Organizations across industries have refined and redefined their processes by using Six Sigma.
At its heart, Six Sigma is about defect reduction. No business is perfect, no product is flawless, and defects are a natural part of manufacturing. Six Sigma doesn’t aim to eradicate those defects; instead, those who practice the methodology strive to strengthen processes and minimize the number of defects in the products they create.
But what exactly does “minimize” mean? What’s an acceptable number of defects? According to Six Sigma, the goal is to prevent defects in 99.99976% of products (or 3.4 defects for every million products).
Many businesses, however, fail to meet that goal.
Why Does Six Sigma Fail?
It’s a big, broad question, but almost everyone is familiar with the answer. Why does any goal fail? Why do most New Year’s resolutions start off strong in January, but fall flat in February?
According to the Wall Street Journal, process improvement initiatives (whether it’s eating better, waking up earlier, or implementing Six Sigma in an organization) go through three phases.
The Stretching Phase—a new Six Sigma initiative is introduced, and the team strains and pushes to satisfy expectations of the Six Sigma implementer. Initially, things go well.
The Yielding Phase—stretching for too long, however, can bend a workforce totally out of shape. This is the stage when Six Sigma experts typically move onto other areas, and that early success the team experienced in the Stretching Phase becomes hard to maintain. The pressure and lack of direction forces team members back into old habits.
The Failing Phase—the team stretches until it breaks, and no one is willing or able to maintain the systems and processes that were introduced in the Stretching Phase. Morale is even lower than it was before the initiative started, and the efficiency and productivity is back to square one.
Projects fail for many reasons—bad scoping, lack of support, misaligned roles and more—but almost every failing team will experience the same three phases of failure.
Best Practices for Six Sigma Success
How do successful teams avoid the three stages of failure? They put in work up front, before the initiative ever takes root, and they nail down a few basic things.
Enlist Expert Help—having a Six Sigma expert, such as a Six Sigma Black Belt, on-hand, from the start of a project to the end, can keep a team motivated and focused.
Keep It Performance-Related—by connecting performance reviews to Six Sigma outcomes, teams are much more likely to stick with new processes (even without a Six Sigma expert nearby).
Choose the Right People—large project teams aren’t always better; keeping a small team (between six and nine individuals) populated with the right people can be a powerful deterrent to failure.
Get Buy–In—when everyone in an organization is on the same page, it becomes very difficult to fail. Look to gain support from everyone, including executives and people outside the Six Sigma team.
Six Sigma, when practiced effectively, is almost self-correcting. It’s a process improvement methodology, so if the Six Sigma implementation process fails, teams can use Six Sigma principles to figure out why. If a project or initiative fails, look for the causes of that failure. Make the changes necessary to eliminate or minimize those causes.