Whatever Happened to Six Sigma?

Once the hottest trend in quality management, Six Sigma no longer makes headlines. Still, despite a lower profile, the process remains relevant.

For those who have forgotten, or simply weren’t around a decade or so ago when it was the focus of numerous books, articles, and panel discussions, Six Sigma is a process that relies on statistics and data analysis to reduce errors or defects. Six Sigma's primary purpose is to improve cycle times while lowering defects to no more than 3.4 defects per million units or events.

Yet time moves forward and other methodologies, such as Agile, Lean, and Continual Improvement, have gradually nudged Six Sigma out of the efficiency/productivity spotlight.

Seeking Relevance

Six Sigma and its offspring, Lean Six Sigma, remain relevant in manufacturing and several service industries, including healthcare and transportation, where error reduction, efficiency, and consistency are critical to achieving optimal productivity, quality control, and customer satisfaction. “However, it has lost some of its luster over the past 10 to 20 years with the rise of the Internet and software, where speed, growth, and innovation are of paramount concern,” says Brad Schaltenbrand, a partner in banking, insurance, and capital markets at business advisory firm Guidehouse. “Agile is more prevalent in information technology and software product development ... where priorities and challenges are in flux and speed is of the essence.”

Kathryn Bingham, CEO of LEADistics, a leadership, development, and executive coaching company, believes that for enterprises challenged by supply chain issues, rising costs, and evolving employment needs Six Sigma continues to be relevant. “The label we apply isn’t as important as the underlying process,” she notes. Whether an organization calls its program Six Sigma, Lean, Continuous Improvement, or some other name makes no difference. “What a change leader wants to know is whether the stakeholders have a common language and set of tools that can be applied broadly to the needs of the organization,” Bingham says.

Evolving and Adapting

Many manufacturing businesses continue to use the basic Six Sigma framework while enhancing it with more modern approaches and applications, such as Lean and sustainability. “Where Six Sigma may begin to falter in relevance is where it's embraced as a wide and strict program structure for quality control and management,” says Ola Chowning, a partner with global technology research and advisory firm ISG. “For instance, Six Sigma may be less relevant in cases where it may clash with Agile approaches, such as those that focus on adaptability and flexibility, and product-oriented delivery that recognizes the need to adapt processes and capabilities at the product level.”

These days, organizations may use Six Sigma as part of a methodology approach to problem solving. This can make the process more useful in an Agile or product-oriented environment, Chowning says. The rise of Lean Six Sigma as a methodology to reduce waste, for example, has recently led to interest in Green Lean Six Sigma to address environmental impact reduction. “With its focus on measurement and outcomes, it seems a fine fit for sustainability and green initiatives,” she says.

Another example of adaptation is likely through Industry 4.0 adoption. “This should allow for richer and more immediate input data to the all-important measurement step in the Six Sigma process,” Chowning says. “This would provide the potential to not only fix process defects, but to forecast and allow for enhancement of quality even before a business impact.”

Future Outlook

While implementing Six Sigma on its own can help optimize processes and businesses, it shouldn't be viewed as a one-size fits all approach, Schaltenbrand says. “Complementary disciplines like Lean and Agile will be used in conjunction with Six Sigma where tools and techniques are leveraged à la carte, depending on the need or fit.”

Schaltenbrand expects organizations to continue mixing and matching processes, including Six Sigma, to achieve maximum results. “For instance, voice of the customer, metrics, and data analytics from Six Sigma, combined with iterative development and improvement from Agile, can be combined to produce results quickly and on an ongoing basis with the data to back it up,” he says. “The additive benefits of combining one or more complementary disciplines ... will ensure Six Sigma endures for years to come.”

Chowning also expects Six Sigma to comfortably adapt to changing times and preferences. “Six Sigma as a process, rather than a program, may become a somewhat ubiquitous set of steps for process improvement and problem solving,” she notes. When deployed within broader methods, such as Agile, Six Sigma will continue “to find relevance within industrial environments and enterprise process areas as a program for defect reduction and quality improvement.”

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