Six Sigma involves changing major business value streams that cut across organizational barriers. It is the means by which the organization’s strategic goals are to be achieved. This effort cannot be led by anyone other than the CEO, who is responsible for the performance of the organization as a whole. Six Sigma must be implemented from the top-down. Six Sigma champions are high-level individuals who understand Six Sigma and are committed to its success.
In larger organizations Six Sigma will be led by a full time, high level champion, such as an Executive Vice-President. In all organizations, champions also include informal leaders who use Six Sigma in their day-to-day work and communicate the Six Sigma message at every opportunity. Sponsors are owners of processes and systems who help initiate and coordinate Six Sigma improvement activities in their areas of responsibilities.
This is the highest level of technical and organizational proficiency. Master Black Belts provide technical leadership of the Six Sigma program. Thus, they must know everything the Black Belts know, as well as understand the mathematical theory on which the statistical methods are based. Master Black Belts must be able to assist Black Belts in applying the methods correctly in unusual situations. Whenever possible, statistical training should be conducted only by Master Black Belts.
Otherwise the familiar “propagation of error” phenomenon will occur, i.e., Black Belts pass on errors to green belts, who pass on greater errors to team members. If it becomes necessary for Black Belts and Green Belts to provide training, they should do only so under the guidance of Master Black Belts. For example, Black Belts may be asked to provide assistance to the Master during class discussions and exercises. Because of the nature of the Master’s duties, communications and teaching skills are as important as technical competence.
Candidates for Black Belt status are technically oriented individuals held in high regard by their peers. They should be actively involved in the process of organizational change and development. Candidates may come from a wide range of disciplines and need not be formally trained statisticians or engineers. However, because they are expected to master a wide variety of technical tools in a relatively short period of time, Black Belt candidates will probably possess a background including college-level mathematics and the basic tool of quantitative analysis. Coursework in statistical methods may be considered a strong plus or even a prerequisite. As part of their training, Black Belts receive 160 hours of classroom instruction, plus one-on-one project coaching from Master Black Belts or consultants.
Successful candidates will be comfortable with computers. At a minimum, they should understand one or more operating systems, spreadsheets, database managers, presentation programs, and word processors. As part of their training they will be required to become proficient in the use of one or more advanced statistical analysis software packages. Six Sigma Black Belts work to extract actionable knowledge from an organization’s information warehouse. To ensure access to the needed information, Six Sigma activities should be closely integrated with the information systems (IS) of the organization. Obviously, the skills and training of Six Sigma Black Belts must be enabled by an investment in software and hardware. It makes no sense to hamstring these experts by saving a few dollars on computers or software.
Green Belts are Six Sigma project leaders capable of forming and facilitating Six Sigma teams and managing Six Sigma projects from concept to completion. Green Belt training consists of five days of classroom training and is conducted in conjunction with Six Sigma projects. Training covers project management, quality management tools, quality control tools, problem solving, and descriptive data analysis. Six Sigma champions should attend Green Belt training. Usually, Six Sigma Black Belts help Green Belts define their projects prior to the training, attend training with their Green Belts, and assist them with their projects after the training.
Staffing Levels and Expected Returns
As stated earlier in this article, the number of full time personnel devoted to Six Sigma is not large. Mature Six Sigma programs, such as those of Motorola, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, AlliedSignal, and others average about one-percent of their workforce as Black Belts. There is usually about one Master Black Belts for every ten Black Belts, or about 1 Master Black Belt per 1,000 employees. A Black Belt will typically complete 5 to 7 projects per year. Project teams are led by Green Belts, who, unlike Black Belts and Master Black Belts, are not employed full time in the Six Sigma program. Black Belts are highly prized employees and are often recruited for key management positions elsewhere in the company. After Six Sigma has been in place for three or more years, the number of former Black Belts tends to be about the same as the number of active Black Belts.
Estimated savings per project varies from organization to organization. Reported results average about US$150,000 to US$243,000. Note that these are not the huge mega-projects pursued by Re-engineering. Yet, by completing 5 to 7 projects per year per Black Belt, the company will add in excess of US$1 million per year per Black Belt to its bottom line .
After over two decades of experience with quality improvement, there is now a solid body of scientific research regarding the experience of thousands of companies implementing major programs such as Six Sigma. Researchers have found that successful deployment of Six Sigma involves focusing on a small number of high-leverage items. The steps required to successfully implement Six Sigma are well-documented.
1. Successful performance improvement must begin with senior leadership. Start by providing senior leadership with training in the principles and tools they need to prepare their organization for success. Using their newly acquired knowledge, senior leaders direct the development of a management infrastructure to support Six Sigma. Simultaneously, steps are taken to “soft-wire” the organization and to cultivate an environment for innovation and creativity. This involves reducing levels of organizational hierarchy, removing procedural barriers to experimentation and change, and a variety of other changes designed to make it easier to try new things without fear of reprisal.
2. Systems are developed for establishing close communication with customers, employees, and suppliers. This includes developing rigorous methods of obtaining and evaluating customer, employee and supplier input. Base line studies are conducted to determine the starting point and to identify cultural, policy, and procedural obstacles to success.
3. Training needs are rigorously assessed. Remedial skills education is provided to assure that adequate levels of literacy and numeracy are possessed by all employees. Top-to-bottom training is conducted in systems improvement tools, techniques, and philosophies.
4. A framework for continuous process improvement is developed, along with a system of indicators for monitoring progress and success. Six Sigma metrics focus on the organization’s strategic goals, drivers, and key business processes.
5. Business processes to be improved are chosen by management, and by people with intimate process knowledge at all levels of the organization. Six Sigma projects are conducted to improve business performance linked to measurable financial results. This requires knowledge of the organization’s constraints.
6. Six Sigma projects are conducted by individual employees and teams led by Green Belts and assisted by Black Belts.
Although the approach is simple, it is by no means easy. But the results justify the effort expended. Research has shown that firms that successfully implement Six Sigma perform better in virtually every business category, including return on sales, return on investment, employment growth, and share price increase.