan to encourage the retention of the 'best and the brightest. '

Finally, Carroll points out that Six Sigma may have, in fact, been the wrong strategy for IBM.

The Quality program solved some problems but also got IBM focusing on the wrong issues. Akers was trying to fine-tune an engine that was so old and beat-up, he should have been ripping it out and replacing it (p. 245).

As I've said before, Six Sigma is among the strongest initiatives for improving existing processes and systems. Sometimes, however, it is better to blow them up and start all over. Six Sigma is of little use in those situations.

As always, I would love to hear your reaction. I would especially appreciate the voices of IBMer's regarding Paul Carroll's observations of Big Blue. I'm at support@pqsystems.com.


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