This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Demystifying Six Sigma

Demystifying Six Sigma: A Company-Wide Approach to Continuous Improvement by Alan Larson, 2003

What a surprise to find a book about creating culture change, rather than the book I expected about the techniques and science behind Six Sigma. This book could have been written about nearly any major corporate culture change, whether Six Sigma, knowledge management, etc. Core to the book is the idea that

Six Sigma is about creating a culture where all of these things are established and deployed throughout the entire workforce. It is about providing a structure in which everyone knows what is expected of them, what their contributions are, and how to measure their own success.... It is about being results oriented, fueled by continuous improvement, and focused on customer satisfaction. (p. 5)

This philosophy pervades the book. To get quality and continuous improvement, the entire organization needs to be on the bandwagon, not just the select few who have expert training (black belt) in the techniques. In nearly every chapter, Larson repeats the refrain that you cannot "inspect quality into" a product or service. It has to be there at the start.

The book sets the stage for how to do this, based on Larson's experience as a champion of Six Sigma at Motorola in the late 80's and into the 90's. It is split into three sections. The first sets the stage for creating Six Sigma within an organization, building the case for justifying such an extensive program. Beyond the niggling desire for change, Larson lists five elements that must exist for successfully managing complex change: Vision, Skills, Incentive, Resources and an Action Plan. Missing any of these results in no change or painfully slow change. Our organization has typically limited this to vision, pain (incentive), and first steps. I like the expansion to include Skills and Resources.

The second section walks through the steps a Six Sigma team walks through to achieve improvement on some aspect of the organization. Larson introduces the tools he uses as part of the Six Sigma process and shows how they are used through a number of examples. The steps start with identifying a need, then building the team and doing analyses through institutionalizing the improvements and celebrating successes. Once complete with one effort, the whole loop starts again. Keeping the content of the book flowing, Larson does not get bogged down in the details of how to create Pareto diagrams or histograms and other tools. There are plenty of other resources with explicit instructions on using these tools.

The final section gives suggestions on how organizations can get started with Six Sigma, and it gives some cautionary warnings as well. Larson spends a few pages re-emphasizing the idea that Six Sigma is about reducing errors, not about removing errors altogether. That, he says, is basically impossible. He also reminds the reader that while Six Sigma seems a big hurdle, the only way to get there is to do something.

Why this book? It was somewhat random chance. Having been recommended to start boning up on my understanding of Six Sigma by the fact that our organization has begun efforts to build this capability into the organization. I went to the bookstore and flipped through a couple, and this one seemed about right.

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