The times when Six Sigma started…

Six Sigma was evolved at the time of an economic boom. It was mid-1980’s and the competition had just started to become stiffer. The customer had started playing a key role for a product or service. Organizations were trying to keep the right balance of demand and supply. Theory of Constraints (TOC) was losing its lustre. We did not have any prescribed universal documented methodology for process improvements which could solve any business problem. Management solved issues basis gut-feeling and experience.

Customer requirements were hazy. It was difficult to articulate the exact needs of the customer. It was also difficult to convert these needs to process metrics. There was not enough focus on the Measurement system. Data analysis was given low priority.

The professional world needed a breakthrough improvement methodology, a new vibrant culture, a seamless philosophy, a shift in thinking and most importantly customer focused drive. These needs caused the birth of Six Sigma.

The situation today…

Today, it’s almost three decades (and a lot of parody) after Six Sigma was officially launched (when Motorola won Malcolm Baldridge Quality Award). The world has changed completely. “Customer” is the centre of gravity. Recession has hit multiple times in the last few years. Big organizations and banks such as Lehman Brothers, Satyam, among others don’t exist anymore. Regulations have become stringent. Technology has enabled the reach of organizations on its customer’s fingertips. A product launched today can be obsolete tomorrow.

Think about the Nokia 3360 that was launched in early 2000 and the launch of iPhone 5 launched a few months back. In just a decade, not only the telecom industry is revolutionized but it has also revolutionized the lifestyle of every human on this planet.

In a broken economy, where technology plays a vital role, where customer needs can be understood rather quickly, where adaptation to the ever-changing environment is a necessity to survive, can organizations be able to sustain with Six Sigma alone? Let’s explore.

What is currently needed?

We need a new methodology to respond to market demands real-time. We need a mechanism to accurately predict customer behaviour and act on it. We need to improve revenues and considerably reduce bottom-line costs. We need to provide customers more than just the value for money. The world has changed from needing breakthrough improvements to the needing of breakthrough innovations. The so called “Information Age” is changing to an “Idea Age”. A person with an important idea is considered more valuable than the information others hold. Survival of an organization is solely based on two components, Innovation and Adaptation.

Do we have what is needed?

The answer is “Yes”. We now have BPM. We have Agile, Scrum, Pega, Mega, SDLC, ISO, ITIL, Lean, TRIZ, etc. Today, the historical long term MBA programmes are replaced with short-term PMP or Prince 2 certifications. The conventional methods of capturing voice of customer such as surveys or interviews are replaced with question polls and sms feedback. Six Sigma Black Belts do not call themselves as just Six Sigma practitioner’s but Lean Six Sigma Consultants.

Then, Is Six Sigma fading?

The answer is “No”. Why? The five critical steps of a Six Sigma project are Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control. These steps resemble to the Deming model of Plan-Do-Check-Act. When we look at the latest methodologies, each of them resembles the same PDCA cycle or DMAIC phases.

It’s like saying that basic tools such as FMEA, SIPOC, Pareto Analysis, and so on, all used extensively in Six Sigma are no longer working. They might get dressed in new fancier names, with some modifications and improvements – but the basis are the same. An automobile from the beginning of last century might look very different than today’s modern car – but the principle is still very much the same!

In short, the soul remained the same and only the body is changing. We may not use the term Six Sigma (and it might indeed be losing its popularity) but its methods are being used in a more advanced way with the same structure prescribed by Deming or Harry. Hence, Six Sigma is not fading. It has become a way of life that is leading us to success.