15 burning questions every Six Sigma aspirant would ask

I have had many coffee machine conversations with colleagues at work. I believe many key strategies get discussed at the coffee machine as well, so does learning happen. I will narrate one such conversation with you in this article.

This happened when I was working for a premier Financial Services organization. Being a continuous improvement advocate and a Six Sigma aspirant, I had my set of unanswered questions.

That’s when I bumped into Hemant, our Six Sigma guru at the coffee machine. After sharing some pleasantries, I happened to ask him a few questions on Six Sigma – the Why’s, What’s, How’s, When’s that we usually carry in our inquisitive mind.

In a very informal but effective manner, Hemant helped me with the answers to my questions. I am sharing herein excerpts from our conversation.

Q1: What is Six Sigma?

Imagine you are playing cricket. You got out for a single digit score when you batted in the previous match. Your target is to score a half-century by the time you get to your fifth match. That will prepare you for the upcoming company cricket tournament.

While doing a post-match review of your batting, you get to know that there was a technical problem with your batting. You work with the coach to fix the technique, practice hard and improve in every other match you play. Till you get to a stage wherein every match that you play for your company, you are closer to the half-century mark.

Cricket buffs like big hitters, but who would not like the consistency of Rahul Dravid. The more consistent you are, the more predictable and reliable you are as a cricketer.

Six sigma is a statistical term used to measure variances within a process. In a Six Sigma environment, the company’s performance is measured by Sigma levels achieved. Six Sigma is 3.4 defects per million opportunities, which in practical environment is near-zero defect.

The focus in Six Sigma is to reduce output variation and make it consistent and predictable.

It is a reflection of the company’s aim to deliver high quality error-free products or services to customers consistently.

Q2: Why Six Sigma?

In today’s world, change is imminent. The difference, if any, is that the pace of change is increasing every passing year.

Management's job in an organization is to design systems. Systems that create and deliver value to customers and shareholders. This is a never-ending process. Competitors innovate in an attempt to lure customers. Innovations redefine the way products and services reach customers. Customer demands change at lightning pace. What causes delight today becomes a basic tomorrow.

The one factor that all organizations understand is “the change imperative”. Organizations that chose to resist change have had to change or perished.

Lean and Six sigma embrace change. As a philosophy, it propagates continuous improvement in both quality and timeliness. Management has to come out with innovative techniques for product and service offerings. Operational improvement becomes behaviour rather than a set of initiatives.

Lean Six Sigma employs a structure and set of techniques. These act as a guide for managers to drive improvement within their respective areas. Master Black Belts and Black Belts work alongside the operations and production teams. This ensures clarity of direction and alignment of Six Sigma to business strategy.

Q3: Six Sigma is about statistics, do I need to learn statistics?

Six Sigma applies statistical tools to analyse problems and measure outcomes. Inferential statistics and probability theories form the basis of six sigma statistical usage. Six sigma is not only about Statistics.

It is a set of techniques to define what the customer needs and aligning the organization and resources including measurement systems to achieve the same. Applying Six Sigma reduces the amount of surprises (variation) and brings objectivity in performance measurement (what “good” means), especially from a customer delivery perspective.

A keen interest towards quality customer delivery, challenging status quo continuously and basic knowledge of statistics are desired to be a Six Sigma professional. 

Q4: What is the difference between Six Sigma and Lean?

Lean approach is the systematic reduction of waste (called Muda in Japanese). According to Taiichi Ohno (TPS fame), there are seven types of wastes in processes. Identifying and eliminating the wastes is key to delivering value to the customers.

Lean and Six Sigma are both applied to improve business processes and performance. Lean focuses on the processes, improving flow and making them more efficient. Six Sigma focuses on output, improving quality, and increasing effectiveness.

Q5: What are the benefits to organizations from Six Sigma?

The benefits of Six Sigma to organizations are -

  • Increases profitability – reduces waste

  • Improves customer focus

  • Generates sustained improvement

  • Sets direction and goals

  • Fosters continuous learning and development

Research shows that both manufacturing and service organizations incur cost of poor quality. In some instances, it may be as high as 50% of the budgets for service organizations.

Analysis reveals that less than 10% of process cycle time is “productive work”. The remaining is waste, re-work and other non-value added activities.

Q6: Is Six Sigma a set of improvement initiatives?

Are you telling me improving your own batting technique will ensure you team’s performance improves consistently too?

No - it requires consistent application of the techniques over a period of time. Each person in the team needs to understand individual roles and responsibilities. Every individual needs to be measured objectively in line with team objectives.
Likewise within business, Six Sigma has to be a long term strategy, and not a string of initiatives. It is about transformation. The commitment of the leadership to the strategy paves the way for the future. It is about culture and approach as opposed to an endeavour. 

It requires long-term commitment. The policies and organization structure needs to align to the approach. Profess facts and data and use the same for performance evaluation as well. Recognize behaviours aligned to the renewed culture. Reward outcomes achieved from the new approach.

Q7: How does it benefit the customer?

I have heard many people say – “We are a customer-driven organization!”

Sounds good, but what do customer-driven organizations do differently as opposed to traditional organizations?

Well, customer-driven organizations are committed to provide excellent quality products and services to satisfy the needs of customers.

You go to a restaurant and order for pizza. How much you enjoy the pizza depends on what you expected and what was delivered.

If you got more than what you expected, it results in delight. On the contrary, if there is a gap from what you expected, it leads to dis-satisfaction.

Six Sigma equips you with tools and an approach to identifying what the customer is looking for and more importantly, measuring the same. This removes ambiguity from the “What Good Looks like” conversations.

Q8: How does it benefit employees?

Do you know “95% of errors occur due to bad processes”? However, in many organizations, errors are identified as a “People Issue” or “Human Error”.

What is the impact? They attempt to fix people and continue with faulty processes.

In a Lean Six Sigma environment, the focus is on quality output and lean processes. Effort is focussed on fixing processes to reduce errors. Reduce human intervention on repetitive activities through elimination or automation. Thereby killing monotony of repeat jobs, and allowing people to spend time on quality jobs.

Six Sigma also opens up plethora of opportunities for people to constantly learn new techniques. Having applied the same within their teams, they can also get an opportunity to train others on the techniques and application. This results in on-going personal development as well.

Q9: Is Six Sigma useful to Manufacturing organizations only?

The benefits from applying Six Sigma are the same for all organizations, irrespective of the industry. 

Are the issues with the service sector different from manufacturing? Do they serve customers in a different way? 

Service organizations transact at a customer level. The sector’s nervousness around adapting Six Sigma is palpable. “Every customer is different” is what some service sector professionals say. That’s true! Six sigma might not apply to all service processes. With adjustments, it can apply to most service propositions or functions, if not all.

Within the service sector, there are some voices which say “We are a people-driven sector”, “All outcomes cannot be measured” or “Six Sigma is too technical”. Well, these are mere voices!

From large financial services organizations like Bank of America to healthcare organizations. Even a complex meal-box delivery by Dabbawalas in a busy city like Mumbai. Six Sigma and Lean application has helped these organizations consistently deliver quality services on time.

Q10: Can I make a career as a Six Sigma professional?

In today’s fast-paced world, all companies are vying for a share from the market. The larger the share, better are their chances of growth. Offerings on products and services change frequently, basis customer needs and demands.

Organizations invest fortunes in market research and innovation. Structured Lean Six Sigma methodologies are a guiding force in this space. With a defined structure, Six Sigma helps companies to arrive at market-leading solutions. 

The focus has shifted to design and use of DFSS (Design for Six Sigma) methodology. This has further potential, when it comes to new product introduction. 

Six Sigma guides managers to define what customer needs supported by a set of measures. What gets measured gets improved!

Lean focuses on the process and builds a culture of continuous improvement. Hand in hand, Lean Six Sigma techniques are indispensable in organizations today.

Q11: I am not a full-time Six Sigma professional, can I get into it now?

Yes, of course. Whether you are a Lead Manufacturing Engineer or a Project Engineer. A Business process Analyst or Operating System Specialist. Six sigma is integral to operational and manufacturing roles within all organizations.
Larger companies have a dedicated team of Six Sigma professionals.

Six Sigma certified professionals are being sought after across the world. Honeywell, GE, Volkswagen, UnitedHealth Group and others are in constant search for Six Sigma certified professionals.

In fact, hands-on application of Six Sigma techniques is very helpful for people who are in non-Six Sigma roles.

Q12: What are the roles for full-time Six Sigma professionals within organizations?

Six Sigma roles within organizations are –

  • Master Black Belt (MBB):  Full-time role, expert in Six Sigma methodology and statistical tools. MBB provides strategic Six Sigma guidance and technical leadership within an assigned function within an organization. MBB is responsible for coaching, mentoring and/or training BBs. They lay down the training plans and project sign-off methodology within the organization. MBBs are a critical authority in signing off BB projects.

  • Black Belt (BB): Full-time professional who leads Six Sigma projects. Trained in methods, statistical tools and team skills. Provides coaching and Six Sigma expertise to Green Belts.

  • Green Belt (GB): May be a full-time or part-time role. GBs are 6 sigma project leaders capable of forming and facilitating Six Sigma Teams. They manage Six Sigma projects from concept to completion. Six Sigma BBs help GBs and assist them with their projects.

  • Yellow Belt (YB): Part-time role, has a basic knowledge of Six Sigma. Support a GB or BB project as a core team member or SME.

Q13: What’s in it for me?

So, you understand Six Sigma lays down a successful and happy career path for you!

Do you know how much Six Sigma professionals earn?

indeed.com, world’s number 1 jobsite states that the national average salary for a Green Belt in 2016 was $83000 per year in the United States. For Certified Black Belts, it is $99000 per year. For Certified Master Black Belts, it is even more at $121000.

According to data updated in January 2017 by payscale.com, the median annual salaries for Green Belt Six Sigma Certified Professionals in the United States ranges from $62k for a Production Supervisor to $81k for Operations managers.
In the Indian subcontinent, the stack-up is equally impressive ranging from INR 0.5mm for an Operations Team Leader to INR 1mm for Quality Assurance Managers.

I am not sharing these numbers to boast about potential earnings. This should give you some idea about how sought after Six Sigma professionals are.

Q14: Where do I start?

Since you are in a non- Six Sigma role, it is beneficial for you to enrol to the Six Sigma program offered by the organization in-house. You can complete your Green Belt Certification and basis your interests, move to full-time roles and related certification as well.

For your friends who work in organizations without an in-house Six Sigma certification program, they can opt for courses from various institutes. Starting from Yellow Belt, you can go onto complete Green Belt and Black Belt certifications as well. However, it is imperative that you complete projects before or immediately after certification, in order to ensure learnings are embedded.

Most institutes provide both Offline instructor-driven and Online courses these, you can avail of them basis your needs.

Q15: How’s the future for Six Sigma professionals?

For quality personnel in manufacturing or service organization, Lean Six Sigma certification helps build skills and learn new techniques. It also gives them a knowledge base to train their teams on the skills as well.

For operations/service/production manager in an organization, Lean Six Sigma certification helps enhance their understanding on measures and techniques. They can train their team members on effective problem-solving techniques further.

Whether it is growth within the current organization or opportunities outside, Lean Six Sigma certification gives you an edge in the competitive marketplace.

Whether you work for a start-up or an established organization? Whether your organization talks about Robotics or AI? Organizations will look out for Six Sigma professionals to drive structured and sustainable improvements.

As a career interest if you wish to pursue your own business. Lean Six Sigma professionals are sought after by organizations as consultants and trainers. A certification might just be the beginning of your career as a business person.

Till we meet again…

I never realised through this conversation the amount of coffee I sipped. The conversation was extremely invigorating to me. 

I thanked Hemant for the pearls of wisdom he shared with me. With me moving out to a new town, I have lost touch with him, but what he shared with me applies even today.  The fact is – it applies even more aptly in today’s environment.

I took this opportunity to share my coffee machine conversation with you. Hope you found it useful and many of your “Burning” questions regarding Six Sigma were answered.

Please provide your feedback through the discussion forum at the end of this article! 

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About Author
Rakesh Nair