“Stealth Six Sigma”

Building the Case for Continuous Improvement

Published December 29, 2015

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“In the old days, we just used to jump to solutions. But we need the data.”

A company experiencing organizational inefficiencies requested an overview of the Lean methodology, which culminated with a Value Stream Mapping (VSM) session to examine how work is processed and identify opportunities for creating standard work. Company leaders were hoping to net a quick fix for a recurring problem in particular, but the VSM session highlighted deeper issues that mapping alone would not remedy.

Under the Radar

The VSM’s exposure of numerous improvement opportunities convinced the company’s vice president of corporate operations to experiment with the Six Sigma problem-solving methodology of reducing process varia-tion. Knowing the culture of the company, he opted against making a big splash of the initiative, instead taking a stealth-mode approach.

The Six Sigma label was discarded as the first three employees were trained in principles and techniques for eliminating defects. Training was delivered through a hybrid model of web-based learning and weekly group meetings facilitated by a TCIE Master Black Belt (MBB) mentor. They applied tools for improvement to their own projects, which were focused in their respective departments.

Concurrently, the TCIE MBB conducted reviews about once a month with the vice president to provide overall progress and communicate roadblocks. Also involved was one of the training participants, who had transitioned to a newly created position centered on continuous improvement efforts, and the president of the third-generation family-owned business.

One notable project grabbed the president’s attention. The billing manager focused on a problem that had forever been perceived as originating in her department. Digging through data, asking questions, talking to other team members and receiving expertise from TCIE’s MBB unveiled a number of matters – in processes taking place well before the billing stage – that were the culprit.

Not only did her work prove that billing processes were not the problem, but it showcased the rigor of Six Sigma and made a believer out of the president. Six Sigma no longer needed to be a covert operation.

Evolving the Program

The company chose three more employees – viewed as leaders who would drive continuous improvement – to be trained. Like the first group, they were educated through the blended approach of online learning with group mentoring and were certified as Black Belts. Fourteen other employees were later selected to assist the Black Belts and receive in-depth Six Sigma training – though not as extensive as the Black Belts – through the blended approach for Green Belt.

All training participants come from diverse business functions, including accounting, human resources, purchasing, and information technology. Even the company president is committed to Green Belt training and completing a project. He regularly says, “In the old days, we just used to jump to solutions. But we need the data.”

He and his fellow Green Belt candidates not only receive instruction, but insight into how Six Sigma is working at their company. The billing manager presented her project at the training kickoff and other Black Belts visit at various points to demonstrate ways to use the tools and reinforce what a project can look like.

As Six Sigma’s presence grows, the company’s deployment structure is maturing.

Project objectives at the outset stemmed from problems experienced by the candidates. Now, with gains achieved through a number of projects, themes are emerging as a general framework for selection; e.g. projects aimed at closing financials within 10 days, improving transportation efficiency, etc.

Review meetings between the TCIE MBB and company leaders occur more regularly, either weekly or every other week.

And company leaders recognize that successful pursuit of optimal operations hinges on dedicating internal resources to sustain both efforts and results. The vice president, continuous improvement leader and certified Black Belts all have a role in providing ongoing support and guidance as Six Sigma becomes more ingrained.