Where does Six Sigma not work?

Where does Six Sigma not work?

Six Sigma can seem like an alluring prospect to many businesses. An opportunity to improve the quality of products by using statistics? Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of that, especially when it’s backed by big names like General Electric and Motorola?

But plenty of people are keen to point out that Six Sigma doesn’t work. Searching on this topic brings up horror stories such as “Six Sigma ‘killed’ innovation in 3M” and “Six Sigma Is Draining Employees’ Creativity”. The Wall Street Journal says 60% of all corporate Six Sigma initiatives fail to yield the desired results. Topics like this could lead one to think that Six Sigma has no value in business, but this is misleading. The reason Six Sigma fails in each of these examples is because it has been applied incorrectly.

“Six Sigma kills innovation”

Let’s start with that first headline: “Six Sigma ‘killed’ innovation in 3M”. The article describes how 3M prides itself on innovation and incorporated Six Sigma as part of their company culture. According to a former executive, Six Sigma experts in the company would get in the way of innovation by asking for a five-year plan with any new idea. This expectation is ridiculous, as he explains: “Come on, we don’t know yet because we don’t know how it works, we don’t know how many customers will take it up, we haven’t taken it out to the customer yet.”

But the issue here is not Six Sigma itself, it’s how it’s being used. Of course asking for a five-year plan with every idea is going to affect innovation. The management at 3M did not apply Six Sigma carefully or with intelligence; they just bolted it on to every creative project with little control and assumed positive results. Six Sigma does not work if it’s used like a one-size-fits-all solution.


“Six Sigma drains employees’ creativity”

In “Six Sigma Is Draining Employees’ Creativity”, Andrew Smart says “Six Sigma is analogous to an organisational epileptic seizure”. His argument is that the most important goal of Six Sigma – reducing defects and variation in products – impedes creativity, because variation is what humans thrive on. It’s a similar argument to the 3M example and it falls down again for the same reasons.

Once again, Andrew’s criticisms are about applying Six Sigma to ‘an entire company’, rather than using it to improve specific business processes. So it is no surprise that the repeatable, structured methodology that Six Sigma provides doesn’t work for R&D departments and creative applications.


“Six Sigma projects often fail”

“Why Six Sigma Projects Often Fail” discusses the failure of Six Sigma at an aerospace company. It describes how the company carried out improvement projects using teams of 10 to 18 members from different departments, alongside a Six Sigma improvement expert to guide the process. Once the project was underway, the Six Sigma expert would leave, and executives would move their focus on to something else. Without somebody to lead them, staff would revert back to their old habits and new priorities would take over, making it harder for them to achieve their agreed goals.

As with before, the failure here was not with Six Sigma itself – it was with its implementation. Contrast the aerospace company’s implementation of Six Sigma with that of arguably the system’s most famous advocate – General Electric.

General Electric didn’t simply employ consultants for a specified period of time and then leave staff to carry on improvement projects on their own. They ensured a large percentage of staff were trained by Master Black Belts to become Six Sigma Green Belts and Black Belts. They made Six Sigma part of company culture, with its implementation led from the top-level down by CEO Jack Welch. And they rewarded the success of Six Sigma projects with promotions.

In other words, GE ensured that all employees had adequate training to be able to use Six Sigma effectively once the outside experts had left, and incentivised its success so that everybody was motivated to continue using it. As a result, the ideas of Six Sigma were properly distributed throughout the company so they were fully understood and not forgotten in a hurry.


No doubt there are some cases where Six Sigma hasn’t worked for businesses, but this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used. There are numerous examples where Six Sigma has led to better quality products, happier customers, and higher profits. All these failures show us that the key is to apply it intelligently and with nuance. We shouldn’t become slaves to a process – there should always be space for human thinking.

The Knowledge Academy offers expertly taught Six Sigma courses including Black Belt and Green Belt in a wide range of locations around the world.


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