Where Did Six Sigma Come From?

As with Lean, we can trace the roots of Six Sigma to the nineteenth-century craftsman, whose challenges as an individual a long time ago mirror the challenges of organizations today. The craftsman had to minimize wasted time, actions, and materials; he also had to make every product or service to a high standard of quality the first time, each time, every time.

Quality Beginning

The roots of what would later become Six Sigma were planted in 1908, when W. S. Gosset developed statistical tests to help analyze quality data obtained at Guinness Brewery. About the same time, A. K. Erlang studied telephone traffic problems for the Copenhagen Telephone Company in an effort to increase the reliability of service in an industry known for its inherent randomness. It’s likely that Erlang was the first mathematician to apply probability theory in an industrial setting, an effort that led to modern queuing and reliability theory. With these underpinnings, Walter Shewhart worked with Western Electric (a forerunner of AT& T) in the 1930s to develop the theoretical concepts of quality control. Lean-like industrial engineering techniques did not solve quality and variation-related problems; more statistical intelligence was needed to get to their root causes. Shewhart is also known as the originator of the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle, which is sometimes ascribed to Dr. Edwards Deming, Shewhart’s understudy. As the story goes, Deming made the connection between quality and cost. If you find a way to prevent defects, and do everything right the first time, you won’t have any need to perform rework. Therefore, as quality goes up, the cost of doing business goes down. Deming’s words were echoed in the late 1970s by a guy named Philip Crosby, who popularized the notion that “quality is free.”

Quality Crazy

War and devastation bring us to Japan, where Deming did most of his initial quality proselytizing with another American, Dr. Joseph Juran. Both helped Japan rebuild its economy after World War II, consulting with numerous Japanese companies in the development of statistical quality control techniques, which later spread into the system known as Total Quality Control (TQC).

As the global economy grew, organizations grew in size and complexity. Many administrative, management, and enabling functions grew around the core function of a company to make this or that product. The thinking of efficiency and quality, therefore, began to spread from the manufacturing function to virtually all functions— procurement, billing, customer service, shipping, and so on. Quality is not just one person’s or one department’s job. Rather, quality is everyone’s job! This is when quality circles and suggestion programs abounded in Japanese companies: no mind should be wasted, and everyone’s ideas are necessary. Furthermore, everyone should continuously engage in finding better ways to create value and improve performance. By necessity, quality became everyone’s job, not just the job of a few … especially in Japan, at a time when there was precious little money to invest in new equipment and technology.

The rest of the story might be familiar if you’re old enough to remember. By the late 1970s, America had lost its quality edge in cars, TVs, and other electronics— and they were suffering significant market share losses. Japanese plants were far more productive and superior to American plants, according to a 1980 NBC television program, If Japan Can Why Can’t We? In response to all this, American companies took up the quality cause. They made Deming and Juran heroes, and institutionalized the Japanese-flavored TQC into its American counterpart, Total Quality Management (TQM). They developed a special government award, the Baldrige Award, to give companies that best embodied the ideal practice of TQM. They organized all the many elements and tools of quality improvement into a teachable, learnable, and doable system— and a booming field of quality professionals was born.

Quality Business

The co-founder of Six Sigma, Dr. Mikel Harry, has often said that Six Sigma shifts the focus from the business of quality to the quality of business. What he means is that for many years the practices of quality improvement floated loosely around a company, driven by the quality department. And as much as the experts said that quality improvement has to be driven and supported by top executives, it generally wasn’t. Enter Jack Welch, the iconic CEO who led General Electric through 2 decades of incredible growth and consistent returns for shareholders. In the late 1980s, Welch had a discussion with former AlliedSignal CEO Larry Bossidy, who said that Six Sigma could transform not only a process or product, but a company. In other words, GE could use Six Sigma as AlliedSignal was already doing: to improve the financial health and viability of the corporation through real and lasting operational improvements. Welch took note and hired Mikel Harry to train hundreds of his managers and specialists to become Six Sigma Black Belts, Master Black Belts, and Champions. Welch installed a deployment infrastructure so he could fan the Six Sigma methodology out as widely as possible across GE’s many departments and functions. In short, Welch elevated the idea and practice of quality from the engineering hallways of the corporation into the boardroom. Lest we not be clear, the first practical application of Six Sigma on a pervasive basis occurred at Motorola, where Dr. Harry and the co-inventor of Six Sigma, Bill Smith, worked as engineers. Bob Galvin, then CEO of Motorola, paved the way for Bossidy and Welch in that he proved how powerful Six Sigma was in solving difficult performance problems. He also used Six Sigma at Motorola to achieve unprecedented quality levels for key products. One such product was the Motorola Bandit pager, which failed so rarely that Motorola simply replaced rather than repaired them when they did fail.

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