Six Sigma: The Next Evolution - Six Sigma

There are those who will tell you that Six Sigma is radical and new. The fact is that Six Sigma (done properly) is a recognisable evolution of TQM. De Mast (2006) sees it as an on-going phase in the evolution of methods and approaches for quality and deficiency improvement. Six Sigma can be seen as the accumulation of principles and practices developed in management statistics and quality engineering, all of which matured significantly over the course of the Twentieth Century.

The Six Sigma approach was first developed in the late 1980s within a mass manufacturing environment in Motorola (Harry, 1998) as they struggled to meet demanding quality targets on complex manufactured products; and become widely known when GE adopted it in the mid-90s (Folaron and Morgan, 2003; hawani, 2004) when, arguably, it evolved from being a process improvement methodology to a broader, company wide philosophy.

Both companies still consider Six Sigma as the basis for their on - going strategic improvement approach. Since the 1980s Six Sigma has become one of the most popular improvement initiatives; widely implemented around the world in a wide range of sectors (by companies such as Boeing, DuPont, Toshiba, Seagate, Allied Signal, Kodak, Honeywell, Texas Instruments, Sony, Bombardier, Lockheed Martin) that all declared considerable financial savings (Harry, 1998; Antony and Banuelas, 2001; Kwak and Anbari, 2006). Other benefits claimed for Six Sigma include increased stock price, improved processes and products quality, shorter cycle times, improved design and increased customer satisfaction (Lee, 2002; McAdam et al, 2005).

Six Sigma has undergone a considerable evolution since the early manifestations (Folaron and Morgan, 2003; Abramowich, 2005). Initially it was a quality measurement approach based on statistical principles. Then it transformed to a disciplined processes improvement technique (based on reducing variation within the system with the help of a number of statistical tools). For example, Sneed (1999) defined Six Sigma as an ‘approach that seeks to find and eliminate causes of mistakes or defects in business processes by focusing on outputs that are critical importance to customers’. The definition given in 1999 by Harry and Schroeder (1999) also defines Six Sigma as ‘a disciplined method of using extremely rigorous data gathering and statistical analysis to pinpoint sources of errors and ways of eliminating them’.

In its current incarnation it is commonly presented as ‘a breakthrough strategy’ and even holistic quality philosophy (Pande, 2002; Eckes, 2001). It is now generally accepted that Six Sigma is applicable to various environments such as service, transactions or software industry regardless the size of the business (Pande, 2002; Lee, 2002) and being adapted Six Sigma may lead to nearly perfect products and services. Moreover, Six Sigma is widening its areas of application very rapidly and there are examples of applying Six Sigma to predicting the probability of a company bankruptcy (Neagu and Hoerl, 2005) or finding opportunities for growth (Abramowich, 2005).

In the past five years, hundreds of organizations have indicated their interest in making Six Sigma their management philosophy of choice. While many of the businesses attempting to implement Six Sigma are well intentioned and want to implement Six Sigma properly just as General Electric did, there are also those impatient executives who now look on Six Sigma in the same way as they look on downsizing. This quick-ix approach to Six Sigma is a sure path to the same short - term results that prevent long-term profitability.

It is worth noting that the evolution of Six Sigma is continuing with, for example, the integration of Lean Principles, development of a product / service variant (Design for Six Sigma) amongst others (De Mast, 2006).

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