The Faces of Six Sigma

The Rise of Quality

The Corporate Days

The Essence of Leadership

The Days at General Electric

As AlliedSignal's financial performance turned around, Six Sigma attracted the attention

of Jack Welch, former CEO and chairman of the board for General Electric (GE). At the time around 1994, GE was experiencing quality problems in some major product lines, and stock analysts were questioning whether the company could continue the momentum and earnings consistency that had won huge favor among investors and helped pushed up its share price.

It was Bossidy who brought Six Sigma to Welch, his friend and golfing partner who always believed quality programs were heavy on slogans and light on results. Bossidy, a former GE vice chairman, explained to Welch that Six Sigma allowed AlliedSignal to focus simultaneously on quality and profitability - and he had the numbers to back it up. Through his relationship with Bossidy, Welch became a cautious and thoughtful Six Sigma convert.

Dr. Harry and Schroeder worked with Welch to further refine the business focus of Six Sigma - its structures, systems, methods, supporting software and, perhaps most important of all, its knowledge development practices. Even beyond this in importance, Welch appointed Gary Reiner, one of GE's youngest and most talented senior executives, to be his point person in fulfilling the Six Sigma agenda.

Reiner was in the same class as Germaine at Motorola, Magnusson at ABB and Schroeder at AlliedSignal. He wasn't someone you could put in a box and keep there; he was a high-flyer, a master tactician who knew how to optimize the viscosity of a corporate initiative. As all effective Six Sigma Champions are, Reiner was as strong as the CEO who appointed him.

Pilot in Medical Systems

Welch and Reiner, along with Dr. Harry, made an immediate decision to begin Six Sigma implementation in the medical systems business. They needed to create an example in the company, a success, that would energize interest across the key businesses of the corporation. GE Medical Systems was that example.

It wasn't long before the medical business was able to create some significant breakthroughs. Most GE executives weren't even aware that the company was implementing Six Sigma. Welch, therefore, designed an event in which the leader of GE Medical Systems and Dr. Harry would present what the organization had accomplished to all his peers.

Once the officers of the corporation saw the dramatic results Six Sigma produced, nearly all were clamoring to be the next in line. Nobody wanted to be excluded from the next wave of implementation In this sense, GE Medical Systems was able to capture the imagination of the other business segment leaders, thereby confirming that Welch and the others successfully instituted a pull-oriented success model that other businesses could emulate, adapt and mutate -which they did.

From a knowledge development perspective, the corporations that have enjoyed the many benefits of Six Sigma started their journey with a highly dynamic and adaptive curricula design intended to achieve initial project successes at a key location within the total corporate structure. As other cells of deployment are defined, logically grouped for initialization and brought on line in rapid fashion, curricula is modified to better guide deployment planning and help meet certain ongoing, local implementation needs. This is how GE's Six Sigma curriculum unfolded, evolved and functionally mutated as Six Sigma deployment unfolded - meeting specific needs at different times in different ways, even though the ultimate goal of every local deployment cell was connected with the global aims of the corporation.

The other topic of concern that Dr. Harry recalls from his time with Welch was the issue of master Black Belts. The typical Six Sigma Academy approach at the time was to first train several waves of Black Belts, help them develop through continued application and coaching and, finally, train and enable the cream of the crop to become master Black Belts. In turn, the master Black Belts would take over Six Sigma training and development, and the consultant would go home.

It was in 1995 that the Six Sigma Academy {SSA) initiated its work with General Electric as the prime contractor for the global installation of Six Sigma. Under the direction of Jack Welch and auspices of Gary Reiner, Dr. Harry introduced Six Sigma to the company and subsequently provided the management and technical training necessary to guide the senior leadership team, corporate officers and business leaders in the development of their deployment and implementation plans.

Dr. Harry worked with most of GE's leaders to develop a suitable "baseline" curriculum capable of under girding the company's first round of Six Sigma implementation. Through countless iterations and adaptations, GE then evolved its original base in accordance with changing business aims, deployment structures and implementation needs - ultimately terminating in a static, fixed curriculum as anticipated and planned. Such an initial adaptive curriculum is deemed necessary and vital to the initial success of any corporation's global Six Sigma effort.

Turbo sigma

But Welch had a different idea. He raised his hand at an officers meeting and asked Dr. Harry a piercing question: "Why can't we train the master Black Belts first?" Well, there were many, according to Dr. Harry. First you have to provide time for Black Belts to accrue experience. They have to get a few wins under their belts, and the good ones need to float to the surface.

Welch turned to one of his colleagues in the meeting and asked him how many seats were in the room. They were in the famous "pit," as GE calls it, at the corporation's learning and training center thirty miles north of New York City. Dr. Harry doesn't remember the answer to Welch's question, so let's say 200 for sake of argument. Welch's idea, then, was to train 200 master Black Belts all at once prior to training Black Belts.

The executives present began pounding their fists on the table chanting "ooh, ooh, ooh." Dr. Harry clearly got outflanked, and he went back to Arizona thinking about how to train master Black Belts first, and 200 of them at once. For whatever the reason, Welch knew his organization could absorb Six Sigma in this turbo-charged fashion. He had the vision and the knowledge - the leadership — to challenge Dr. Harry's paradigm. He liked what he had seen about Six Sigma except this one aspect about training. Welch believed it might be possible to turn the training model upside down and, thereby, decrease the cycle time of deployment.

Dr. Harry recalls thinking at the time that, while maybe very risky for some other corporation, Welch's idea just might work at GE. It was a lesson learned for him that the Six Sigma methodology, although very successful, might not be as good as it could be. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and a company with a very strong and progressive leadership team will ultimately figure out how best to accelerate and optimize Six Sigma.

With this thought in mind, Dr. Harry developed an approach for training the GE Champions and master Black Belts up front - before Black Belts were identified or trained. With a few adjustments and several very intense training sessions by Dr. Harry in the pit, the newly formed Six Sigma leadership component at GE was ready. During these training sessions, Dr. Harry worked with each business unit team to formulate the core of their deployment and implementation plans, as well as to develop Black Belt project selection criteria.

Following the preparation of Champions and master Black Belts, the various businesses of the corporation were organized into several logical deployment blocks. For purposes of corporate roll-out, the deployment blocks were tightly staggered to further reduce cycle time. Academy instructors worked with the master Black Belts for each block to create a virtual army of process and design Black Belts. Once trained, these Black Belts began to immediately crank out cash-and lots of it.

500,000 projects

In less than a year, GE had achieved enormous payback on its Six Sigma investment. Its Medical Systems business produced a 10-fold increase in the life of CT scanners and x-ray tubes. Its plastics business added 300 million pounds of new capacity and saved $400 million investment dollars. GE-owned NBC improved cash flow by $9.5 million as a result of revising the way it processes payments to suppliers. "This is not about sloganeering or bureaucracy or filling out forms," Welch said in an interview with Forbes magazine. "It finally gives us a route to get to the control function, the hardest thing to do in a corporation."

Still, these numbers barely scratch the surface of GE's Six Sigma success. Since the beginning of its thrust in 1995, the company has trained 80,000 people in Six Sigma and has completed 500,000 projects. In the down economic year of 2001, GE generated more than $ 17 billion in cash, a staggering accomplishment. The words "Six Sigma" appear in GE's 2001 annual report no fewer than 64 times, and they appear in the letter from the senior officers no fewer than 17 times. In the context of digitization, revenue growth, new product design - in virtually every silo of the $125 billion business - Six Sigma has become the common language of breakthrough and corporate leadership.

With GE, Six Sigma had evolved from a pure statistical measure into a full-blown system for achieving breakthrough financial results for an entire multinational corporation. And it had grown into much more than even Dr. Harry ever imagined from his beginning reference point in a small research laboratory at a government business unit of Motorola. As it developed in impact over the years, Six Sigma had become a business strategy, an operational tactic and a process-improvement tool. It had become a repeatable system for leading and managing a global business. It was a business philosophy as well as a proven, world-class management practice. It was a performance metric, and a leadership mechanism for driving quantum, rapid change.

By the turn of the century, Six Sigma had truly become a lot of things to a lot of people in a corporation. But more than anything, Six Sigma had established itself as a leadership strategy ~ at the business, operations and process levels. What you hang on that strategy (in terms of structures, software, messages, knowledge, systems, methods and tools) is your business, as long as your specific deployment, implementation and application configuration (design) is properly aligned with and connected to the mission, goals and aims of the corporation. Only then can leaders begin to lead in a meaningful and purposeful way. Simply doing Six Sigma for its own sake is not an option and will not work.