Category Archives: Six sigma

Problems with Management and Business Books

We really need to change how we improve the practice of management. Far too often management strategies are just the latest fad from some new book that successfully marketed an idea. The marketing effectiveness of a book, or consultant, has very limited correlation to their ability to improve management, in my experience. It is often true that they make very good keynote speakers, however. So if you want an entertaining keynote speaker looking at the authors of the best selling business books may make sense. But if you want to improve management, I don’t see much value in doing so.

Year after year we have the same basic business books repackaged and marketed. They present a magic bullet to solve all your problems. Except their bullet is far from magic. Usually it does more harm than good.

They amazingly oversimplify things to make their bullet seem magic. This also fails miserably in practice. There are usually not good management options that are simple and easy. Usually the answers for what should be done is a lot of “it depends,” which people don’t seem to like.

Authors fail to place their book (or their trademarked strategy they hope turns into a movement/fad) in the appropriate context. Most books just take a few good ideas from decades old practices add a new name and leave off all references to the deep meaning that originally was there. I guess quite often the authors don’t even know enough about management history to know this is the case; I guess they really think their minor tweak to a portion of business process re-engineering is actually new. This also would make it hard for them to place their ideas within a management philosophy.

On a related note, I find it interesting how different the lean manufacturing and six sigma communities are online (and this has been going on for more than a decade). One of the problems with six sigma is there is so little open, building on the practices of six sigma. Everyone is so concerned with their marketing gimmick for six sigma that that don’t move forward a common body of work. This is a serious problem for six sigma. Lean manufacturing benefits hugely from the huge community of those building openly on the body of knowledge and practice of lean. You can find 10 great lean manufacturing blogs without trouble. You will have difficulty finding 3 good six sigma blogs (and even those spend most of the time on other areas – often lean thinking).
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Good Process Improvement Practices

Good process improvement practices include:

  • standardized improvement process (pdsa, or whatever)
  • Going to the gemba – improvement is done where the work is done. You must go to the where the action is. Sitting in meeting rooms, or offices, reading reports and making decisions is not the way to improve effectively.
  • evidence based decision making, data guides decision making rather than HiPPO
  • broad participation (those working on the process should be the ones working on improving it and everyone in the organization should be improving their processes)
  • measurable results that are used to measure effectiveness
  • pilot improvement on a small scale, after results are shown to be improvements deploy standardized solutions more broadly
  • visual management
  • Standardized work instructions are used for processes
  • one of the aims of the improvement process should be improving peoples ability to improve over the long term (one outcome of the process should be a better process another should be that people learned and can apply what they learned in future improvements)
  • quality tools should be used, people should be trained on such tools. The tools are essentially standardized methods that have been shown to be effective. And most organization just ignore them and struggle to reinvent methods to achieve results instead of just applying methods already shown to be very effective.
  • the improvements are sustained. Changes are made to the system and they are adopted: this seems obvious but far too often process improvements are really just band-aids that fall off a few weeks later and nothing is done to sustain it.
  • goals, bonuses and extrinsic motivation are not part of the process
  • The improvement process itself should be continually improved

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Management Improvement Internal Experts

Having a group of internal experts in Deming, lean thinking, six sigma, etc. can be an good way to help the organization transform but they must 1) practice respect for people and 2) focus on building organizational capacity. Having, for example a few experts that are very focused on lean thinking and can be tapped by others in the organization I think can be very useful.

That group might well also serve as “change agents” which can make some people get mad at them. They can help push the organization to change. While it might be nice to think you can just show the wonderfulness that is lean thinking and everyone will immediately drop all their old habits and embrace lean thinking that often doesn’t happen. You might well have to push middle mangers (and others) outside their comfort zone. And you might well have to push people to really try this stuff and they have become so disheartened over the years by promises of new, better, ways to work. They just see this as one more lame pointy haired boss attempt and they may well not want to play.

A big focus should be on making improvement in the performance of the organization, obviously, but also on making it clear that this new way of doing things is helpful and will make it a better place to work. The role of internal management improvements efforts is to build the capacity of the rest of the organization to improve. Six sigma efforts often instead put the emphasis on six sigma experts doing the improvement instead of coaching and providing assistance to those who best know the processes to improve, which I see as a mistake.

Response to The “Lean Group” Syndrome
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Six Sigma Interview with Jack Welch

The short video includes some interesting points by Jack Welch on six sigma. GE was a huge company and did plenty of things that could be criticized. But often those criticizing take it much to far and disregard the sensible things GE understood and was doing well.

Quotes by Jack Welch: “variation is evil” “Will six sigma companies get more valuation in the marketplace? Not unless they produce results. You can’t put up a slogan that says we are a six sigma company and think the pe is going to move.”

Related: 3M CEO on Six SigmaManagement Advice FailuresNew Rules for Management? No!Has Six Sigma been a failure?

Statistical Engineering Links Statistical Thinking, Methods and Tools

In Closing the Gap Roger W. Hoerl and Ronald D. Snee lay out a sensible case for focusing on statistical engineering.

We’re not suggesting that society no longer needs research in new statistical techniques for improvement; it does. The balance needed at this time, however, is perhaps 80% for statistics as an engineering discipline and 20% for statistics as a pure science.

True, though I would put the balance more like 95% engineering, 5% science.

There is a good discussion on LinkedIn:

Davis Balestracci: Unfortunately, we snubbed our noses at the Six Sigma movement…and got our lunch eaten. Ron Snee has been developing this message for the last 20 years (I developed it in four years’ worth of monthly columns for Quality Digest from 2005-2008). BUT…as long as people have a computer, color printer, and a package that does trend lines, academic arguments won’t “convert” anybody.

Recently, we’ve lost our way and evolved into developing “better jackhammers to drive tacks”…and pining for the “good ol’ days” when people listened to us (which they were forced to do because they didn’t have computers, and statistical packages were clunky). Folks, we’d better watch it…or we’re moribund

Was there really a good old days when business listened to statisticians? Of course occasionally they did, but “good old days”? Here is a report from 1986 the theme of which seems to me to be basically how to get statisticians listened to by the people that make the important decisions: The Next 25 Years in Statistics, by Bill Hunter and William Hill. Maybe I do the report a disservice with my understanding of the basic message, but it seems to me to be how to make sure the important contributions of applied statisticians actually get applied in organizations. And it discusses how statisticians need to take action to drive adoption of the ideas because currently (1986) they are too marginalized (not listened to when they should be contributing) in most organizations.
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Soren Bisgaard

photo of Soren Bisgaard

Soren Bisgaard died earlier this month of cancer. Soren was a student of my father’s who shared the commitment to making a difference in people’s lives by using applied statistics properly. I know this seem odd to many (I tried to describe this idea previously, also read his acceptance of the 2002 William G. Hunter award). Soren served as the director of the director of the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (founded by William Hunter and George Box) for several years.

Most recently Soren Bisgaard, Ph.D. was Professor of technology management at Eugene M. Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. He was an ASQ Fellow; recipient of Shewart Medal, Hunter Award, George Box Medal, among many others awards.

I will remember the passion he brought to his work. He reminded me of my father in his desire to improve how things are done and allow people to have better lives. Those that bring passion to their work in management improvement are unsung heroes. It seems odd, to many, to see that you can bring improvement to people’s lives through work. But we spend huge amounts of our time at work. And by improving the systems we work in we can improve people’s lives. Soren will be missed, by those who knew him and those who didn’t (even if they never realize it).

Contributions in honor of Søren may be made to The International Mesothelioma Program or to the European Network for Business and Industrial Statistics. Read more articles by Søren Bisgaard.

The Future of Quality Technology: From a Manufacturing to a Knowledge Economy and From Defects to Innovations (pdf) by Soren Bisgaard

Related: The Work of Peter ScholtesManagement Improvement LeadersThe Scientific Context of Quality Improvement by George Box and Soren Bisgaard, 1987 – Obituary Søren Bisgaard at ENBISObituary: Soren Bisgaard, Isenberg Professor in Integrative Studies

Highlights from Recent George Box Speech

The JMP blog has posted some highlights from George Box’s presentation at Discovery 2009

Infusing his entire presentation with humor and fascinating tales of his memories, Box focused on sequential design of experiments. He attributed much of what he knows about DOE [design of experiments] to Ronald A. Fisher. Box explained that Fisher couldn’t find the things he was looking for in his data, “and he was right. Even if he had had the fastest available computer, he’d still be right,” said Box. Therefore, Fisher figured out how to study a number of factors at one time. And so, the beginnings of DOE.

Having worked and studied with many other famous statisticians and analytic thinkers, Box did not hesitate to share his characterizations of them. He told a story about Dr. Bill Hunter and how he required his students to run an experiment. Apparently a variety of subjects was studied [see 101 Ways to Design an Experiment, or Some Ideas About Teaching Design of Experiments]

According to Box, the difficulty of getting DOE to take root lies in the fact that these mathematicians “can’t really get the fact that it’s not about proving a theorem, it’s about being curious about things. There aren’t enough people who will apply [DOE] as a way of finding things out. But maybe with JMP, things will change that way.”

George Box is a great mind and great person who I have had the privilege of knowing my whole life. My father took his class at Princeton, then followed George to the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where Dr. Box founded the statistics department and Dad received the first PhD). They worked together building the UW statistics department, writing Statistics for Experimenters and founding the Center for Quality and Productivity Improvement among many other things.

Statistics for Experimenters: Design, Innovation, and Discovery shows that the goal of design of experiments is to learn and refine your experiment based on the knowledge you gain and experiment again. It is a process of discovery. If done properly it is very similar to the PDSA cycle with the application of statistical tools to aid in determining the impact of various factors under study.

Related: Box on QualityGeorge Box Quotationsposts on design of experimentsUsing Design of Experiments

Finding Savings with Six Sigma

I don’t see any evidence six sigma is making a comeback but magazines like to talk about new ideas rather than just explore what continues. They like to discuss common cause variation as though it were special cause. Six Sigma Makes a Comeback

Unlike in the 1990s, when such executives as General Electric’s Jack Welch embraced Six Sigma with missionary zeal, consultants say today’s converts generally are looking for a fast way to save money.

How sad. Six sigma has always been hampered by a lack of core values (like respect for people, constancy of purpose) and a focus on cost cutting but the direct desire to pursue a deadly disease (short term focus) is sad indication of where some have taken what can be very useful tools.

Still, Six Sigma is finding new life, especially in retail. Target (TGT) claims more than $100 million in savings over the past six years from the program. Mike Fisher, Best Buy’s (BBY) senior director of Lean Six Sigma, says projects like streamlining appliance installation have helped the company save up to $20 million in some cases. “Without a doubt, it put us in a better position to muscle through the recession by getting all of those inefficiencies out,” says Fisher.

Six sigma and quality management other efforts can be very useful. But many of the efforts (as many of any management efforts) are executed poorly and do little good and much that is rightly ridiculed.

Related: Quality and InnovationSix Sigma Much More than Common SenseProcess Improvement and Innovation

Best Places to Work for Six Sigma Professionals

iSixSigma has created a list of the Best Places to Work for Six Sigma Professionals. To be eligible to participate, companies must have been actively engaged in using Six Sigma for at least two years and must employ a minimum of 30 full-time Six Sigma practitioners in either Black Belt, Master Black Belt or Deployment Leader roles.

Sixteen companies met all the entry requirements and completed a two-part online survey. The senior Six Sigma leader submitted answers to an employer survey, and the full-time Six Sigma personnel at each company submitted answers to an employee survey.

Companies were ranked 1 through 10 by totaling the scores from the two surveys. The greatest weight was given to the employee survey, which asked questions in five main categories: job satisfaction, culture, compensation/rewards and recognition, training and career development, and net promoter score (NPS). Of these categories, the most weight was given to job satisfaction, as that is what employees said was the most important factor to them when it comes to a working environment. The companies, in alphabetical order:

  • Chevron
  • EMC
  • Masco Builder Cabinet Group
  • McKesson
  • NewPage
  • Rio Tinto Alcan
  • Textron
  • Volt Information Sciences
  • Vought Aircraft Industries
  • Xerox

The rankings will be revealed later. The details are from from convincing to me that these are indeed the top 10 organization for six sigma professionals. However, it does seem a good list for someone looking for a new job working with six sigma to consult.

Related: Deming and Six SigmaSix Sigma SuccessAgility vs. Six Sigmaposts on management careersSeduce Them With Six Sigma Success

Six Sigma v. Common Sense

Response to LinkedIn question: “Whether Six Sigma as a quality tool really delivers the benefits ? How does it makes difference from a common sense approach ? (Where the process wastes and the required solution is known / can be easily identified just by applying common sense)”

Six sigma (or another management improvement method) can help in several ways. First, lots of things that are sensible are not done. A method to assure that more sensible things are done is useful.

Second, many things are sensible, but are not sensible when looked at in isolation (sub-optimization). Six sigma can (not does, can – sometime this won’t happen) assist those in the organization to evaluate from a larger context than they normally do. So instead of say the IT department forcing everyone to use some poorly designed software because it is the cheapest thing for the IT department to support the added costs to the rest of the organization are more fully considered.

Third, many things that are sensible are not evaluated based on their sense but instead based on internal politics… A standard methodology can help focus people on the merits of a proposal instead of who said it (again six sigma can do this, often it fails as the organization continues to cling to old patterns of power over sense).

Fourth, many of the tools, go beyond what sensible people alone see (design of experiments, understanding variation, PDSA, systems thinking, root cause analysis). Using the tools can often lead to valuable discoveries that were not obvious without using the tools.

If the solutions were obvious why were they not done last year? It is true that there are often plenty of simple improvements waiting to be adopted because management has done such a poor job that obvious improvement are left undone. But once sensible management is in place, eventually those obvious improvement will be done and a more structured approach to finding improvement is valuable. Even simple concepts like letting those that work on the process improve the process are often ignored by organizations (even those saying they are doing six sigma, unfortunately). So I see a strong value in adopting management improvement principles and tools.

Related: Management Advice FailuresImprovement Tools and Improving ManagementSix Sigma PitfallsWhy Isn’t Work Standard?European Blackout: Not “Human Error”