Six Sigma Without the Belts

Oct. 10, 2007
Quality programs that can be implemented in machine shops.

Attend any machine tool or manufacturing conference and the term “Six Sigma” will echo in your ear like a siren’s song calling you to come and feast at the elusive table of improved productivity. Listen more closely to that song and you will hear tales of heroic productivity improvements brought about by the legendary practitioners of Six Sigma, the Belts. The Belts are either regular employees raised to various ranks (Belts) through education and training, or they are itinerant Six Sigma masters who travel from one company to another to educate employees and to help slay the dragons of waste and inefficiency.

Of course, there is a fee to be paid if you want a seat at the table.

Large companies such as Motorola and General Electric invested several hundred million dollars each in their Six Sigma programs, but those programs eventually saved those companies billions of dollars in reduced costs and improved productivity.

However, it is not necessary to spend millions of dollars to reap the benefits of an effective Six Sigma program. By understanding the fundamental concepts that underlie the Six Sigma methodologies, smart shop operators can create a productivity improvement process that is tailored to fit their needs and circumstances without bankrupting their businesses to do it.

Six Sigma is a quality improvement methodology developed by Motorola to systematically improve processes by eliminating defects in product production. Like the quality improvement methodologies that preceded it, that is, Quality Control, Total Quality Management and Zero Defects, Six Sigma is based on the concept that manufacturing processes can be measured, analyzed, improved and controlled, and that it requires commitment from the entire manufacturing organization, especially top management, to succeed.

All of those methodologies have success stories comparable to Six Sigma. In fact, Joseph Juran, a noted quality expert, has criticized Six Sigma as “a basic version of quality improvement,” and that “… there is nothing new there.”

Six Sigma programs use quality engineering tools that have been available since the 1920s, with the difference being that Six Sigma tries to achieve a synergy of improved performance by using all of those tools in a coordinated way.

There are two primary Six Sigma methodologies, and more than half a dozen variations.

The first, DMAIC, which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control., is used to improve existing business processes.

The second methodology is DMADV – Define, Measure, Analyze, Design and Verify – and is used to create new products or processes with defect-free performance.

The first three steps (Define, Measure and Analyze) are similar between the two methodologies. They are:

Define the process improvement goals for the current process or the goals of the design activity as they relate to customer demands and the company’s business strategies.

Measure the current process and collect relevant data for future comparison or identify critical qualities needed in the new design including product capabilities and production processes to be used.

And, Analyze the relationship between the current process and factors that create problems within that process or develop design alternatives with high-level models and then select the best design.

To improve current processes, the final two steps are:

Improve or optimize the process based on analysis of the current problems and the factors that cause or create them.

Control the process to ensure that any variances from the norm are detected and corrected before they can result in defects.

To create new products or processes, the final two steps are: Design details, optimize the final design and plan for design verification.

Verify the design, which may involve setting up pilot runs before turning over to production.

It doesn’t take millions of dollars and a lot of employees with colored belts to implement either of those methodologies in a machine shop.

What it does take is common sense, knowledgeable workers/managers, and a shared desire to do the job better. Toyota, now the largest manufacturer of automobiles in the world, proved that when it developed the pre-Six Sigma Toyota Production System. The company relied on the human resources it had — toolmakers, production and maintenance workers—challenged them to find ways to do better work, and motivated them to become the best in the world. And it worked.

It may not be as simple as that last paragraph makes it sound, but then it is also not as complex and expensive as the Belts make is seem. In an interesting paper on using Six Sigma in small and medium sized businesses, Rajesh Naik of Patni Computer Systems, Ltd. ( lists 10 essential elements of a successful Six Sigma implementation. They are:

1. Visible management support and commitment.
2. Alignment of the program with business strategy.
3. Alignment of the program with customer expecta tions and requirements.
4. Education and training.
5. A well-implemented process management system.
6. Infrastructure to manage the program.
7. Ability an readiness to commit best people to the program.
8. Reward and recognition system for team members.
9. Shared understanding of core business processes and their critical characteristics.
10. Communicating the success and failure stories. Small to medium sized shop operators can imple ment an effective Six Sigma quality improvement program (or any other program for that matter) in the same way as they built and run their businesses, using time and intelligence to create a program that works for them instead of using money they usually don’t have to buy one.