What is Six Sigma?

At its core, Six Sigma seeks to improve the quality of process outputs, identifies and removes the causes of defects, and minimizes the variability in manufacturing and business processes.  Six Sigma was originally developed by Motorola in 1985, but has evolved and has been utilized in different sectors of industry.  In a nutshell, six sigma can be used at three different levels: the management system, as a methodology, and as a metric.

The Management System:

Breakthrough Six Sigma performance can only occur when Six Sigma is aligned with an organization’s overall business strategy.  The more closely an individual project is tied to organizational goals, the better its chances for producing far-reaching and lasting results.

The Methodology:

DMAIC is the five-step approach that makes up the Six Sigma tool kit, and its sole objective is to drive costly variation from manufacturing and business processes.  The five steps in DMAIC are   Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control.   As the backbone of the Six Sigma methodology, DMAIC delivers sustained defect-free performance and highly competitive quality costs over the long run.

As a Metric:

The third level, 6-sigma as a metric, is the source of the name 6- sigma. 6-sigma refers to 3.4 defects per one million opportunities (DPMO). 6-sigma started as a defect reduction effort (as in zero defects) in manufacturing and was then applied to other processes for the same purpose–quality improvement. A 6-sigma project will use management, methods and metrics at the same time.

There are few if any processes that cannot be improved. 6-sigma is one approach which has been shown to work, but which is not without its critics. A Fortune article stated that, “of 58 large companies that have announced 6-sigma programs, 91 percent have trailed the S&P 500 since.” The reason for this is perhaps that 6-sigma is effective at what it is intended to do, but that it is “narrowly designed to fix an existing process” and does not help in “coming up with new products or disruptive technologies.”

The Six Sigma System drives clarity around the business strategy and the metrics that most reflect success with that strategy. It provides the framework to prioritize resources for projects that will improve the metrics, and it leverages leaders who will manage the efforts for rapid, sustainable, and improved business results.

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