Black Belt Not Required: Don't Wait for Six Sigma to Come to You

March 16, 2005
If it's going to work, Six Sigma must be the way you do business, not just a tool or technique. Have you got religion?

It's time for middle management to give Six Sigma the attention it deserves. In doing so, it's also a good time to think outside the Six Sigma box.

When I first heard about Six Sigma in the early '90s, I was told that it was impossible to implement without high-level support. I would fail before I started. Well, I disagreed then and I disagree now, and perhaps you should, too.

The underlying concepts of Six Sigma — process focus, customer focus, collaboration, data-driven management, and strategic planning for quality — are shared by other key quality management philosophies such as Malcolm Baldrige and ISO. Furthermore, the DMAIC model is common sense. Whatever your scope, you can apply the key concepts of Six Sigma to your work. You can use the DMAIC cycle to improve the processes that you and your staff follow to accomplish your goals.

Scope is key. Your personal organization is comprised of your staff, your processes — what you are responsible to deliver to your internal customers. This is your scope. If you focus on implementing Six Sigma concepts within your own personal organization, you can change culture, reap the personal rewards of improved processes, and begin to impact the bottom line.

A Six Sigma Project Charter allows teams to clarify and formalize a mutual understanding of the project. It usually includes the business case, a problem or opportunity statement, a goal statement, and the project scope. In traditional Six Sigma, the business case is normally handed down from the Champion or Senior Management. When working within your own organization you are the Champion. You are the management. Why not use this concept with your staff? It may not be practical to spend hours hashing out the perfect problem statement if the issue is specific to your organization. The charter can be limited to Goals, Scope, and Business Case, as appropriate. This is a judgment call on your part.

Creating a SIPOC (suppliers, inputs, process, outputs, and customers) diagram is a quick way to help identify the key elements of each of your key processes. Numerous templates for SIPOCs are available for use. The point is not to create the most elaborate visual but to understand all the elements. Next, building on your SIPOC diagram, an "as is" flowchart can be created to show the process details. Once you've created an "as is" process flowchart, you and your staff can begin evaluating the process by looking for redundancies, and unnecessary handoffs, steps or decisions. You can identify aspects of the process that may be creating backlogs, rework, delays and so on.

You've probably heard this before, but have you applied it to your own scope of work? General process flow analysis is the first step to creating the "to be" process map. You can improve the overall efficiency of a process by eliminating as many steps, decisions, and handoffs as possible. Figuring out how best to do this often calls for creative thinking and innovation. It may cause you to examine your organizational structure and the job responsibilities of your staff.

Examining your "as is" process will help you identify variables that can be measured to analyze the process via data. Once you've performed a complete analysis, you will be ready to create a "to be"” process map. When possible, any process changes within your personal organization should be piloted prior to full implementation. This is critical for ensuring that all bases have been covered and the process will work as envisioned. Piloting a process on a smaller scale allows for details to be ironed out, technological solutions to be tested, and the overall process to be tested. For more minor processes or for smaller scope projects, pilots can often be conducted informally and quickly.

Six Sigma has been so successful because it's been management-driven; however, quality should be the responsibility of each individual manager. For those of us who don't want to keep going to work every day to observe rework, inefficiencies, and lack of common sense, this methodology is available and will work.

It seems that all the Six Sigma Black Belts and Champions have been so busy eagerly leading projects and ushering us through the DMAIC cycle that they've missed a valuable point. We own the processes; we need someone to tell us how to take charge of our quality so we don't have to wait for our CEO to declare a Six Sigma revolution! If he or she does, that's fantastic! But you don't have to wait — be responsible for your own quality.

About the Author

Penelope Przekop | CEO, PDC Pharma Strategy