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Introducing 7 Sigma: Modern Approach to Continuous Improvement

Seven sigmas of learning with the manufacturers alliance

This article has been written by Chris Russell, Co-Chair of the Lancashire Manufacturers Alliance Peer Group. Chris is an operational excellence and change management expert that specialises in helping manufacturing businesses excel.

According to National Numeracy, 49% of adults in the UK have numeracy skills no better than those expected of an 11-year-old. Hardly surprising that employees don’t come rushing with enthusiasm to see if your Chi Square analysis is producing the expected results for testing relationships between categorical variables. It’s ok that most readers won’t have a clue what that means – don’t be switched off just yet – read on.

Even the most fundamental language of six sigma can create confusion. How many sentences can you think of where standard and deviation sit side by side as a helpful method of describing something? Think about that for a moment – is it really intuitive to consider any form of deviation as standard?

I attended a conference a few years ago, where one of the keynote speakers was a software company explaining the functionality of their statistical software. As I looked around the audience of senior executives, I have rarely seen people disengage with a speaker so quickly. If describing those technical aspects can be such a switch off for that group, of predominantly well-educated listeners, why would it appeal to your average employee?

In visiting hundreds of manufacturing plants, it has always been of great interest to me to understand how businesses go about improving the way they do things. You would expect during those visits that there would have been a number of organisations that have built momentum and energy across their workforce with a six-sigma programme. I have yet to find one – really, not one. Of course, there are many examples where the techniques have been applied to help solve isolated problems. That is quite different from creating a vision that has everyone pulling in the right direction.

“What about Motorola?” I hear you cry. (Inventors of Six Sigma in 1986). Well yes, there are rare exceptions – how many can you name? If you want to fix your sights on being one of the tiny proportion of businesses that makes it happen, good luck, you’ll need it. We may all like to be the one person that wins the gold medal in the Olympics for our chosen sport. But the reality for most of us is, that is never going to happen even with the greatest efforts. Just as playing for your county is a big accomplishment, get your company to the best in your region is a major triumph. Work your way up the ranking to be the very best you can.

Six sigma has its place in modern manufacturing, but for most businesses that place is not front and centre. Of course, your business may be one of the small number of exceptions. Perhaps you have a team that is very technically biased. Maybe your products lend themselves to the statistical tools promoted by six sigma and maybe you draw from a part of the population that is highly numerate and inspired by equations.

For most of us, with a workforce that represents a cross-section of people, with diverse skills and interests, it may serve you well to consider an alternative way of inspiring your team.

Seven Sigma: A Modern Approach to Continuous Improvement

So, what steps can you take to lead and inspire your team? You could take a different interpretation of sigma (standard deviation) and think about how you can deviate from your current standard way of working. Here are seven sigma’s you can do, which have a far higher chance of engaging your workforce and helping you on your improvement journey.

First Sigma – Embrace experiments

10% of something is better than 100% of nothing. When was the last time you let your team test out an idea without intervening? If the answer to that is a long while, or never, maybe you need to get out of the way.

For highly technical changes, expertise may be needed in designing the experiments. You probably have that expertise already, waiting to be unleashed in your employees. Most experiments can be set up quickly and tried out with low risks. It’s no good restricting improvements to your techies. Test things out on a small proportion of the business. Be prepared to fail and consider the act of trying, a success in itself. The more experiments you do, the greater the improvements, even if the initial success rate is low. You will definitely learn in the process.

Second Sigma – Do more of what you do well

Don’t lose sight of the things you do well. Consider how you can use those strengths and apply them to other aspects of your business. It’s quicker to transfer and apply that learning than to start a fresh.

By encouraging cross-fertilisation of ideas, you’ll help your team feel good about their successes and enable to them to showcase their skills and knowledge. The majority of people will enjoy helping each other out, if given the opportunity to do so.

Third Sigma – Create a future vision – Help the team know where you are heading

If you asked each of your team, what the future of the business looked like, how many different answers would you get, or would they be able to answer at all? It may be worth doing that exercise to see whether your direction is clear.

Businesses that have a future vision have far more chance of achieving it. If it only exists in your head, you really need to write it down. As the Chinese proverb has it, “The faintest ink is better than the most retentive memory”. But don’t stop there, make that faintest ink bold, share it with the team, share it again, until everybody can intuitively say where you are all heading. Keep the message simple and clear, so that it’s memorable and repeatable.

Fourth Sigma – Let the team help to plan the journey

With the direction clear, the journey still may not be. Work with the team to design the roadmap to help you get there.

Give people time, away from the day to day, to consider how they will play their part in achieving the vision. You may want to start from the vision and work backwards (right to left). This can make it easier to understand the steps, as it may be too difficult to envisage getting from your current state to your future one.

Fifth Sigma – Focus on people over technical solutions, by a large margin

The best technical solution will fail if the team doesn’t get behind it. On the other hand, mediocre technical solutions can get great results if everybody plays their part in making it successful. With this in mind, invest 70% of your effort in working with people in the right way.
If you have performance management processes, ask yourself if they are there to manage employees, or to enable them. The vast majority of people come to work wanting to do a great job. Make sure you create an environment that allows that to happen. Make contributing to success the norm.

Sixth Sigma – Give your six-sigma training budget to the team

What would happen if you gave your six-sigma training budget to the team to make improvements? I’m all for training and development and sometimes that development comes from learning by doing. To get one of your employees through each of the six-sigma belts could easily cost you over £6,000 in fees alone, plus the time invested. The better training organisations will generally try and show a major payback on those investments by expecting participants to apply the learning and demonstrate benefits. It’s incredibly common for those to be the last projects embarked on by the trainees.

If you feel brave enough to let go, you may be surprised to find out how well people can apply a budget to better the business, once they are empowered to do so.

Seventh Sigma – If you want change, change

Why should anybody else change if you won’t? By demonstrating you are willing to change, you’ll be modelling the right behaviour to the rest of the team. A good start is often to show some vulnerability. Just because you are the boss it doesn’t mean you have all the answers. It’s ok to admit that, and if it’s not, you may have a deeper underlying issue with culture.

There is great strength in being able to admit you need others to be the best you can, and it’s your job to help each member of your team be the best they can. If this means a radical change of your approach, it may just be the catalyst that triggers innovation and accelerates your improvement.

If you are the person leading all of the initiatives, you are limiting the growth of the company to your personal capacity. Change that and free the hidden capacity in your team.

Six or Seven Sigma?

So now you know, achieving six-sigma is an incredibly difficult journey and remarkably few will ever achieve levels of 3.4 parts per million defects. However, you can make real advances by thinking differently. Take the seven sigma’s above and you and your team are on your way to achieving great things.

Chris has worked in manufacturing for over 25 years, holding senior rolesChris Russell with several companies including Baxi, Alcoa and Luvata, where he headed up operational excellence across 36 plants in 19 countries.


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