Six Sigma: An Overview

It was the engineers of Motorola, who in the 1980s began to conceive of a project to drastically improve the organization’s quality monitoring processes. They believed that traditional methods employed so far, which measured manufacturing errors per thousand product units, were not sufficient. As a result they improvised the method to measure manufacturing defects per million opportunities. They termed this process innovation as the Six Sigma standard. In the years that followed, Six Sigma will play an instrumental role in propelling Motorola to a leadership position in the electronics industry, on back of saving the company billions of dollars in production costs and greatly improving production efficiency. Subsequently, Six Sigma was adopted by other industries and it evolved into a sophisticated and comprehensive Project Management tool for improving standards and processes of a business enterprise. The Six Sigma strategy is to integrate

“business operations, statistical measurements and product development, and it is now being applied to business areas as diverse as human resources, purchasing and customer service. Companies that have adopted these principles have reported dramatic increases in customer satisfaction, productivity and shareholder value. They have also shown significant savings, often without capital expense.” (Lipscomb & Lewis, 2004, p.30)

Sigma is a Greek alphabet and a mathematical symbol representing standard deviation, which Motorola engineers have adopted to their process. While many organizations have had difficulty putting Six Sigma theory to practice, understanding the subtleties will enable them to grasp the cause and effect relationships that are applied in Six Sigma. It represents “a structured thought process that begins with first thoroughly understanding the requirements before proceeding or taking any action. Those requirements define the deliverables to be produced and the tasks to produce those deliverables which in turn illustrate the tools to be used to complete the tasks and produce the deliverables.” (Drake, et.al, 2008, p.29) In this sense, Six Sigma could be a potent tool in Project Management.

The first step of Six Sigma is ‘Define’, where the problem is clearly articulated. It is here that mutual trust and cooperation between all parties are established. One party of stakeholders is the project team whose members are metaphorically designated as Champion, Master Black Belt, Black Belt, Green Belt and Team Members. In this stage, team members are selected and assigned different roles. The problem statement is developed and goals, benefits and milestones are set. The high level process map is also drawn. Process flowchart is a key tool used during this stage. There are four flowchart options to choose from: top-down, detailed, work flow diagram and deployment. For example, “this tool shows how various steps in a process work together to achieve the ultimate goal. Because it is a pictorial view, a flow chart can be applied to fit practically any need. The process map allows the user to gain an understanding of the process and where potential waste or bottlenecks could occur. It also could be used to design the future or desired process.” (Drake, et.al, 2008, p.30)

The second step is ‘Measure’, where the firm uses statistical methods to quantify the problem. The endeavor here is to understand the current performance levels and also to collect requisite data to improve all CTQs. Key activities encompassing this step include “defining the defect, opportunity, unit and cost metrics, collecting the data, determining the process capability.” (Smith, et.al, 2002, p.45) An important tool used during this phase is the SIPOC (Suppliers, Inputs, Processes, Outputs and Customers) Diagram.

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