Reasons for Failure and Critical Success Factors - Six Sigma

There is beginning to be some recognition that Six Sigma does not always work. Gupta (2008) suggests that as many as 60% of all Six Sigma initiatives fail to yield the desired results. Zimmerman and Weiss (2005) note that less than 50% of aerospace companies are satisfied with their Six Sigma programmes. It should be noted, however, that detailed information about Six Sigma failures is rather scarce and is mainly found on the web sites of consultancy critiquing approaches by ‘other’ companies. For example, the Six Sigma Academy offers the following list of reasons for failed projects (Gilbert, 2002):

  • Lack of commitment from top management;
  • Using part - time instructors;
  • Having projects tied to insignificant criteria;
  • Setting incorrect targets, perhaps based on the number of people trained and certified rather than on bottom - line results;
  • Poor project management;
  • Treating Six Sigma as a “quality” initiative, which creates cynicism;

This list may be enlarged by Eckes’s (2001) claim that 60 per cent of projects failed due to ignoring people issues, particularly team dynamics (the motivating and driving forces that propel a team toward its goal or mission). He names several problems that typically occur while performing Six Sigma:

  • Disulfides with identifying a leader.
  • Disulfides with developing rules and agenda for meetings.
  • Disulfides with defining objectives and responsibilities of each member.

For a more complete picture we can consider Six Sigma Critical Success Factors (CSFs) - the issues one has to take into account to avoid failure. There are several sources containing information about Six Sigma CSFs (Henderson and Evans, 2000; Pande et al, 2000; Eckes, 2001; Banuelas and Antony, 2002; Antony and Banuelas, 2002; Goldstein, 2001; Lee, 2002; Voelkel, 2005). The number of CSFs varies from 7 (Henderson and Evans, 2000) to more than 20 in some research. Let us summarize the CSFs mentioned by various authors and consider them in the descending order of significance discovered in the research made by Antony and Banuelas (2002).

Management commitment and involvement, which are visible and public, is by far the most crucial factor for Six Sigma success according to the majority of authors. This notion is supported as by much empirical research (Banuelas and Antony, 2002; Lee, 2002; Henderson and Evans, 2000) and by the position that is expressed by many Six Sigma gurus’ (Eckes, 2001; Pande et al 2000) who identify management commitment and involvement as the most vital ingredient of Six Sigma success. As Hahn (2005) states ‘the enthusiastic commitment of top management is essential’.

This result also agrees with the study performed on GE experience (Henderson and Evans, 2000), where management participation in Six Sigma has various forms: from sudden top managers’ visits to regular 6s reviews meetings and different manufacturing sites to talk with shop loor workers, to GE CEO spending time ‘in every Six Sigma training wave, speaking and answering questions for students’. Voelkel (2005) also emphasis’s the importance of effective leadership at Six Sigma project level, as well as initiative level, as does Sneer (2005).

In the research performed by Antony and Banuelas (2002) ‘understanding Six Sigma tools and techniques’ was marked second by the people who took part in this survey. It is of interest, that ‘training’ occupies the position at the bottom of the importance list, despite the apparent linkage. The difference between the importance of understanding Six Sigma, ability to apply its tools deficiently and training reflects one of Six Sigma noticeable problems - high cost of its training programs. As Senapati (2004) states ‘the high cost of Six Sigma training creates a barrier for spending and prevents the implementation of this improvement program’.

However, many Six Sigma practitioners (e.g. Henderson and Evans, 2000) highlight the importance of providing the employees with sound and thorough training. the research conducted by Lee (2002) supports the point that that quality of training, including team work skills training, is one of the most important Six Sigma CSFs. GE experience also suggests that training in DMAIC along with appropriate tools is vital (Henderson & Evans, 2000). Hahn (2005) also recommends ‘invest in relevant hands - on training’. Proper training is supposed to ensure the appropriate usage of tools, which is another Six Sigma CSF (Antony, 2006).

Black Belt selection is another Six Sigma CSF according to Lee (2002), who claims that a candidate’s personality is by far the most important aspect for Black Belt selection; well ahead of educational background, statistical or quality experience. Other important criteria for Black Belt selection are: project management skills, skills in managing a multidisciplinary team, and communication skills

The with CSF - project prioritisation, selection and tracking is considered by many other authors to be important (Pande et al.,2000; George, 2002). There are various criteria for project selection; Lee (2002) offers a reasonably comprehensive list of project selection criteria:

  • The problem is of major importance to the organization.
  • The project has a reasonable scope (doable in three to six months).
  • The project defines clear quantitative measures of success.
  • The project’s importance is clear to organization.
  • The project has support and approval of management.

The next CSF, ‘project management skills’, closes the group of factors connected with project selection, executing and tracking. Lee (2002) suggests that there are two main issues that contribute to fulfillment of this CSF: first of all Black Belts should be given project management training; secondly, the projects should be reviewed frequently by Master Black Belts and Champions. Hayes (2006) also recommends the following measures of project management and tracking:

  • Establish a documented 1- year Six Sigma project inventory (and refresh regularly);
  • Assign a Champion and Black Belt to each project (and hold them accountable);
  • Implement a project tracking system to facilitate replication and reuse;

The next CFS is ‘organization infrastructure’ which is defined by Henderson and Evans (2000) as the number of measures that are supposed to implement and ensure effective work of belt structure. It is worth noticing that the cost of deployment may be a serious obstacle; for UK SMEs, for example, the cost of implementation was mentioned as one of the most serious barriers to Six Sigma implementation (Antony et al, 2005).

Along with the infrastructure, communication is an extremely significant factor for Six Sigma success. An ideal Six Sigma implementation plan implies early communication to all the employees the necessity for change and benefits that this change may bring to the company. GE experience stresses the importance of early communication of Six Sigma approach to all employees (Henderson and Evans, 2000). Those authors state that early communication reduces the resistance of employees and, as a consequence, leads to a more successful Six Sigma implementation.

However, it is also possible to interpret the impact of communication as increasing people’s involvement that contributes to the overall Six Sigma success. Goldstein (2001) illustrates this point, saying ‘if the program launch makes the general employee population feel let out, it will be deficit to gain its support and contribution when the need arises later on - and it will arise’. He proposes the following plan for communicating Six Sigma initiatives:

  • What Six Sigma is and why the organization is embarking on this journey.
  • What the business goals are and what the deployment plan is.
  • How each employee will be able to participate.

Hayes (2006) offers even more detailed list of measures that support Six Sigma when it has been already deployed:

  • Creation and communication of a Human Resources plan to support Six Sigma roles.
  • Regular written communications on Six Sigma news and successes.
  • Development and dissemination of communication aids to management.
  • Advocating and creating a “common language” based on Six Sigma.
  • Communicating pertinent facts about Six Sigma in every company meeting.

Without good communication the next CSF - cultural change cannot be achieved. As Hahn (2005) states ‘make Six Sigma pervasive, and involve everybody’. Cultural change is often named as the ultimate aim of Six Sigma in many publications (Pande et al., 2000; George, 2002) which makes it being a CSF somewhat tautological, however, the importance of cultural issues is supported by Lee’s (2002) research suggesting that if company has already practiced TQM, Lean or SPC the implementation of Six Sigma is generally more successful.

Kwak and Anbari (2006) also claim that addressing cultural change is one of the most important CSFs. However, it tends to be one of Six Sigma weakest aspects, mainly due to its initial ‘process - focus’ origin. It is of interest, that some Six Sigma ‘gurus’, for example Eckes (2001), address this issue identifying the ‘resistance’ aspect of Six Sigma deployment and proposing some measures to ‘reduce or eliminate’ it. However, it seems preferable to focus on early Six Sigma communication and involving people in a much more positive way.

The table below summarizes Six Sigma CSFs and separates CSFs that influence the overall success of Six Sigma initiatives from the factors that mainly affect the success of Six Sigma projects:

Table CSFs and reasons for failure


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