An overview of Six Sigma as an organisational management strategy starts with a brief look at the history of Six Sigma.
The term 'sigma' is a symbol for a unit of measurement in product quality variation. It has been in use since the 1920's by mathematicians and engineers.
The objective of Six Sigma is to reduce process variation so that virtually all the products or services provided meet or exceed customer expectations.
In statistical terms, this is defined as being only 3.4 defects per million occurrences.
History of Six Sigma
Six Sigma as a measurement standard is rooted in the work Carl Frederick Gauss (1777-1855) who conceived and introduced the concept of the normal curve.
However Six Sigma as a standard metric in product variation emerged in the 1920's in the work of Walter Shewhart who demonstrated that three sigma from the mean is the point where a process requires correction.
The genesis of Six Sigma as a powerful and popular toolset for driving up overall process quality standards was in the 1980s when Motorola engineers sought greater granularity with a measurement standard that measured defects per million opportunities rather than the current standard measurement in defects per thousand opportunities.
Bill Smith, a Motorola engineer is credited (by many) with the “invention” of the term “Six Sigma”.
Six Sigma - Delivering improved business results
An overview of Six Sigma - how and why it has grown
Over a number of years, Motorola created this new measurement standard together with the full process methodology and underpinned by the radical cultural change that was (and is) required to deliver it.
The business driver for all of this development was cost savings – allegedly bottoming out at a staggering $16 Billion – which was clearly enough to capture the attention of a wider audience eager to participate.
This wider dissemination of the principles and practise of Six Sigma was considerably accelerated with the enthusiastic and vociferous support of Larry Bossidy (Honeywell), and Jack Welch (General Electric Company).
Now of course, many hundreds of companies all over the world have adopted Six Sigma – in fact it has spawned a whole new business subculture of practitioners and advocates together with a vast industry of consultants, experts and trainers to support them.
As with most business “new/big ideas” Six Sigma is now big business in its own right!
How does Six Sigma work?
There are three basic elements to Six Sigma:
For a concise and informative summary from the UK Government's Department of Trade & Industry please download this 5 page PDF which explains how Six Sigma aims to maximise customer satisfaction and minimise defects:
"Six Sigma solutions, while satisfying because of the results generated, tend to fall short of reaching their full potential if they are only technically oriented..." says Jim L.Smith of "Quality Magazine":
"Culture devours massive amounts of well-intended process change throughout corporate America leaving unaware teams scratching their heads as they stare in amazement at the smoking wreckage of what was anticipated to be a simple process improvement. Want to avoid chargrilled process change? Start with the basics", says Jeff Cole.
The reason why understanding your cultures is so important is that they are the single biggest determinant of how people in your organisation will behave - and especially in the context of a change initiative: