6 Sigma ~ A year in reflection

September marks the one thinker-300x224year anniversary of when I started myAi??6 Sigma Black Belt journey. I wanted to take a moment and stop to reflect on that journey, specifically; what I thought 6 sigma was, how I see 6 sigma now, and and how 6 sigmaAi??has changed my approach to continuous improvement.

As an improvement professional who has been on his learning journey for over 10 years, I am always looking to expand my horizons – at least I told myself that. Up until a year ago, 95% of my formal and informal training has fallen into what I will broadly categorize as “Lean Training” while most of the remaining 5% was focused primarily on TOC. In reflection that doesn’t seem as “expansive” as I originally thought it was. 6 Sigma was never really been on my radar as something I was eager to learn.

First off, I viewed 6 sigma as a “statistical method of problem solving”. Statistics have never really been my strong suit…ok enough with the sugar coating, I had a severe case of statistics-phobia driven from having to memorize complex formulas in college. Don’t get me wrong, I very am good with basic data analysis and putting things into spreadsheets and charts to do some high level data evaluations, but the thought of looking at advanced statistical formulas to provide a 95% confidence level in my results, really sent my anxiety into overload.

And secondly my experience with 6 Sigma to that point had not been an overly pleasant one. Early in my career I knew only one 6 Sigma Black Belt. This person’s approach to DMAIC demonstrated that 6 Sigma projects took years to complete. This person had told me that for a “true 6 Sigma project neededAi??every tool had to be used”. In the year I knew her, she worked on only one project and was no closer to providing tangible improvement than the day I met her. This really tainted me as, I want to help employees be better off tomorrow than they are today, so the 6 sigma approach, as I observed it, seemed like a never-ending story.

So in early 2015 when my company asked me if I had any desire in attending Black Belt training, no one was more amazed to hear the word “Yes” coming out of my mouth than I was. Even with all the negative thoughts i had about what 6 Sigma was, I decided I needed to practice what I preach, and push outside of my comfort zone in hopes of truly improving ~ Personal Kaizen.

Now a year has passed and I am approaching my one year anniversary so I want to take some time to reflect on what I have learned.

paranormalOne of my first big take aways is that 6 Sigma is not a “Statistical Method” of anything. Yes, it does apply advanced statistics to the decision making process, but the method is DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control). To the casual observer this may seem like an issue of semantics, but the difference is huge. 6 Sigma, much like the Lean PDCA improvement cycle, is a scientific approach to improvement. With the 6 Sigma/DMAIC approach you statistical evidence to validate or reject your hypothesis and NO you don’t need to memorize statistical formulas, but you do need to know what to use and how to read the outputs. There are a host of software packages out there that provide the formulas behind the scene. The more recent versions of Excel are jumping on board with improved Data Analysis tools that minimize the formulas you have to create.

Secondly, A good Master Black Belt can make all the difference. Before I fully started I expected to have “Ben Stein” mentoring me. I lucked out by not only getting a mentor who brought vast experience implementing both Lean AND 6 Sigma, but a mentor who brought humor and passion into what could have been an otherwise sterileAi??topic.

My final big take away was that not all tools are needed all the time. In lean there is a frequently used expression that says, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, than everything looks like a nail”. Well the opposite can be said, if you have one of every tool in your box, you don’t need to use them all. As a good example, I see the huge power in Design of Experiments, I think this tool may be one of the most exciting new things I have learned in the past year, but to date I have not had a need to employ that tool so it sits waiting for the right problem. Having said that, there is one tool that I now use on every project regardless of approach and that is Measurement Systems Analysis or MSA. I’m not just talking about Gage R&R here. My mentor suggested repeatedly that if you fix the measurement system, half your problems go away and to date I have found that to be true. When you make it a point of actually validating your measuring system you can find things like contradicting ways to use measurement equipment, measuring equipment that is not capable of meeting the measurement requirement, and my favorite, two similar pieces of measuring equipment providing different outputs (correlation).

I am pleased that my fears and misunderstandings regarding what 6 Sigma was and wasn’t is didn’t keep me from trying. I read once in one of Taiichi Ohno’s books, “I like data but I prefer facts” and I am still more calibrated to this way of thinking, but I have changed in many ways. Going through the process has added another dimension to my thinking when I attack a problem. I can confidently discuss process capability with others. I can look at a run chart and quickly determine whether the process is in control or not. I look at data a little bit differently than before. And I always….ALWAYS validate my measurement system!!!!

Thank you and happy improving,


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