As businesses worldwide look to streamline processes and increase efficiency, more and more companies are becoming interested in Six Sigma methodologies, a popular process improvement methodology. A total of 53 percent of Fortune 500 businesses use Six Sigma to save an estimated $427 billion. The Lean Six Sigma methodology has permeated a variety of industries around the world, from manufacturing plants to pharmaceutical companies to the financial industry. This means that certified professionals are in high demand.
At its core, Six Sigma is a process improvement tool that leverages data and objective problem-solving.
What Is Six Sigma?
Six Sigma is defined as a method to improve business capabilities by systematically looking at flaws and how to fix them. Six Sigma focuses on meeting the needs of customers while improving business productivity.
Six Sigma is named as such because one sigma is one standard deviation in a bell curve. Anything that deviates from three sigmas means it needs improvement, and “Six Sigma” refers to improving defects to 3.4 for every 1 million units of product.
How Six Sigma Methodologies Started
In the mid-1900s, Boeing, Ford, and Toyota began experimenting with Lean manufacturing, a process aimed at reducing waste while maximizing productivity in their plants. However, the term “Six Sigma” did not come into play until the 1980s.
Six Sigma was famously started at Motorola in the 1980s by Mikel Harry and Bill Smith, two engineers who developed the methodology to improve operations on the manufacturing floor. To reduce the number of product defects, Harry and Smith created the original statistics and formulas as a quality management tool. The Motorola CEO at the time, Bob Galvin, supported the process, and Motorola went on to heavily adopt the Six Sigma methodology to great success, eventually winning the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for significant quality improvement.
Since then, Six Sigma has been a driver of change and improvement across thousands of companies. Texas Instruments, General Electric (GE), and Allied Signal went on to adopt Six Sigma in the 1990s; General Electric’s implementation was one of the most well-known. General Electric began a fundamental overhaul of all its operations in the 1990s after uncovering huge amounts of waste and product defects that were costing significant amounts of time and money. GE famously boasted $12 billion in savings after it implemented Six Sigma, which helped it streamline processes, eliminate waste and defects, and improve operations.
Businesses like Samsung, Ford, Boeing, and Amazon would go on to implement Six Sigma, and now the process is used by the large majority of leading companies in the world. Thousands of businesses, not just US manufacturers, stand by Six Sigma principles for process improvement.
The Six Sigma Method
Overall, the Six Sigma process improvement method focuses on the following stages:
- Identifying a problem
- Collecting data on the problem
- Analyzing data
- Brainstorming potential solutions
- Implementing test solutions to see what works
- Monitoring the outcome and repeating when necessary
Popular Six Sigma tools include DMAIC, The 5 Whys, The 5S System, Value Stream Mapping, Regression Analysis, Pareto charts, Failure Mode and Effects Analysis, and Kaizen. All these tools work closely with data to improve defects within that “Six Sigma” range, meaning a product is 99.99966 percent defect-free.
The Six Sigma Method: DMAIC
One of the most popular Six Sigma process improvement methods is DMAIC, a step-by-step, repeatable process that stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. DMAIC is a data-driven tool designed to improve quality throughout the five-phase process. DMAIC is especially used when a problem is tough to solve or the risks are high — whether those risks are financial or productivity related. The discipline of DMAIC ensures the steps are followed in order every single time, so teams aren’t likely to skip a stage or rush through to an unfavorable solution.
- Define – Team members are selected, and a process is chosen for improvement and documented.
- Measure – Data is collected, and teams focus on finding variance in the process. Variance often means data is spread out from a standard value, leading to defects or problems.
- Analyze – Other Six Sigma tools like regression analysis and variance analysis come into play here. Data collected is analyzed in different ways to begin suggesting ways to improve in the next step.
- Improve – Team members make suggestions on how to improve and select the best option. A test program is often run to see if this suggestion works or doesn’t.
- Control – In the final stage, the newly implemented solution is monitored. Depending on the result, it’ll be fully implemented, or the process will begin again.
The Six Sigma Method: The 5 Whys
Whereas DMAIC is a time-intensive, more complex process, The 5 Whys is an astonishingly simple but effective Six Sigma tool. Simply repeatedly asking “Why?” while analyzing a process ripe for improvement allows teams to peel back the layers and dig deep into the underlying core issue. For example, if a boat manufacturer consistently sees paint bubbling on boats, team members can simply ask “Why?” 5 separate times to uncover the core issue, which might be more complex than a simple human error when painting.
The 5 Whys can be performed quickly and doesn’t require any specialized training. Popular for teams just getting started with Six Sigma or Lean principles, it encourages everyone to participate and offer solutions.
The Six Sigma Method: 5S
Another popular Six Sigma process improvement methodology, 5S, stands for Sort, Set in Order, Shine, Standardize, and Sustain. This tool often involves improving a physical workspace, organizing work items, and establishing standard procedures for all team members to follow.
The 5S method begins by removing clutter, organizing ergonomically, cleaning the area, creating a standard process, and then building on a culture shift to make sure the new process is adopted.
5S is a continuous improvement tool — meaning, it iterates on a better working environment. Similar to The 5 Whys, 5S is also accessible and easily implemented by team members who don’t have formal Six Sigma training. 5S incorporates people into the change, encouraging them to call out different functionalities of the workspace and add valuable ideas.
Using the Lean Six Sigma Methodology Today
Different Six Sigma methodologies and tools are still highly relevant today, especially in manufacturing and production companies. Businesses still desire a high-quality end product with minimal defects that drives increased business revenue while meeting customer expectations. 3M, one of the largest American manufacturers, has implemented over 3,000 successful Six Sigma projects, making it the backbone of the entire company. In 2005, over 30,000 3M employees became Six Sigma Certified, and its team members are key drivers of the cultural change that comes along with Six Sigma methodologies.
Similarly, Chevron, an oil and gas company, developed the “Chevron Way,” a guiding set of principles based on Six Sigma that led the company to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings. Even Adidas, a popular shoe manufacturer, implemented Six Sigma principles into its production line and reduced manufacturing time by 30 percent. Faster production times meant more shoes could be shipped and sold, and teams could focus on innovating new products and designs to outshine competitors like Nike.
How to Use the Lean Six Sigma Methodology Today
Experienced Six Sigma professionals are in high demand as they champion more efficient, streamlined processes that continually perform to improve a product. Businesses worldwide want to reduce waste, and modern Six Sigma principles like Lean and sustainability focus help businesses achieve those goals. Six Sigma certifications offer a stamp of approval to professionals, identifying them as skilled leaders in pinpointing problems quickly and working towards effective solutions. Six Sigma certification also illustrates soft skills like a dedication to continuous learning, leadership, team-building, and more.
Six Sigma offers a variety of different types of Six Sigma certifications, beginning with the Six Sigma White Belt. Followed by Yellow, Green, and Black, different belt levels in Six Sigma show diverse levels of mastery, implementation, and formal education and training. These certifications can open up new career opportunities, differentiate candidates, and allow them to stand out from the pack and are a cost-effective way of continuous learning and uplevel skills.
Ready to Dive into the World of Six Sigma?
The Post Graduate Program in Lean Six Sigma from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst Isenberg School of Management combines hands-on industry projects with world-class training to create a solid foundation of Six Sigma methodologies and principles. Perfect for those in the beginning stages of their career looking to learn or the advanced practitioner looking for formal certification, this Post Graduate Program in Lean Six Sigma is a tangible way to get real-life experience backed by practical knowledge.
This Six Sigma program offers an accredited Lean Six Sigma curriculum, focusing on agile management, Lean management, quality management, and digital transformation. Ideal for those who want to fast-track their career in continuous improvement, this UMass is an authorized training partner of IASSC-Lean Six Sigma, which is key for professionals to demonstrate their qualifications.
With live classes hosted by experts, you’ll have the chance for thought-provoking discussions and personalized feedback as you go through this six-month program.
To get started in this Six Sigma program, click here.