Six Sigma – Is the very Concept an Error?

Although the term Six Sigma was coined in the 1980s, its essence can be traced as far back as 1809. It was launched with the introduction of the normal curve by Carl Frederick Gauss. However, the credit for this quality improvement tool/model goes to Bill Smith, an engineer with Motorola. Using the principles of what eventually came to be known as ‘Six Sigma’, Bill managed to standardize core processes, thereby resulting in a saving of around $16 Billion for Motorola.

Six Sigma: What Show’s, What Doesn’t 

Six Sigma is essentially a tool for the identification and elimination of variance, which in turn helps reduce inefficiency in the organization. The concept gained immense popularity with most large companies around the world that adopted the principles of Six Sigma and built work cultures around the same.

However, here’s a word of caution – like all other things, there are some negatives to Six Sigma as well. If the concept is not tweaked appropriately for each department, it can lead to lack of innovation and skewed growth in an organization.

What Goes Wrong with Six Sigma

The process of evolution in nature is totally based on the principles of variation and/or errors. Using this analogy, the very same organizations that achieved those lofty levels of efficiency by adopting the principles of Six Sigma, and other such similar tools, soon found themselves losing their positions as leaders, mainly due to a lack of vision. This resulted in little or no growth. Industry leaders soon found their products (and themselves) outdated due to their approach of no variance and standardized processes.

Comparison Example to Explain the Outcome of Six Sigma

Let us look at an organization as an organism to understand the concept of innovation through variations. The growth of an organism is due to the replication/division of cells. As each cell divides, it transfers the same code of nucleotides to its new cell. However, sometimes, there is an error in the sequencing of these codes. The very process of evolution is dictated by these errors that occur during cell division/replication. It is worth remembering that these errors in DNA replication are the reasons why single cell organisms have evolved into what we are today.

On the other hand, there are organisms that have managed to retain their genetic coding without any changes and are exactly the same as they were millions of years ago. A classic example would be a species of mould - Neurospora crassa, which has remained exactly the same since the beginning. By blanketing the genetic code with point mutations, Neurospora crassa, ensures that the genetic code is disabled during the DNA duplication, thus resulting in no errors/variations. But, in the process, Neurospora crassa has remained what it was – a bread mould…….. and never evolved beyond what it started as.

Organizations, which at one time were industry leaders with their products, but failed to innovate and evolve with the changing world, soon, found that they were pushed out of the game. The case of the mobile phone industry is a prime example. With the innovation of the smart phone, Motorola found itself becoming redundant. It needed to innovate to remain in the game.

Efficiency in Six Sigma is Possible through Variations

The mission statements of most organizations talk about innovation and vision – and yet there is an efficiency driven culture in the organization which fights tooth and nail to ensure that there are no variations from the set path. In order to evolve, organizations need to allow experimentation and errors. Unfortunately, most organizations reward those who do not make errors – promotions are based on having the right answers, not asking the right questions; on killing projects that are experimental in nature; on adapting ‘what is’ rather than ‘what should be’.

While it is possible that these organizations may succeed in the short term, they eventually lose out on the long run. Like the Neurospora, they survive but only as they were – with no growth, no change, and no longer as leaders.

Way Forward for Six Sigma Adaptation

While organizations strive to ensure that they become error free, yet, it is these very errors that at times create the breakthrough that is required to take the organization to the leader board of the future. Does this mean that the very concept of Six Sigma is flawed? The answer is no, it is not. The flaw lies in the adaptation of Six Sigma

Let us look at Six Sigma as a piece of cloth. This cloth can protect you as you use it to cover parts of your body; but, it can also smother you if you cover your entire body with it. Organizations need to understand this when they adopt the principles of Six Sigma. While Six Sigma can be very effective in the assembly line on the factory floor, it can smother your marketing department if used the wrong way. 

Last Word

There is a very fine line between failure and success – the ability to turn an error related to Six Sigma into an innovation is what evolution is all about – and if you don’t evolve, you eventually become extinct. 


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