Six Sigma is a disciplined quality management process that brings about improved business practices and quality performance within an organization through the elimination of defects. Specifically, Six Sigma strives for no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities. While it is a younger method for assessing the quality performance of organizations, Six Sigma derives from some of the best business practices of the past that have consistently stood superior to others.
The concept of quality has been a necessity since the early days of industrial mass production, but it wasn’t heavily managed until the 1920s, when Walter Stewhart sparked the age of statistical quality control. In the United States, statistically based levels of quality control became a requirement, but most companies still focused on volume and output instead of quality improvement and cost reduction.
After World War II, experts on this method of quality control attempted to introduce their ideology to war-torn Japan in an effort to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. Interestingly, Japanese professionals chose to follow a different path in terms of quality. As the Americans focused on increased volume and maintenance of a lucrative market share, the Japanese centered their quality management operations on defect elimination and time cycle reduction. This made the Japanese products cheaper and, ultimately, more successful in the global market.
In response to being outperformed by Japan, the U.S. industry began making efforts to improve upon the nation’s quality management processes. The U.S. government introduced the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which was meant to reward innovations in quality. In its introductory year, it was granted to Motorola for the invention of Six Sigma.
Six Sigma was established in the 1980s by Motorola engineers who wanted to improve the traditional quality levels of the time that measured defects only within thousands of products. Measuring defects was a new concept for the American markets, as the practice was responsible for the Japanese competitive advantage. Over the next decade, it was popularized by industry leaders, such as former GE chair and CEO Jack Welch, and was soon adopted by tens of thousands of companies to enhance their businesses’ performance.
Since this time, there has been a need to provide a standard practice by which Six Sigma can be attained. A strong methodology for completing objectives through Six Sigma is the key factor that allows an organization to reap the system’s benefits.
According to ISO 13053-1:2011 – Quantitative methods in process improvement – Six Sigma – Part 1: DMAIC methodology, “Six Sigma projects should be undertaken only when the solution to a problem is not known.” The methodology for Six Sigma includes five phases: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control (DMAIC). The ISO 13053-1:2011 standard provides the criteria by which an organization can use the DMAIC methodology to achieve a beneficial goal through the identification of a problem and the execution of its solution.
This standard, in addition to providing a thorough background on the different concepts related to the Six Sigma process, including the formula needed to determine defects, details each of the steps of the DMAIC methodology, demonstrating how they help to achieve the overall goal for the project. Each of these phases is relatively broad, but the standard addresses every aspect within them that can prove beneficial to an organizations efficiency and product. The Six Sigma project specified in the document can be used for any organization in any industry.
ISO 13053-2:2011 – Quantitative methods in process improvement – Six Sigma – Part 2: Tools and techniques adds to the guidelines addressed in the first part of the standard by describing the tools and techniques used at each phase of the DMAIC approach. This provides the user with a stronger understanding on the steps needed to achieve goals with Six Sigma.
Also essential to the Six Sigma methodology, in the “define” stage, is the process of benchmarking to establish a reference point by which the compliant organization can seek self-improvement. This is addressed by ISO 17258:2015 – Statistical methods – Six Sigma – Basic criteria underlying benchmarking for Six Sigma in organisations, which we discussed in length in this previous post: Six Sigma Benchmarking Criteria for Organizations.
It is also important to remember that Six Sigma can be used in complement to another quality management system, such as that specified by ISO 9001:2015. In fact, Six Sigma can be the means by which an organization meets the guidelines specified in ISO 9001. Since much of Six Sigma involves handling uncertainty, it is recommended that compliant organizations make use of a risk management system as well.