The Faces of Six Sigma

The Rise of Quality

The Corporate Days

The Essence of Leadership

The Meetings with Dr. Harry

At our first personal meeting, Dr. Harry continued his teaching about the connection between quality improvement and business success. He led me to unequivocally recognize that 80 percent of success had little to do with the quality management tools handed down to business over the past five decades. Breakthrough in business performance results from the quality of leadership, specifically the kind that drives corporate-wide Six Sigma deployment and implementation. This notion stands in stark contrast to the classical thinking that "leadership of quality" is paramount.

Over the next couple of years working as Dr. Harry's editor, the leadership vision became much clearer to me, and I came to understand why he and Six Sigma were so far out in front of others in the management advice business. Six Sigma is about leadership - not just in the classic sense but in the extraordinary sense of what is required to very quickly "move mountains," or drive quantum change on a comprehensive scale in a large, complex global corporation.

The Six Sigma community doesn't need any more books about quality methods and statistical tools, or at least not as badly as it needs books about leadership. Six Sigma is about leading apprehensive people in a typical corporation to a place (in business) they are uncertain and skeptical about, and you certainly don't do that by mastering a prescribed set of methods and tools, as powerful as they may be.

Business breakthrough happens when you couple crystal clear vision and direction with steadfast, high-quality leadership that is capable of infecting others with the "big ideas" of Six Sigma – to the point of revolution. It's about guiding people to the point of quantum success, far beyond their initial expectations. This is the stuff out of which legends are made. They are certainly not made from a whimsical set of enablers (methods and tools), or even a whole slew of them packaged together into an impressive compilation of forms, templates, formulas and software.

Still, the essence of Six Sigma leadership hadn't formed deep in my core until I experientially witnessed Dr. Harry in his many interactions with senior corporate executives, various media reporters and the many Six Sigma champions he has trained and coached. It was in the sessions Dr. Harry held with executive teams that I experienced what they experienced: shock and disbelief that they are only average in their ability to reach their goals and realize their well-laid plans, year after year. It's always entertaining to see these high-flying career people squirm when Dr. Harry forces them to recognize the mediocrity of their ways.

It was during these times — the meetings, the phone conferences, the closed-door sessions - that I vicariously but directly felt the impact of Six Sigma leadership. It was amongst the champions, not the black belts, that Six Sigma got its traction for change. It wasn't the tools that delivered AlliedSignal's Larry Bossidy his $2 billion, that brought GE's Jack Welch his billions or that yielded DuPonts Charles Holliday his respective $2.4 billion pot of money. It was the Six Sigma champions who got the money - the leaders of change.

Sure, the supporting cast of a Six Sigma champion secures their respective pieces of the monetary pie, as the mechanics of how this is done are fairly rote and repeatable. But the way in which change is conceived, implemented and directed is not rote and repeatable, and it is this leadership element of champions that can make or break a Six Sigma initiative. All the deftly smart Six Sigma practitioners, in the absence of the right champion leaders, will not produce the required magnitude of return. On the other hand, the right champions will find a way to produce the prescribed return - regardless of who may be supporting the initiative, or who may be trying to kill it for that matter.

The GE Perspective

As much as I could continue on this leadership theme, perhaps I should allow Jack Welch to speak for a while with words from his book, Jack: straight from the gut.(Welch, 2001) Welch was recalling the time when he became turned on to Six Sigma, after Larry Bossidy convinced him it was worth a look and a try. Here's how Welch characterizes his feelings at the time:

By all accounts, Larry made a great pitch to our troops. He demonstrated that Allied got real cost savings — not just "feel good" benefits ... I came back to work and concluded: Larry really loved Six Sigma, the team thought it was tight, and I had the survey, which said quality was a problem at. GE … Once everything came together, I went nuts about Six Sigma and launched it … We put two key guys on it. Gary Reiner, head of corporate initiatives, and Bob Nelson, my longtime financial analyst, ran a cost-benefit analysis. They showed that if GE was running at three to four Sigma, the cost-saving opportunity of raising this quality to Six Sigma was somewhere between $7 billion and $10 billion. This amounted to a huge number, 10percent to 15 percent of sales … With that opportunity, it wasn 't rocket science for us to decide to take a big swing at Six Sigma … As with each of our major initiatives, when we decided to go forward, we did so with a vengeance. The first thing we did was appoint Gary Reiner as permanent head of Six Sigma. With his clear thinking and relentless focus, he was the perfect bridge to transmit our passion into the program … We then brought in Mikel Harry, a former Motorola manager who was running the Six Sigma Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona. If there is a Six Sigma zealot, Harry's the guy. We invited him to our annual officers meeting in Crotonville in October. I cancelled our usual golf outing — a symbolic gesture if there ever was one — so that 170 of us could listen to Harry talk about his program … For four solid hours, he jumped excitedly from one easel to another, writing down all kinds of statistical formulas. I couldn 't tell if he was a madman or a visionary. Most of the crowd, including me, didn 't understand much of the statistical language … Nonetheless, Harry's presentation succeeded in capturing our imagination. He had given us enough practical examples to show there was something to this. Most left the session that day somewhat frustrated with our lack of statistical comprehension but excited about the program's possibilities. The discipline from the approach was particularly appealing to the engineers in the room … I sensed it was a lot more than statistics for engineers, but I didn't have any idea just how much more it would become … The big myth is that Six Sigma is about quality control and statistics. It is that - but it's a helluva lot more … Ultimately, it drives leadership to be better by providing tools to think through tough issues.

In short, Dr. Harry exposed me to the strategic and tactical side of Six Sigma, the side out of which leaders are forged. He showed me the difference between a company that leverages the tools of Six Sigma to complete a few good black belt projects, and one that leverages the principles of Six Sigma to bring about corporate transformation. That whole process was an eye-opener for me as I rode along shotgun while he fought the corporate battles.