The Faces of Six Sigma

The Rise of Quality

The Corporate Days

The Essence of Leadership

The Themes of Six Sigma

There are certain larger themes by which Six Sigma has progressed over the years as it has transitioned from a simple statistical target (3.4 DPMO) to a highly structured management system fully capable of quality deployment and implementation on a corporate-wide, global scale. As one theme was embodied and perfected by a certain corporation or corporations, another corporation built on that knowledge to expand the meaning and impact of Six Sigma.

It was Motorola that invented the notion of Six Sigma as a statistical target for product quality. Around 1985, the company came face to face with the fact that its product quality was not well regarded by customers. In fact, Motorola was a far cry from the benchmarks set by certain Asian competitors. In response to its newfound humility, under the leadership of then-CEO Robert (Bob) Galvin, Motorola instituted a relentless drive for a virtually perfect level of production quality. In 1988, this pursuit won the company a Malcolm Baldridge award, and Motorola earned itself a reputation as the four-sigma producer that became a world-class quality benchmark (Six Sigma).

Through the rigorous application of statistical process improvement methods applied against high-level stretch goals, Motorola reached near Six Sigma levels of quality in several of its products, not the least of which was its Bandit Pager. With a 150 year life expectancy, the Bandit was so reliable that it was more cost effective to replace rather than repair in the extremely rare advent of a failure. By 1993, Motorola had developed and implemented Six Sigma to the point at which it became a hard science at the process level and a management art at the business level. Prior to this, the pursuit of quality was more a philosophy than it was an art of a science.

Through various statistical methods and tools, Motorola hardened the principle of quality to the point at which it could be repeated at other corporations. In essence, Motorola hardened the principle of quality to the point of giving torque and power to the idea of quality, thereby opening the road for the migrating that power from the realm of quality to the realm of business.

From Quality to Business

It was around 1993 that the principle of quality science bled into the principles of business. Two corporations—Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) and AlliedSignal (Allied)—were the driving force behind this important transition. While at Motorola, Dr. Harry served as one of the principle architects of Six Sigma, having personally developed many of the strategies, tactics and tools underpinning it successful development, implementation and application. In addition, Dr. Harry developed the Breakthrough Strategy and introduced the concept of Black Belts with the aim of establishing a Six Sigma infrastructure focused on quality improvement projects. At ABB, the power of the Black Belt infrastructure was validated, as Black Belts lead the execution of projects that drove quantum change and improved business economics.

To this end, ABB focused a critical mass of Black Belt projects on hard financial targets in its power transformer business. The methods, tools and people of Six Sigma were deployed to reduce business costs while concurrently improving operational quality. In doing so, it wasn’t just quality or process capability that mattered. Improvements in cycle time, capacity, capital efficiency, headcount and inventory were responsible for cutting unnecessary cost out of the company’s operations.

Then it was at AlliedSignal, around 1994, that the upward migration of Six Sigma was extended to include the realization of hard financial goals at the business level. With CEO Larry Bossidy’s urgent leadership and backing, Allied made Black Belt projects a global tour de force. No longer were Black Belts fewer rather than more in number. In full-scale production mode, Allied turned out Black Belts in mass. It then signified breakthroughs, which lead to business-level breakthroughs.

After ABB and Allied, Six Sigma had grown up once again and could never again be characterized as a simple statistical target or process-level intervention solely aimed at the improvement of product quality. Inasmuch as Motorola pioneered the use of Six Sigma to transform quality improvement from an art to a science, ABB and Allied pioneered the use of Six Sigma as a primary tool for improving business performance. Now it wasn’t just quality professionals who were speaking the language of Six Sigma; business executives and managers were speaking the language of Six Sigma too.

Once this important connection between quality and business was made, and was proven to be practically and financially useful to a large corporation, many followed this new road. At Motorola, the path to quality, and to business breakthrough, was twisted and unclear relative to where it had come. But now the road was more straight and narrow, its curves smoothed out and its surface paved. It was around this time that many others, with much clearer visibility, made their respective trips down the road of Six Sigma to business-driven breakthrough.

The list of corporations that came next includes but is not limited to Bombardier, Dow, Crane, Ford, Johnson Controls, Lear, Noranda, Nokia, Shimano, Norgren, Toshiba, Seagate and Sony. While each one of these companies made their respective marks and contributions in pushing the envelope of Six Sigma, it was General Electric (GE) that made the next quantum step. It was GE that drove Six Sigma beyond the quality of business into the realm of leadership.

From Business to Leadership

If Six Sigma was a quality formula at Motorola, and if it was a business formula at ABB and Allied, it was a leadership formula at GE. After about two years of initiating an all-out Six Sigma thrust, said Jack Welch in GE’s 1997 annual report, “Six Sigma is quickly becoming part of the genetic code of our future leadership. Six Sigma training is now an ironclad prerequisite for promotion to any professional or managerial position in the Company—and a requirement for any award of stock options.”

This was a time when GE has added about $300 million to its operating income as a result of its initial Six Sigma deployment and implementation. True to form, Welch did not take a minor-league swing at Six Sigma; he went after it with a vengeance, dedicated his very best people to it all swung to hit a major-league home run. At GE, Six Sigma was nothing short of deep and pervasive cultural change in the way every part and parcel of the $90 billion (1997) corporations did business. Again, in Welch’s words: “[Six Sigma] is the most challenging and potentially rewarding initiative we have ever undertaken at General Electric.” (Lowe, 1997)

If you know anything about Jack Welch, you know he is insistent on the value of leadership, and on identifying and developing leaders. The first chapter of his 2001 autobiography, jack: straight from the gut, is dedicated in part to describing the significance of his mother’s influence on his life. The nature of that influence is about competition, building self-confidence and leadership. “If I have any leadership style, a way of getting the best out of people, I owe it to her,” Welch wrote about his mother. (Welch, 2001)

There simply is no company in the world that has turned out as many corporate leaders as GE. Welch wouldn’t have had it any other way. If ever there was a man who understands that you have to bring out the very best in people to be the very best in the business, Welch is the man. Over the years, GE has been a veritable leadership mill, and everything the company does is geared towards developing and leveraging leaders to win in the marketplace.

It was no different with Six Sigma, as GE has trained 80,000 people in Six Sigma since it began its journey in 1995. Welch lined up his corporation to make the Six Sigma journey on the road that Motorola, ABB and Allied had paved. He absorbed all the learning and experience from the past, then put the torque of leadership on that learning. As a result, GE, from 1995 to 1998, was able to deploy and implement Six Sigma more powerfully and pervasively than any corporation had in the past. The enablers (methods, systems and tools) of Six Sigma application were known and worn. It was GE’s leaders who maximized the influence of those enablers in a global corporation.

Post-GE, we had arrived at the point at which Six Sigma had become a business quality leadership initiative. Yes, it was always a business quality leadership initiative, even at Motorola where Six Sigma began. But back in the early days, Motorola had a lot of quality, some business focus and some leadership. The trail to business breakthrough was unmarked, although you could see its vague and twisting outlines. There were a lot of bushes to be whacked, and only an expert trail-finder could navigate from the base to the top of the mountain—albeit collecting a few bruises, scratches and itchy spots along the way.

Even from the top, a Motorolan could look back and only see the wild brush and foliage that was the wilderness. But as others made their way to the mountaintop, they cleared the path a little more, and a little more after that. Many from ABB, and many from Allied, made their way through the brush, tracking the clues Motorola left behind. Sometimes they diverged from the steps of those at Motorola, taking a different, more negotiable, straighter line to the top. Soon, the trail became repeatable, and bushwhacking skills were no longer required. Then, after GE, the trail was widened and smoothed such that one could reach the summit with a fraction of the effort expended by those who reached it before.

From Leadership to Structure

What started as an expedition had become a journey on a well-marked trail. The goopy, haphazard mix of quality and business and leadership had congealed into a cohesive whole, and the art of Six Sigma had nearly transformed into a complete science. All that seemed to be missing was the structure required to deploy and implement business quality leadership in a mechanistic fashion at the business, operations and process levels of a corporation. While the selection, applications and leadership of projects was known and practiced by many, the way in which Six Sigma was deployed and implemented on a global scale was known only by a few.

Even GE struggled through this aspect of its Six Sigma drive, and it wasn’t until DuPont came along that the deployment and implementation was fully transitioned from an art to a science. It was DuPont senior champion Don Linsenmann that engineered and oversaw the pouring of the concrete on the dirt road to the mountain top. He added mileage markers and warning signs, like the ones that tell you the road curves ahead or it dramatically shifts its incline or decline grade.

You can talk to Don about the way DuPont deployed and implemented Six Sigma in sewing-machine fashion and he will tell you that things went pretty much smoothly without any real upsets, restarts or hitches. Sure, he has a war story or two to tell, but more than that he has a story to tell about how DuPont installed Six Sigma right the first time. In this sense, DuPont’s experience is not a laboratory of lessons learned and failures. Rather, it is a case study in the breakthrough ideas and leadership practices that guide the successful realization of Six Sigma aims in a global corporation.

Don’s story is one of leading the leaders at DuPont, and of placing a repeatable structure on Six Sigma deployment and implementation. It is not the do-all, end-all story by any stretch, as Don will be the first to say. The road is paved, and many will travel it. As progress is inevitable, someone else will come along in the future and widen the road into a four-lane highway, and the trek to Six Sigma-driven business breakthrough will be that much smoother and faster. For now, DuPont is the corporation most worthy of emulation, and the one whose story must be told.

Clearly, we have arrived at a period in which the evolutionary themes of Six Sigma have merged and been fused together. In every sense of the phrase, Six Sigma has become a management system of business quality deployment and implementation, focused on the development of leaders who are obsessed with concurrently improving business economics and customer satisfaction; thereby, resulting in the creation of value. But Six Sigma didn’t get to this point overnight, and there is a story to be told about dynamics and realities that fueled its rise. We begin that story next.