Saturday, May 15, 2010

Six Sigma - Physician, heal thyself!

Time for change!

Being trained as a Master Black Belt in six sigma and calling one self an operations professional has it's share of burdens. Like, you are expected to be a devotee, defender or even fanatic of the six sigma methodology.
But, the more leaders I meet, the more I am convinced that Six Sigma, at least as conventionally defined, has not moved with the times. In fact most leaders I meet exhibit a strong resistance toward implementing the system. Worse, they have some pretty logical reasons.

To me, therefore, it is clear the time has come for six sigma to undergo some 'continuous improvement'. Seriously.

First, it is so 1970s... so manufacturing. Consider for instance, this anal fixation on 'defects'. I think the credit has to go to Microsoft for bringing this whole concept that 'defects' are killers to its knees. Microsoft has demonstrated that you can not only survive with defects, in fact, you can thrive on them; make money off them! Moreover the Google generation has famously celebrated the concept of 'don't go for perfection'. Just launch it and tweak as you go. The point is, in today's web-world, defects do not seem to be as bad as they did a few decades ago.
With even great brand personalities blogging and tweeting and SMSing, spellings and grammar have gone out the door. With beta versions hitting the market, defects are factored into customer expectations. People have become far more forgiving of defects. The focus has shifted to overall value... experience. "Give me an exciting experience, something really cool! Its OK, if there are a few glitches, some random 'bugs' here and there. I can live with that." In fact, the very birth of these euphemisms for defects are a sign of social change. A "defect" sounds like a serious matter. A few bugs is entirely different!
Net, net, defect-free goods and services are so yesterday.

Now, of course, I have swung to an extreme to make the point. I am not arguing that defects do not matter any more. Sure they do. The point is that 'eliminating' defects is not the holy grail it used to be. Not in the information sector at least; or more specifically, not in the 'non-life-threatening' sectors.
In fact, in many day-to-day applications, the customer is happy to try out the new, untested gizmo - and pay top dollar for it - and junk the tried and tested equipment that was working absolutely fine. Classic six sigma does not address these trends.
Second, where's innovation? In DMAIC, the focus on eliminating defects is extreme! (there you go... another anal term. Merriam Webster defines elimination as "the act, process, or an instance of eliminating or discharging: as a: the act of discharging or excreting waste products from the body...").  It distracts form providing real, innovative value to the customer. Whatever brainstorming and innovative thinking takes place in a six sigma project is mostly focused on ways to remove the defects - not to add additional value to the customer or to enrich her experience. In fact, classic six sigma is also pretty weak on Moments of Truth - the study of customer experience at various points along the chain.  The focus is somewhat better in the case of DMADV / DFSS - the methodology for designing defect-free products and services.  But not by much.  Certainly not what the Gen-X / Gen-Y customer of today demands.

Third, consider employee morale, motivation and all those nice things. Lets admit it, if six sigma would have its way, it would have every worker work as much like a robot as possible. There would be standard operating procedures, designated tools for every task to be performed, designated areas (painted on the floor) for carrying out each task, detailed measurement of defects, dashboards showing all this data... one can go on. Certainly not a happy hunting ground for the Gen-X / Gen-Y, smart, high energy work force of today.

Some notable anecdotes...
  • Robert Nardelli, used Six Sigma to take Home Depot to # 1 Retailer. Profitability soared – but at a cost. Gradually, worker morale drooped and customer sentiment followed. His successor, Frank Blake (also GE) is dialing back giving more lee way to Store Managers.
  • Ann Fudge, (also GE), CEO, tried to sell Six Sigma to ad executives at Young & Rubicam – and flamed out quickly.
  • Dave Carter is going slow with Six Sigma in its application to innovative processes at Raytheon. “Most Six Sigma practitioners are very strong on the left brain, innovation very much starts in the right hemisphere”
We have also seen the recognition of these developments in the emergence of variations like Lean Six Sigma, Service Sigma and many others. Many large corporates have recognized an innate aversion to six sigma in their teams and preferred to tweak it to suit their needs and even give it their own name.
  • Dell for instance calls it "Business Process Improvement". The program, is a combination of Six Sigma, Lean, and Hoshin Planning.
  • Honeywell has tweaked it too and calls it "Six Sigma Plus"
  • At Johnson & Johnson, Six Sigma is just "Process Excellence".
These adaptations have retained the core philosophy and brought in various changes. But all these have just managed to confuse managers.
So, where does six sigma go from here?  What we need is a methodology that retains the core of six sigma - such as the DMAIC cycle, for instance and yet broadens the objectives and tools used to address changes in the market place.  IMHO, for Six Sigma 2.0 :
  1. The focus needs to shift from elimination of defects to Customer Satisfaction (or Delight, if you please).
  2. The methodology should address more than 'process improvement' or 'defect-free design'.  The DMAIC and DMADV cycles, and several other elements that are already within the scope of six sigma or can easily be borrowed, have the potential of being exploited on a broader scale.  For me, that larger scope is best summed up by the term 'problem solving'.
  3. There is an urgent need to adapt it to the new generation that does not want SOPs! Today we have the most complex games, social networking websites and even PDAs that do not need operating manuals. Kids don't read books before playing the latest online games. They just begin!
  4. A large tool-kit for creative thinking and for coming up with innovative solutions needs to be developed
  5. The focus on assessing and understanding customer requirements needs to evolve into understanding customer behavior, underlying motives - even a bit of anthropology - to dream up the most convenient, most desirable solution and then search for appropriate technologies that can make it happen.  This will require a search for new tools and incorporating them in the right phase of the project.
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