Six Sigma: Is It for You?
Maybe, but this popular manufacturing philosophy is definitely not for everybody.
By Tom Dossenbach
If Six Sigma is an enigma or a mystery to you, you are not alone.
I have avoided writing on this subject because I try to present only practical approaches to tackling challenges in our industry. I have long felt that this program goes too far for most wood products companies to benefit.
I think Six Sigma is too detailed and complicated a quality management and continuous improvement system for the majority of woodworking companies. There are simpler ways to address quality issues in our industry that do not require Green Belt operatives, Black Belt team leaders and master Black Belt Six Sigma managers wielding heavy statistical controls. We need to stick to the basics of Continuous Improvement and Lean Manufacturing on a more practical level.
What Is Six Sigma?
Who Needs It?
The whole notion of Six Sigma emerged from Motorola in 1987 and quickly spread to other companies such as Texas Instruments, IBM, GE, Whirlpool and, more recently, DuPont, Dow, Microsoft and American Express. Six Sigma takes a broader and more detailed approach to quality assurance than previous methods and it is not geared to manufacturing alone. For example, the principles of continuous improvement for the purpose of eliminating defects in the service industry are managed better by Six Sigma than lean management. For this reason, many hospitals are adopting Six Sigma in an attempt to improve their operations.
The companies listed above are all very large, complex businesses. Six Sigma has been credited with saving Motorola from the graveyard. It is conceivable that this giant company would not have survived this long without it. However, if you look at Motorola's stock value performance over the past 15 years, you will see that Six Sigma has not solved the company's global competitive issue. In fact, the company still struggles to maintain prominence in the communications industry.
The woodworking industry is not made of companies like Motorola or GE. Wood products companies do not need to adopt Six Sigma to make them more competitive. The program is not the silver bullet that could solve all of your company's woes nor will it enable you to compete with the Chinese.
What's the Alternative?
If the central theme is to improve quality through eliminating defects, then Zero Defects is a much better approach than Six Sigma for the majority of woodworking operations to pursue.
It is critical to measure quality performance and to eliminate the causes of product defects as perceived by your customers throughout the entire manufacturing process. You do not need to be a PhD or Black Belt Sigma Six manager to implement Lean Manufacturing and Continuous Improvement.
The following checklist is a snapshot of implementing Six Sigma.
Sound familiar? You may recognize these statements as an echo of achieving quality control through continuous improvement. But our goal is to prevent ALL waste in a company and wood product companies are better served by waging war on all types of waste through Lean Manufacturing.
If you still feel you are ready to try the Six Sigma approach to quality management, then I wish you luck. But review that decision carefully and, if you remain compelled to use Six Sigma, then integrate it with your Lean Manufacturing efforts instead of considering it as an entirely new initiative.
In summary, my advice is to deep six Six Sigma and concentrate on the basics we have published in this column for the past few years. They are more valid today than ever.
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