Since its success at General Electric in the early '80s, Six Sigma has become the process improvement method of choice within manufacturing environments. But a growing chorus of experts has begunn to wonder whether their often sizable investmetn in pursuing near-zero  defects is paying off. Here are nine actions to ensure Six Sigma lives up to its promise:

1. Assess the Situation

It goes without saying that knowing how machines and processes work is a fundamental requirement for any process control or Six Sigma initiative. When we say that, we mean more than just a “push this button and let the machine fly” understanding. It is important for people to have a detailed knowledge of the many interacting variables in a system, what settings the specification calls for, and how and why these variables impact the critical product attributes. By collecting and sharing this information we can determine where we are and where we need to be to achieve our strategic goals.

2. Align the Leaders Behind the Message

Effective issue management, be it continuous improvement or problem solving, requires that the right people be involved and support the change necessary to achieve results. Before beginning a Six Sigma initiative, everyone involved in the effort should understand the need that prompted the introduction of six-sigma, the eventual goal of the effort, and the potential benefit to themselves. Both the people who manage the resources and the people who have access to the right technical and operating data need to understand the value of introducing new methods. By involving the right people you are ensured of getting not only the right information, but their buy-in and commitment.

3. Standardize Manufacturing Processes

Before undertaking any problem-solving or design-of-experiment initiatives, the process needs to be standardized. The process should be run the right way, from operator to operator, shift to shift, and week to week. The process needs to be understood, agreed upon by everyone, and consistently deployed. By doing this, we remove unnecessary variation from the process and allow the team to focus on the key variables and attributes.

4. Align the Issue Resolution Process

Every organization has countless procedures and processes in place to minimize product and service variation. Yet, in many organizations there is little evidence of a uniform process for controlling variation in the way information is gathered, organized and analyzed to pinpoint root causes of problems and take corrective action. By creating a common, visible process, the Six Sigma tools and techniques can be effectively transferred to all stakeholders supporting the projects.

5. Establish Metrics and Goals

It is not uncommon for people to lack an understanding regarding what may be considered a key attribute of a given product and “why” it is a key attribute. And yet, if operators on the manufacturing floor do not understand why it is important to control a certain product attribute, it is difficult to gain buy-in and support for any process control efforts. By providing an understanding of the downstream impact of key product attributes, the right quality control measures can be put in place.

6. Make the Change Sustainable

Training can provide capability, but is not always sufficient to enable people to transfer the skills learned to the job. The new skills must be integrated into the standardized issue resolution process and supported by coaching and ongoing mentoring from seasoned professionals. In addition, there must be clear and commonly understood expectations for the use of the new methods; clear, specific, and timely feedback; and balanced consequences to encourage and reward adopting the change.

7. Align the Culture with the Change

In order to get the desired results from any initiative, it is important to create a culture that includes a commitment to ongoing technical training; availability to the most effective tools and equipment in the most appropriate locations; support for new ideas and innovation an emphasis on quality and long-term gains; and an environment in which involvement and working in cross-functional teams is encouraged.

8. Provide People with the Capabilities They Need

Most employees don’t have a statistical background, which explains why variation reduction remains a key manufacturing challenge. Before beginning a Six Sigma initiative, everyone involved in the effort should understand the basic terminology and concepts. In particular, people need to understand the difference between Common Cause and Special Cause Variation, so they can choose the most appropriate methods to address each.

9. Use Effective Tools to Remove Special-cause Problems

In many companies, people lack sufficient problem solving skills. With a standardized process and good data collection, getting to the root cause of problems can still be a challenge without the benefit of a systematic approach to resolving issues. With the many techniques available it is important to recognize that there are different tools required for special- vs. common-cause problems. We need to be well versed in tools related to both situations. (See our blog post “Enhanced Troubleshooting: KT and Six Sigma”)

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