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Using Six Sigma? Forget What You Already Know!

written by: Heidi Wiesenfelder • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 4/6/2013

When most people think about implementing Six Sigma, the focus is on learning the DMAIC methodology, gaining skills in statistical data analysis, and establishing process management. But to successfully incorporate Six Sigma methods and principles, business leaders must also unlearn certain things.

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    How Six Sigma Principles Change Business

    In the film The Empire Strikes Back Yoda the Jedi Master tells student Luke, "You must unlearn what you have learned." Luke has a hard time believing that lifting an X-wing fighter out of the water is the same as lifting rocks off the ground. And in the original Star Wars movie it took time for him to accept that using his instinct to sense the right time to fire at the exhaust pipe of the Death Star was a better method than relying on the targeting computer.

    Elliot Jordan via stock.xchng In the same way that learning to use The Force required Luke to get past his strongly held existing beliefs, business leaders need to unlearn their ideas about how to run a business if they are to successfully implement Six Sigma. Six Sigma introduces a new way of looking at business results and at how they are achieved, and a new way of making changes to ensure lasting improvements. In both Luke's case and a business leader's case, obtaining optimal results requires unlearning long-held beliefs that are widely accepted as gospel.

    Here are some of the the things that must be unlearned for an organization to truly achieve the potential of a Six Sigma program:

    • When a metric is first measured at 10.5 and then again at 12.7, it doesn't necessarily mean that anything has changed from the first instance to the second. It may just be random variation in the process. Thus it is always inappropriate to act based on such data without understanding the cause of the variation, whether the action involves changing the process, rewarding or disciplining employees, or implementing incentives for better performance. Leaders must learn the difference between common cause and special cause variation and how to differentially respond depending on which type is present in a process.
    • Manufacturers commonly conduct large production runs in anticipation of demand. To implement the Kanban technique as part of a Lean Six Sigma initiative, project leaders need to help managers overcome the belief that the existing production method is the most efficient and thus the best. If managers believe that their current method is the most efficient way to do something, especially if that belief has been widely accepted for a long time, they will strongly resist any attempt to incorporate improvements that require using a different method.
    • Many widely held beliefs about the specific conditions for a business that lead to maximum customer satisfaction, product quality, employee satisfaction, or process efficiency turn out to be false. Yet most people have very strong ideas about these things and are resistant to suggestions that something else might be better. They need to unlearn what they think they know in order to truly improve results, and then must learn to rely on data rather than anecdotal evidence, no matter how widely it is accepted. In other words, as W. Edwards Deming is credited as saying, "In God we trust, all others bring data."
    • The typical mindset is that once improvements are made, the problem is solved and the project is done. The Six Sigma DMAIC methodology demands additional steps and rigor. Once a solution is implemented, project leaders must confirm with data that improvement actually results. And further, they must create a procedure to ensure that if performance slips, the process owner will be alerted and will know how to determine the appropriate response. In addition to ensuring that solutions are actually lastingly sustainable, it helps organizations move out of the situation of constantly firefighting and moves them toward working proactively to optimize performance and results.

    Image by Oliver Gruener via Stock.xchng We usually think of learning as a process of gaining more knowledge and skills, adding to what we already know. But as Lao Tsu says, "To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day." As you begin and solidify your business's Six Sigma effort, keep this in mind for yourself and the people you lead.

    For tips on helping people unlearn, check out Jack Uldrich's site, Unlearning 101.