Critical Success Factors for Six Sigma
Critical Success Factors for Six Sigma. Photo by
Bernard Goldbach

When you’re deploying Six Sigma to an organization, there’s a lot that can go right – and vice versa. We’ve put together some of the critical success factors for Six Sigma implementations.

Focus

Moving to a Six Sigma framework will require a shift in focus across the entire organization. In Six Sigma, your focus needs to be firmly on:

  • Customers
  • Processes
  • Culture

In many organizations, the focus will initially be on other things, like:

  • Cutting costs
  • Public perception
  • Employee performance

It’s not that these aren’t important, as such. More to the point, they’re flow-on factors. If you focus on the needs of your customers, then your customers end up happier, and public perception of your organization improves. Likewise, if you implement Lean Six Sigma to improve and pare down your processes, your costs go down. And if you tweak your company culture towards the sort of workplace you want to be, you’ll see changes in staff morale and hence individual performance.

These changes in focus are important. Imagine a river that feeds into a town’s water supply. Industrial waste seeps into the river up in the mountains, near the source. The town’s water is contaminated. The town has two choices:

  • Treat the contaminated water in the water supply reservoir to remove any toxic elements.
  • Go upstream to find the source of the contamination and stop it.

Either option will solve the issue… sort of. But solving the problem as close to the source as possible is more efficient and effective. Similarly, finding and sorting out issues with your organization as close to the source as possible is most effective and efficient.

Keep steering your organization’s focus back to the three key elements: customers, processes, and culture.

Relevance

It’s difficult to get excited about a methodology that doesn’t offer any apparent benefit. Link your Six Sigma projects to key objectives of the business. Ensure that managers at all levels can see how the projects will boost performance and help you all hit those goals.

Keep the interest of key players by linking Six Sigma projects to business objectives.

Commitment

A full commitment to Six Sigma is vital. It improves the quality of input. Therefore, it improves the output. In other words: put your best efforts into Six Sigma to get the best returns. Allay fears with good planning, not a partial commitment.

Get your key players committed to Six Sigma before you begin.

Buy-in

You need to win people over so that they’ll willingly get involved and support the changes that will make Six Sigma successful in your organization. You need to gather:

  • Support from top management
  • Active leadership from all managers
  • Participation of all staff

But how do you gather this buy-in?

Top management

Firstly, CXOs and the like need to be convinced of the value of Six Sigma. And they need to be convinced before you start implementing it. This is super important; without this support, the implementation will tank. To get to that point, they need to understand how Six Sigma aligns with company goals and objectives, and how it can help the company to better achieve those. Sell Six Sigma as a methodology that treats issues at their source and uses facts and real data in all decisions. They also need to understand that the transition will require a lot of changes. If they’re not fully on board with the changes needed, they haven’t yet bought in.

Middle management

Secondly, middle management need to understand how Six Sigma will help them do their jobs and make improvements in their individual departments and teams. They also need to understand how the transition will happen, and what their teams will look like once Six Sigma is up and running in the company.

Employees

Thirdly, your employees throughout the organization. Your regular staff mostly need to understand how Six Sigma will affect their jobs. Education about the methodology is important for all employees. Many people fear change, because change often brings discomfort and negative experiences. Emphasise the positives, including the benefits inherent in creating better processes, happier customers, and a more supportive company culture. Generally speaking, people don’t like working in a place where processes are sloppy, customers are unhappy, and there is minimal interest in professional development for employees. But they also tend to fear the classic ‘fixes’ that managers tend to make: tightening performance requirements for individuals, introducing customer satisfaction KPIs, enforcing employee training. That’s because these ‘fixes’ rarely address the roots of the problems, and instead pass extra strain onto regular staff members. Six Sigma methodology strikes at the heart of the issues – and this is what you need to underline.

Different people in your organization will need different information. Get them interested and enthused with education tailored to their position. And remember: people want to know how change will affect them.

Consistency

Successful Six Sigma implementations have consistent themes. Their vision, strategy, and metrics all feed into each other. On the other hand, unsuccessful deployments are often inconsistent. Their strategy doesn’t further their vision. Or their metrics fail to measure whether they’re reaching their goals.

Enforce consistency in your projects. Link vision, strategy and metrics carefully.

Fact-based Decisions

Encourage decision making based on cold, hard data. This might seem like a given, but when you really dig into a company’s reasons for their decisions, they’re often anything but. People will often make choices because of:

  • Emotions, especially fear: a change in the marketplace is worrying, for example, and a company chooses a conservative approach in response.
  • Emulation: another company is doing X, and it seems like a good idea.
  • Instinct: a particular approach feels right.
  • Charisma: someone who can sway opinions wants to move in a certain direction.
  • Self-interest: a desire to take a potential path because it offers novelty, consequence, or glamour.

Six Sigma thrives on facts. Use the baseline metrics to decide which areas of your business need work. Use the metrics you gather along the way to decide where to apply more effort.

Gather your data, analyze it, then make your decisions. Objective information is key, and you need to get people used to using it.

Manager involvement

Managers at all levels need to be active in the deployment. But what does this mean in practice? Ensure managers are educated in Six Sigma practices. Get them involved in planning the deployment. Give them responsibility for implementing it in their teams.

Educate your managers and get them actively involved in Six Sigma.

Early success

To increase buy-in… succeed! You might be amazed at just how much enthusiasm is generated by a single successful project. Conversely, staff can lose morale if the first project is a bust.

But how to ensure success over failure? Here are some points to consider:

  • Pick the low-hanging fruit. In other words, your first projects or waves of introduction should be the easiest options.
  • Pick a project that’s well-suited to Six Sigma methodology.
  • Choose projects that will have measurable results.
  • Don’t let the project be isolated. You’ll need to ensure that what you’re doing in the first projects or waves directly relate to company goals and objectives.
  • Educate everyone. Make sure the people involved understand what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why.
  • Employ a Six Sigma coach. This person doesn’t just teach people how to use Six Sigma – they lead by example.
  • Identify your change advocates. Mentor these people and encourage them. They’re like conduits to the rest of your staff – the more enthusiastic they are, the more on-board everyone else will be.

Your first Six Sigma wave needs to be successful. Look for easy wins that directly affect company goals and objectives.

Bottom up communication

Your ground level staff have a lot of data for you. They can tell you where a lot of your problems lie. They can also help you to fix them. However, this is a common issue for many companies. They lack bottom to top data exchanges. Generate these channels of conversation, then keep them open. Doing this provides more than one benefit. You find out about problems and solutions, but you also boost morale. People are happier when their input is valued.

Develop upward channels of communication and keep them open.

Progress reviews

It might seem self evident that a project is going well. However, make measurements. Check your metrics. Talk to your staff. Report to your top management. Everyone might start on the same page, but you need to keep checking that this is still the case.

Keep checking your progress and then communicating the results.

Counter-resistance

You will experience resistance to your changes. Not always at first; sometimes the heaviest resistance comes in the middle of a project once initial enthusiasm has waned. Don’t be personally offended by this. Instead, be prepared to counter any resistance using these strategies:

  • Education. Keep refreshing people’s minds about what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why they’re doing it.
  • Results. Show how the changes are bearing fruit.
  • Encouragement. Get your change advocates talking to people.
  • Listening. You will encounter real problems along the way, and sometimes the first people to alert you will be the ‘malcontents’. Remember that the people offering resistance might be doing so because they see issues and they’re having trouble getting those resolved.

It’s very normal for people to resist change. Prepare for it and don’t take it personally. We embrace change when we see its positives.

New Hires

Make Six Sigma certification or experience a requirement for new employees. This boosts the number of staff with experience in the new framework. You also have a good chance of increasing the number of change advocates working for you.

New employee = new opportunity to embrace Six Sigma.

Six Sigma Black Belt Certification Critical Success Factor Questions:

Question: The primary factor in the successful implementation of six sigma is to have: (Taken from ASQ sample Black Belt exam.)

(A) the necessary resources
(B) the support and leadership of top management
(C) explicit customer requirements
(D) a comprehensive training program

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