Introducing Six Sigma to an organization doesn’t just require a few management-level changes. In fact, Six Sigma deployments succeed when organization-wide cultural shifts occur. The trick is: How do we change a business’s culture to align with the Six Sigma methodology?
No matter its position in the organizational chart, every job can use Six Sigma methods to improve processes. While many people think of Six Sigma as a methodology for manufacturing or running entire projects, that’s not using it to its full potential. You can also use the Six Sigma methodology in smaller ways. Implementing it in macro and micro environments helps build a strong Six Sigma culture.
Let’s take, for example, a receptionist. He’s in charge of routing calls to two hundred staff members. At certain times of the day, he’s overwhelmed with calls to the point that people are waiting up to five minutes to be routed through to the correct staff member. This is unacceptable. He can complain that he needs backup at these times or use the Six Sigma methodology to identify and solve the core problem.
He sets down the problem in plain language. Between 12 pm and 2 pm, call routing times exceed the 30-second limit.
He collects data from the system on the number of calls received, length of wait times, and time taken to route each call.
To his surprise, he finds that the number of calls isn’t that much higher in this period than in any other. The significant factor is actually the time it takes him to connect to the requested staff member, speak to that employee to tell them who’s calling, and put the call through.
The receptionist can see now that the main issue is that staff members are often out to lunch between 12 pm and 2 pm and that he’s spending more time waiting for people to answer their extensions–and often they don’t. If he knew whether the person was available without calling their extensions, he could significantly cut caller wait times. Armed with this information, he talks to his boss about installing a company-wide messenger service. This will show who’s in their office and who’s unavailable.
Finally, he automates a call wait time report that he receives weekly. This allows him to look for problematic trends before they become serious issues.
Project closure is a common stumbling block for a lot of organizations. When you’ve successfully finished a project and feel the flush of victory, it’s hard to get back to work on something that already feels ‘done.’ However, this is a major element of Six Sigma methodology, and for good reason. Closing out a project carefully ensures that:
- All stakeholders are aware of how the project went.
- Any improvements made are kept.
- Someone keeps an eye on future performance.
- Infrastructure is added to support future improvements.
Each of these points is vital. Too often, a project that seemed wildly successful will sputter and die out after the initial burst of activity on it. Why? Because the people in charge didn’t close it out in a way that ensured its results could continue. How you close a project will also affect your general Six Sigma culture. A good closing builds up morale and confidence in the methodology; a bad one erodes both.
How to close out a Six Sigma project
See our article on the DMAIC Control phase for the steps you should go through in closing a project. They include:
- Conducting a tollgate review to communicate project results to stakeholders.
- Getting sign-off for the project.
- Documenting the lessons you learned.
- Planning for the future: setting up teams, processes, or infrastructure to keep progressing in this area.
- Automating data collection so that information about the processes modified by the project is always available.
A lot of reward systems actively work against a Six Sigma culture. They tend to provide bonuses when short-term gains are achieved at the expense of long-term improvement. So how can your organization do better?
Consider ways that you can reward:
- Process improvements
- Quality increases
- Culture enhancements.
While KPIs can be a good way to measure a process’s performance, they can often be a bad way to measure an employee’s performance. For a start, KPIs are often imposed from above. You create them to measure company goals and objectives. While this is fine for that purpose, it nevertheless means that KPIs are typically too general and high-level for offering meaningful rewards.
Rewards aren’t just an end in and of themselves. They should also feed back into your program of spreading a Six Sigma culture. Rewards for enhancing the company culture should improve morale, hence improving the culture more. Rewards for innovation should encourage and, where appropriate, actually enable future innovation.
Educating people about Six Sigma isn’t a one-time thing. Like any big cultural shift, it requires steady, cumulative education. Develop an education plan covering the first two years and slowly familiarize people with more of the methodology. Ensure that you allow for different employment levels–managers need to learn different tools than regular staff. Then review it regularly, every six months or so. Check how people feel about their knowledge and how it relates to Six Sigma. Are there any gaps? Are there any areas that are being covered ad nauseam?
Capture and leverage lessons
This is an uncomfortable process for most people. Conversely, it’s also very, very important. As you work through Six Sigma projects, you’ll stuff up. You’ll learn that certain methods don’t work, or don’t work the way you were trying to implement them. Or you’ll go in the wrong direction. You’ll find out that a particular objective was too difficult with the resources you had at your disposal. And a whole host of other mistakes and missteps.
Agile methodology has an inbuilt concept that’s very appropriate here. “Fail fast and fail often,” it says (paraphrasing), “because the more you fail, the more you learn.” Failure isn’t inherently bad.
Here’s where a failure turns bad: When you don’t learn from your mistake and do better the next time. At the end of each project, document every lesson learned. These don’t only come from failures–they should also come from your successes. Once you’ve documented those lessons, connect each to at least one action point. This is the ‘leverage’ stage, where you do something with the information you gathered. It might be to change your strategy in the next project. It might involve changing your objectives for the next year or five years. You could pivot an important project halfway through because you’ve learned about a new technology that will make the project aims obsolete.
Every project will give you opportunities to learn and change. Grasp them, learn, and then put your new knowledge to work.
In the second year of Six Sigma, your strategy needs to change. Now you need to focus not on introduction, like in the first year, but on consolidation.
No matter how good a leader you are, your Six Sigma implementation won’t be without flaws. Take some time to assess your projects and look for problems with:
- Education – Does everyone still know how to work under a Six Sigma methodology? Are they using the techniques they learned? If not, why not?
- Implementation – Are you falling behind in one of the key phases? For example, does customer feedback tell you that your products are missing the mark, hence your Analysis phase needs work?
- Employment – Do you still have Six Sigma Black Belt or Green Belt employees? Have your new employees had experience working in a Six Sigma culture? How are your change agents feeling about the implementation so far?
- Connection – Are you still linking your projects to the organization’s objectives? Are these succeeding?
- Communication – What are you hearing from employees on the ground? Are they telling you where improvements are possible? Are they silent? (Silence is more of a concern than critical feedback).
- Focus – Where is the organization’s focus? Is it still on quality and improvement? Has it drifted back to more familiar territory now that the initial drive for change has ceased?
How you answer these questions and what you do about them will be unique to your organization. Consider running a DMAIC cycle for your Six Sigma implementation as a whole. Sounds very meta, right? However, the point of Six Sigma is that you can use the methodology on a whole range of problems, including ones of company culture.