Six Sigma Needs To Get Off Its Boring Perch

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Through the years, Marge and i have been uneasy with how we practice BPM. After the initial excitement over your first couple of projects, somewhere along the way the whole methodology seems to lack a kind of punch or sexiness. Partly, it is the over-dependency of TQM process practitioners along with LEAN experts and Six Sigma Master Black Belts on tooling. Largely, it is the departure from creating business sense by the same gung ho advocates. As an MBB, i get thoroughly bored at project demos by Black Belts who place emphasis on what we have called “kitchen-sink” analysis: where they showcase data scrubs, validation exercises (T-tests, F-tests, Kruskall Wallis H Tests…) but fail to highlight any meaningful insight whatsoever that propels the business to make transformative decisions.

Often, the frustration stems from the lack of innovation from the practitioners themselves. How have we evolved our tools? Why are we still sticking to the same, unchanged, traditional tools we’ve used even if they have proven ineffective? Has anyone ever changed the way we even do Pareto charts? Has anyone ever challenged why, if at all, should we measure skewness when even the SPC founder Shewhart had no real use for it? (To anyone who wants to have a Jamba Juice with me and Marge, we can humor you about this offline.)

The statistical methods have not evolved that it is ironic that we teach Green Belt candidates that Six Sigma is the wave of innovation. The real story is that — it isn’t. It can’t be. Why? Because we have grown stale, boring, unimaginative and lacking creativity.

Very rarely do i see MBBs who experiment on emerging technology and simultaneously use what they learn from their DOE (Design of Experiments) to elevate the process. I asked a 10-year Master Black Belt in a financial services company recently this: when was the last time you used DOE in designing a whole new process for the bank? He answered me candidly. He used it only during his Black Belt training. Mind you, the question is not so much about usage — it’s the lack of tooling innovation and meaningful application.

So Marge and i thought long and hard about this list. Some of our friends in the business might even disagree with us. (Up in arms and rabid stone pelting, we imagine.) And while we understand that this list is not definitive and needs to evolve as well, what we are simply advocating is change managers need to change their thinking and tooling. These are not new ideas. Some of them have been embedded since 2008. But here in the Philippines, adoption seems to be at a slow pace for Six Sigma practitioners. So here goes:

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Evolve your project selection from the recurring DMAIC & DMADV projects to Design Thinking. If you are still doing the same DMAIC projects on customer satisfaction or AHT, then your project selection has become stale. If you have not graduated from these projects, it also means that the organization has systemic issues that make your projects ineffective in the long run. Perhaps you have failed to evolve your projects that it just becomes run-of-the-mill. Or it also means that your learnings from one project does not flourish or expand to other processes. Why? Because the lens by which you measure project success is on the here-and-now and somewhere midterm.

The goals of Design Thinking and Six Sigma need not be mutually exclusive. For the purists, the aim of design thinking is to generate multiple ideas that lead to solutions; Six Sigma uses rigorous measurement that lead to consistency (or eliminating variation). One can flow through the other.

But how? Change the sequence by which you DEFINE your solutions. It’s like drawing a potential solutions roadmap and analyzing which is the most viable and impacting avenue to take. (In other words, throw away your Quality Function Deployment charts. They only confuse you and get added to the pile no one will ever read again — except you, dear BBs, who are so in love with it.)

This requires changing how BBs and MBBs think. Typically, when you are presented a project brief or a charter in Six Sigma, a lot of the discussions revolve around the “problem space.” It has equally irked me at times that PowerPoint presentations of this kind devote about 80% on problem positioning, and only 20% on solution-to-implementation mapping. Design Thinking gravitates more on the “solution space.” It allows you to carve more time into creating solutions rather than outlining bottlenecks.

Problem-oriented thinking is like having the negativity creep into the project team. The dead-in-the-water cyclic feeling goes like this: Wallow in the problem. Overanalyze it to death. Solve nothing.

But how do you get the organization to adopt design thinking? We go to the second challenge.

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Adopt AGILE practices with your Six Sigma projects. A financial services firm had an enterprise Black Belt project that was in limbo for two years. It was an OCR (Optical Character Recognition) project that involved converting manual document reconciliation process to a machine-verified process.

Imagine having 5-years worth of loan documents. Someone at the bank’s back office looks at each and every document to reconcile its contents, from names on bank forms that need to match with names on payment documents, etc. It’s a tedious job. So, the idea was in order to make it less cumbersome, the solution required a huge automation design as well as an end-to-end process map. The whole project got stuck because the project members, including Executives sponsoring the initiative, were too focused on the automation and software infrastructure. Hence, it wasn’t long when they started complicating the whole endeavor. Some junior executive then said why are we complicating this? He adopted an agile approach to the project by slicing the big project into modules. After 5 months, the first iteration went live.

The value of getting into an agile culture is that execution is progressive. It creates momentum given the results are in quick yet essential bite-sized chunks. That’s why we like mobile app launches. They do not aim for wholistic perfection at the get-go. They aim for usability, experience and continuous progress. They journey with the user along the way.

In our experience, we drew an end-to-end value creation map and divided it into (what is now usually called in agile circles) a minimum viable project or MVP. We interspersed our DMADV knowledge with the Agile flow of Understand-Ideate-Prototype-Design-Analyze-Test-Implement-Elevate. Our basic metrics were speed to serve and quality error overflows that are inherited from one mini-project to another so we can measure our overall quality throughput for the entire process. It decreased our overall cycle time and project cost by almost 56%.

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Employ LEAN Analytics by simplifying your statistical toolkit and data visualization design. One of the challenges with Six Sigma, while it is prestigious and comes with a wow factor — there are still a lot who are overwhelmed with the amount of data presented. We’ve seen GBs and BBs get paralyzed by the analysis, in an effort to turn every stone or validate every p. Only to find out that while they continue to subdivide and overanalyze, they have lost the ability to create sense.

I would often advise BB candidates when presenting to executives and managers this: Get to the insight. I had a former boss who once said: “Don’t tell me how you peel the orange.” Because understandably, he didn’t come for the fruit. He came for the juice.

We encourage MBBs to create a lean statistical playbook. This needs to be creatively storyboarded, visually managed, digitally savvy and tailored to the audience. There is a book by Alistair Croll and Ben Yoskovitz about the value of doing away with so called “vanity metrics” and emphasizing on “Math that Matters.” This thinking can be applied to how we perform statistical analyses. SAS JMP in a white paper titled: Six Sigma: Making Data Analysis Leanprovides a practical approach to making Six Sigma stick.

Why is it that you like Fitbit so much? Because the data is visually appealing, personalized, gamified, dynamic and self-serviceable.

Unfortunately, the only people who get high on statistical techniques and boring slides are the BBs and some MBBs. Your belt shouldn’t be a platform to showcase prowess. That’s incidental. The aim is to cultivate insight for better decision making. I sometimes shake my head when i see CVs from Six Sigma practitioners who put the number of people they’ve mentored or the number of projects they’ve had over the years. It’s as if those are the measures of your belt’s success. It’s not how many — sometimes it’s not even how much cost you’ve saved — it’s how much you have contributed to elevating the business model, how much revenue you directly or indirectly generated, and the overall value of progressive Six Sigma projects that stemmed from an initially simple one.

Once upon a time, an MBB used his Six Sigma presentation to essentially focus on the problem of high attrition in the workplace. However, in the course of the discussion, the focus was about assigning blame to causes. This serves no purpose for true Six Sigma practitioners. Nevertheless, the statistical fanaticism and getting high on techniques as a way to showoff (and at times condemn) comes with the territory. And it is something that we must eradicate as business leaders. Six Sigma should impel cooperation, not anxiety or divisiveness.

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Embrace process automation projects. Work on them. Be a part of them. How have you integrated Six Sigma with business transformation and automation? Should your Black Belts know how to appreciate code? Or use SAS, R, Tableau or NumPy? How many Six Sigma practitioners do you know use Python for their high level analytics modelling?

I have seen a handful of young programmers and gamers who create more innovation than perhaps 100 Six Sigma practitioners put together. And this is sad. Because in our effort to practice rigor, the less we practice creativity. The less we practice creativity, the less simple and less elegant our ideas become. From where I stand, there is now a growing skill divide between business transformation professionals who embrace process automation and traditional Six Sigma practitioners. One group is future-ready while one group is nearing irrelevancy.

Thing is, you don’t need to master code — you just need to appreciate it so you know its place in designing or automating processes. The goals are simplicity, convenience, speed, insight and most importantly, engagement. There are BPMN enthusiasts with very little Six Sigma training who use Bizagi Studio to automate a purchase order process. How? By simply knowing how to use business process management notation maps while diagramming. They don’t need to know code. They just need to understand the logic of the process. The app emboldens the flowchart creator to supplement process steps with data capture forms, reporting graphs and so on. Thus, elevating the manual process to a digitized one. (And Bizagi is free!)

These days i highly encourage anyone with a desire to get into process automation to start learning Python. It is an easy, starter programming language that can be used for high-level analytics without the anxiety of mastering cumbersome-to-learn programs like C# or C++.

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Raise your BPM and Six Sigma learning towards a future-ready paradigm. This involves amplifying and perhaps changing our Six Sigma and process management courses to cover a more business-oriented, technology-ready, engagement-focused program. Facilitators need to get away from the academic tone by which we teach Six Sigma and statistics. We need more lab-driven classes, more emphasis on design thinking and collaboration, and more on effectiveness measures and execution. We also need to make the learning simple and engaging. I once attended a GB class by a vendor where they really only emphasize on how MiniTab works. An effective Six Sigma class underlines the limits of the application and when to apply a technique. It engages candidates to experiment, challenge and tailor the tools at their disposal.

Gone are the days of short-sighted gains. It is not enough that you’ve achieved certification. It does not even matter what Belt you wear. I’ve seen Green Belts who possess more business acumen than my Master Black Belt peers at times.

Learning also means experimenting. Take on side projects if you can, if only for the purpose of learning. Talk to people outside of your Six Sigma circle who can enrich your knowledge and practice. Expand Six Sigma to more than operations-side processes. Drive Support Six Sigma project learning because your support processes affect everyone in the organization, not just a few. This goes to having HR people be involved in Six Sigma, as well as Finance Managers and Supply chain officers.

Lastly, enticing people to learn about Six Sigma is not about the salary you’ll make, or how prestigious it looks on your CVs or resumes. When that’s your motivational come-on, then you’re one of those GBs, BBs and MBBs who only look good on paper but don’t amount to anything in real practice. The value you create exceeds whatever potential revenue you generate.


When all is said and done, we only really have one challenge. Evolve. Change. Embrace new things. Be creative. They all mean the same thing, really. But if you still think that we need to leave Six Sigma and its practice the way it is, then we are all contributing to its demise.

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