Accomodating Ambition, Or: Six Sigma

by hulk

I now understand the frustration of people who say “Six Sigma is nothing but another fad”. It has become one, at my company. I hear people talk about older systems they used and they reminisce. The ones who actually understand Six Sigma reminisce. I also understand those who say Six Sigma is not a fad. It is a robust methodology full of useful tools. It is not magic. You are not permitted to turn off your brain and blindly follow the methodology. You should certainly not set up an entire department of bureacrats who compete with each other to set standards and rules for how one can be given a Six Sigma belt and which projects are considered Six Sigma and how people should be taught Six Sigma and just how they’re allowed to use Six Sigma.

Six Sigma is a toolbox. It comes with a helpful booklet in your toolbox that says, for building a proper project, use your pencil followed by your ruler followed by your screwdriver followed by your pencil followed by some spackel. It doesn’t always apply, but it usually applies. However, it was never meant to come with the following restrictions: You cannot move through a tollgate until you identify these six meaningless roles for your project and you fill out this type of tool and you then get approval to move to the next phase where you can only take a month – no more, no less, and you must fill out this tool followed by that tool followed by another tool, and when you’re all done, spend your time totaling up the savings to the company so I can tout it as my accomplishment when I talk to my boss. That’s right, I’m the one in charge, so your accomplishments count as mine. By the way, I’ll change all the rules next week.

Allow me to give some real life examples. I’m currently working on a belt. The rules for certification have changed three times in the past month; all major changes. All changes involve more paperwork. I’ve also been told to fill out useless tools after the fact (meaning the tool would only have potential use earlier in the project). At least twice I’ve been asked to fill out tools well past the point where they would have been useful. Why? The first time for a presentation, the second for certification. I should also mention that the program is being run by people who don’t even have full knowledge or grasp of the tools. The most important things to know with a Six Sigma tool are that these tools were around long before Six Sigma, and they require a lot of thought before being used.

Allow me to transfer back to the metaphor of the toolbox. Would it help if, while building a house, you ran around smacking the hammer into every piece of wood you saw? Then maybe you whacked some windows with the hammer for good measure? Obviously the example is ridiculous. Yet straight-faced people who earn much, much more than me have taught me that tools should simply be used without thought to their application or even questioning the reason for using it. I’ve taken training in Six Sigma and Design for Six Sigma and ironically at the end of both training sessions I was told only to use the appropriate tool when needed. Then why do you turn around and demand that these tools be used? Wouldn’t it make sense to leave it up to the discretion of the project team as to whether or not they use a tool? Granted, they need significant training in Six Sigma to understand that some of these tools can be very, very useful. However you should not demand that I perform a designed experiment as a part of my project!

Part of the problem is getting over-excited about Six Sigma. It is simply a toolbox. Knowledge of how to use those tools is necessary, as is knowledge about something else: the materials you are using these tools on! If you are building a house, you need wood and nails. From your toolbox, you need a hammer and measuring tape and a drill. If you are building a plastic boat, you need plastic. From your toolbox, you need sandpaper and glue or something. I don’t really know, so feel free to laugh at me if you build either houses or boats. The point is, I really doubt a general contractor could easily build a boat, and vice versa with a boat-builder. Converting back to Six Sigma, an electrical engineer has about as much business figuring out how to mold plastic as a chemical engineer has building circuits. A measurement systems analysis will not tell you how to mold plastic. It will tell you how to know if your hardness testing apparatus is sufficiently able to consistently discriminate between good and bad parts. An MSA can also tell you something about where the variability in your measurements is coming from, whether operator or measurement apparatus or the parts themselves. Enter the Six Sigma black belt who believes they can reduce the Work in Progress (WIP) on a production line by speeding up the critical step of production, which is probably chemical or electrochemical or mechanical. Forget all those people who designed the process in the laboratory who tell you that you can’t make good parts by speeding that up. You’re a black belt! You know better. You have to ignore people who don’t know Six Sigma and are scared of it. Ignore the line engineers as well when they tell you that their people won’t adapt to the sped up line and parts will pile up downstream and all sorts of bad things will happen to them, like shoddy handling and quickie inspections. You have to drown out the noise and follow the Six Sigma religion!

You’re probably noticing the problem here. You could make the argument that people don’t like change and you have to stick to your guns to get Six Sigma implemented. It is a better way of doing things. You could also make the argument that you have to live in the real world where things aren’t as black and white, and sometimes Six Sigma tools don’t fit well into what it is that you’re doing. In addition to this dichotomy, you could make a tangential argument that change isn’t always good. This is true. People inevitably change things without regard to whether a change is warranted. I rearrange my furniture every year. Sometimes I make things worse. The point is, I have a different place to put my gin and tonic while I watch TV, and that’s important. Six Sigma is, again, a change from perfectly good (and some better) systems of the past. Back to the dichotomy: Which do you choose? Six Sigma, or the everyday that you know and love? You come to work knowing some things can’t be fixed. You know some things are better left alone.

We come to my old friend, the decision rule. I’ll reiterate previous arguments: it doesn’t exist. I’m not even sure mathematicians have proved that 2+2=4, despite all the times we all say it. Someone please look into that. There may or may not be a decision rule to decide whether 2+2=4, but there definitely is not a decision rule to decide whether to follow the rigorous application of a method for improving processes or to let the processes run and to work with them. How to decide whether to study a line for a week and try to improve the WIP or to roll up your sleeves and pitch in with making products and supervising the workers and making sure you meet that shipping deadline. We are flawed creatures, doomed to know that we should be doing something better with each passing minute but unable to figure out what that is and rarely knowing how to figure it out. Extremes are usually dangerous. Most of the time we should be dancing in the gray area between Six Sigma and working within what we know. Researching circuits in the laboratory and the next day spending the morning poring through the data of resistance of those circuits to construct a multiple t-test. How do we know what to spend our time on, what to concentrate on? We simply must make a decision and live with it. It sounds terribly mundane and uninspiring as an answer, but blind devotion to Six Sigma is much, much worse.

The thing to avoid with Six Sigma is having it for its own sake. Creating a bureacracy around Six Sigma and demanding devotion to it is probably the worst use of it. This makes it into a buzzword. Suddenly it shows up in everyone’s reports. Managers start to demand that all their people become trained in it, so they can report that to their boss. People start fudging things just to get a black belt. Then more people do it. Then it becomes expected that you fudge what you actually accomplished with Six Sigma, or worse, your knowledge of Six Sigma, in order to get that belt. For report purposes you have those who are actually well trained in Six Sigma helping you fudge certain things so they can report how well Six Sigma is doing. Before you know it you have hordes of black belts and master black belts and third degree black belts and whatever else, all generating massive amounts of lies, all believing that it’s ok. If they don’t show high financial results from Six Sigma it won’t get propogated and management will stop demanding their people be trained and it won’t get used in the company. So in order to keep it alive we have to lie to do the right thing, right? Yeah, sure, whatever lie you need to sleep at night.

The sad thing is many people do this in trying to do the right thing. I’ve done it. I put my co-workers through thirty minutes of nonsense in order to make myself look good to my boss’s boss. I did it intentionally. I made powerpoint slides showing use of tools I didn’t even need and didn’t actually use – I just filled them out, after the fact. I’ve also considered several times fudging things in order to get a belt. The logic appears in my head: I know what I’m actually doing, those people already in Six Sigma don’t, so it’s ok for me to lie, right? This is my confession: I’ve lied too for the sake of Six Sigma. I know that I don’t actually know much about it, despite reading a few books. That’s not nearly enough for the rigorous application that Six Sigma tools deserve. My point is, Six Sigma ends up the new fast track to higher levels. The corporations are already saturated with managers, and Six Sigma is just the unconscious system’s way of accomodating the ambition of certain people without creating meaningless management roles. Instead of manager, we have Six Sigma black belt or master black belt or whatever they’re called at your particular company. The baby boomers are clogging the labor market for younger people, and unless you’re lucky enough to be at a growing company, there are few avenues to money and power. Six Sigma creates the avenue, once it’s a bureacracy and/or an independent department.

How best do we make use of Six Sigma, then? We construct a distribution within the labor pool. We have engineers and scientists trained in Six Sigma tools, with resources available to them for use when needed. Then we have black belts to serve as consultants, and a smaller sect of black belts separated to attack areas of waste and to work with the people in those areas to find a solution. Again, the black belt’s role is to serve as consultant; not manager, not supreme being, but a consultant whose words should be well considered. This would have to be a skewed distribution, as scientists and engineers who are ignorant of Six Sigma are doomed to conduct their work in a non-rigorous manner which will lead to cyclic experimentation, where they try one thing at a time until a new concept comes along and they go back to old experiments, trying them all one at a time. This is not to say that OFAT’s (one-factor-at-a-time) cannot be used; they are very useful for simply trying out some new thing. If a new type of wiring comes along and you want to try it in your machine, first put it in and see what happens. As long as your machine doesn’t blow up, you can then put together a designed experiment to find its optimal usage.

Of course, for Six Sigma black belts to be effective we all need mandatory training on how to work together. Not fuzzy nonsense, but a genuine effort to learn how to shut up, listen, and understand before denouncing someone as an idiot. Of course, if I could figure out how to do that I’d be a genius.