What Can Six Sigma Do For You?

What Can Six Sigma Do For You?

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Small and medium sized businesses have a number of characteristics that can speed up the structuring of an effective Six Sigma system, such as flexible process flows, short decision-making chains and high visibility of senior management.

Sound like Greek to you? In his book Six Sigma for Everyone, noted consultant and author George Eckes provides a practical guide that explains the underpinnings of this revolutionary quality assurance methodology.

A quality management and process improvement methodology, Six Sigma is particularly well suited to process-intensive industries like manufacturing. It measures a process by its average performance and the standard deviation of this performance, aiming to reduce the occurrence of defects in a process to a level of “Six Sigma” outside the norm: no more than 3,4 times per million.

Limiting Process Variation

Motorola is where Six Sigma began. An engineer, Mikel Harry, began to study the variations in the processes within Motorola. He saw that too much variation in any process resulted in poor customer satisfaction and ineffectiveness in meeting the customer requirements.

Eckes uses the example of a fast food restaurant where you are the customer. What if over the course of going there for lunch five days in a row, you experience different waiting periods in the drive-through line from the time you join the line until you get your order filled – anything from two to 24 minutes.

The average wait is 12 minutes, but that doesn’t describe the real situation. Not having control over variation, this fast food restaurant is going to lose business, since customers don’t like the uncertainty of not knowing whether it is going to be a 2-minute wait or a 24-minute wait.

Six Sigma is about applying a set of tools to reduce variation in the processes and improve the effectiveness and efficiency of those processes. It’s an approach, says Eckes, that can move management away from thinking of downsizing as their only approach to improving the financial outlook.

The Six Sigma Framework

Six Sigma projects should be derived by senior management from your business’s strategic plan. This sets an organisation’s goals and key performance measurements.

1. Define the objectives.

Based on goals, the senior management team defines the scope of each Six Sigma project and organises the right project team. While projects are progressing, review them and provide financial, technical and moral support. After the projects are completed, audit the results, establish systems to sustain the improvements, and continuously adjust the business’s strategic plans.

2. Measure existing systems.

Identify and describe the potential critical processes or products. Establish valid and reliable metrics to help monitor progress towards the project goals.

3. Analyse the system.

Identify ways to eliminate the gap between the current performance of the system or process and the desired goal. Outline each process and document your findings.

4. Improve the process performance.

Each process is modified and the outcome is measured to determine whether the revised method produces results within customer expectations.

5. Control the new system.

Institutionalise the improved system by modifying policies, procedures, operating instructions, and other management systems. Each critical factor should also be continuously improved by transforming its management into different Six Sigma projects.

Get Buy-in With Early Wins

For Six Sigma to be successful in your business, the first projects you take on must be successful.

Winning projects help the people in the organisation see that Six Sigma works for them and are essential to overcoming doubt and scepticism.

Bear in mind that because smaller businesses have limited cash and resources, senior management has to play an active role in the entire Six Sigma cycle. It may seem like a big commitment, but driven from the top, Six Sigma can have a healthy impact on your bottom line.

Buy The Book

Six Sigma for Everyone, by George Eckes, is published by John Wiley & Sons. Get it from www.kalahari.net

Monique Verduyn
Monique Verduyn is a freelance writer. She has more than 12 years’ experience in writing for the corporate, SME, IT and entertainment sectors, and has interviewed many of South Africa’s most prominent business leaders and thinkers. Find her on Google+.