Black Belt Not Required: What’s Your Strategy?

Oct. 12, 2005
Moving beyond routine management and fire fighting requires a strategy for business excellence — a strategy based on Six Sigma.
“Getting ready is the secret to success.” — Henry FordFocusing on processes and customers, collaboration, and data-driven management makes good business sense. These are key concepts in quality management and thus, Six Sigma, but do we really need a special program to convince us of their worth? Aren’t these concepts simply a part of excellent business practice?A surprising number of people get along in business without seeing the need for these concepts. Sometimes I wonder at the number of people who go to work each day and manage as if it were a routine, using cookie-cutter methods to respond to issues involving processes or people. How can they stand the boredom?But I also wonder about the “firefighters,” whose specialty is solving crises, over and over again. Putting out fires at work may be exhilarating at first, but it is also frustrating, especially when you realize, in the midst of the conflagration, that you had put that same fire out six months ago.Both the cookie cutters and firefighters share one trait: they work reactively, rather than strategically, limiting their results. Working reactively can never lead to any major accomplishments. It may allow one to complete the tasks at hand, but limits the scope of work and achievements.Moving beyond routine management and fire fighting requires a strategy for business excellence — a strategy based on Six Sigma.Creating a strategy begins with establishing the framework within which you plan to operate your organization, whether you’re a company of one, or overseeing thousands. Putting a management framework down on paper is the easy part, but practicing what you preach is not always simple.Never mind creating Pareto charts; just trying to focus throughout the day on a set of standards you’ve set for yourself and your staff can be daunting. Achieving focus can be especially challenging in the pharmaceutical industry, where patient safety is always at stake. Every manager, at every level of the organization, is expected to produce, despite stress, problem employees, breakdowns, slowdowns, system failures, inspections, and all the other issues that he or she faces every day.Think strategicallyTo surmount these challenges, managers must have a strategy. This strategy should guide their work, no matter where they rank within the organization.Yet, surprisingly, many managers are not instructed or encouraged to think strategically until they reach a particular level within the corporate hierarchy. All of a sudden, they are supposed to know how to shift from being tactical to strategic thinkers.Since these terms aren’t usually defined for the manager, the shift usually takes place within them, and is then demonstrated via actions, communications, non-verbal communication and political maneuvering.If you haven’t yet had this “tactical-to-strategic” epiphany, start with an exercise: Imagine creating a strategy that starts with a defined management framework within your own personal organization. Who will be the key people involved and what should they be doing? This exercise will help hone your strategic planning and thinking skills, allowing you to achieve results in a consistent, documented, organized fashion that is visible to your staff and your supervisor.Four steps to successThere’s no limit to the strategies that can be implemented that encompass the underlying concepts of Six Sigma. Over time, I have created a strategy that works for me and applied it at three different companies supervising many different types of people. It has helped me to:
  • Build work teams that share a single focus;

  • Improve the quality of my organizational deliverables (with data to prove it)

  • Improve the quality of deliverables for key functions supported by my own organization (also with data to prove it);

  • Build a positive culture where individuals felt that they were part of something important.
This strategy is summarized below:StepStrategize for Six Sigma Success


Create a management framework (and stand behind it)


Organize your organization, no matter how small, for quality


Follow the DMAIC cycle for your organization (only as appropriate)


Continuously monitor and improve your organization (maintain the momentum) Figuring out the details is the tricky part. What is your management framework? How can you best organize to create an organization focused on quality? Then there is the question of how to apply the DMAIC methodology to the processes you own, and how to monitor them. Some suggestions:
  • First, identify “problem projects” for your group and work with them so that they understand your mission. Team charters can be developed for larger projects with large staffs.

  • Map out the problem process and collect baseline performance data. Determine what should be measured and how, but keep it simple.

  • Analyze the data as changes are made to the process, to see if results are improving.

  • Once the data show that you’ve improved the process, move to implement it.

  • Continue to track metrics to see if the new process is holding up. If any data show a downward trend, investigate and take appropriate action.
And the whole DMAIC process should be applied to the Six Sigma methodology itself. You must look at the “as-is” process of Six Sigma and, within your environment and specific situation, ask yourself whether you are adding extra steps and hand-offs. Are they necessary? If not, forget about them. It’s that simple. Do what makes sense for your organization, but don’t be reactive. Dare to think strategically and be creative!About the AuthorPenelope Przekop, MSQA, CQM, is director of the Global Quality Management function for the Benefit-Risk Management Organization within the Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals Group. Her book, Six Sigma for Business Excellence: A Manager's Guide to Supervising Six Sigma Projects and Teams, is now available from McGraw-Hill.
About the Author

Penelope Przekop | MSQA