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Six Sigma

The doctrine and how it differs from other quality improvement initiatives

Six Sigma is a set of techniques and tools for reducing costs and improving quality that was introduced by engineer Bill Smith while working at Motorola in 1986 and used by Jack Welch at General Electric in 1995. In 2005 Motorola attributed over US $17 billion in savings to Six Sigma.

A Six Sigma process is one in which 99.99966% of all opportunities to produce some feature of a part are statistically expected to be free of defects.

Six Sigma doctrine asserts:

  • Continuous efforts to achieve stable and predictable process results (e.g. by reducing process variation) are of vital importance to business success.
  • Manufacturing and business processes have characteristics that can be defined, measured, analysed, improved, and controlled.
  • Achieving sustained quality improvement requires commitment from the entire organisation, particularly from top-level management.

Features that set Six Sigma apart from previous quality-improvement initiatives include a clear focus on achieving measurable and quantifiable financial returns from any Six Sigma project. This includes an increased emphasis on strong and passionate management leadership and support. Together with a clear commitment to making decisions on the basis of verifiable data and statistical methods, rather than assumptions and guesswork.

One key innovation of Six Sigma involves the absolute ‘professionalising’ of quality management functions. Formal Six Sigma programs adopt a kind of elite ranking terminology (e.g. master black belt, black belt, and green belt) to define a hierarchy (and special career path) that includes all business functions and levels.