As a process improvement method, Six Sigma is either loved or loathed by the organisations that adopt it. Despite many organisations failing to implement Six Sigma successfully, many organisations continue to try, and they struggle to understand why there can be significant backlash and ultimately failure. Sue Tan from Miragroup unravels the complexities of Six Sigma.

For those who are frustrated by the Six Sigma way, the common comments are:

  • 'It was an expensive mistake.'
  • 'Yet another flavour of the month that petered out.'
  • 'We did not see any real benefits.'
  • 'The method does not deal with the people issues.'
  • 'No one seemed to buy in to the method.'

Key dependencies

Successful Six Sigma implementation relies on a basic framework being in place:

  • Six Sigma methods assume a leadership capability and team structure (sponsors, champions, process owners, green belts, black belts). If the leadership and roles are not in place the method is significantly weakened.
  • Six Sigma assumes there is an agreed and well-understood top level down business process model known and in place. If this is not the case then the detailed process design work is done in isolation of the overall business model, which can be disastrous.
  • Six Sigma assumes that the business, including IT, understand the purpose and mandate of the method and how it will integrate to other methods such as the system development life cycle, organisation design methods and change management methods. This is often not the case, resulting in confusion and rework by analysts from these teams.
  • Six Sigma assumes a certain level of knowledge and culture within the business including an awareness of the business strategy, understanding of process and confidence with changes to process and systems.

If your organisation does not have this basic framework in place then your Six Sigma implementation is already in trouble.

Implementation life cycle

In addition to the framework risks the ultimate failure to implement Six Sigma methods can often be traced to the very start of the implementation. A common approach to the implementation of Six Sigma is shown below:

Problem -> Initiate -> Train -> Practice -> Measure -> Success?

Looks sensible enough but here are some of the pitfalls:

  • The belief that processes are inefficient is usually a 'gut feel' rather than a tested assessment and people are not really sure which processes are inefficient, they simply feel things can be done faster or with less people.
  • The decision to go with the Six Sigma method is often an executive decision and managers find themselves with the mandate to use and apply Six Sigma without a clear understanding why or how success should or will be measured.
  • Too often success is measured by the number of green or black belts in the organisation rather than benefits derived as a result of applying the method.
  • To 'fast track' the implementation of Six Sigma, often external master or black belts are allowed into the organisation. Often their mandate is unclear, they do not necessarily understand the organisation, are strong advocates of the method and internal staff are not in a position to challenge or question the value of the method for their projects.
  • Internal staff are trained in the method but often it is a question of people nominating themselves to be trained; there is frequently no pre-screening or qualification to become a green belt. The Six Sigma training approach does not make bad analysts into good analysts; it simply gives any analyst a toolkit.
  • There is often no measurement for the success of Six Sigma methods within a project. In other words it is almost impossible to assess if the Six Sigma method added any value and precisely what benefits were derived through using this method.

In many organisations there is groundswell of anecdotal stories and general dissatisfaction until the method is transformed significantly or often abandoned altogether.

The method itself

As with any method Six Sigma has both strengths and weaknesses:

  • Six Sigma is particularly strong in analysis and problem definition. The tools and techniques can be quite powerful when applied to the right problem in the right way. However, people in the business often complain that Six Sigma loads the 'front end' analysis, taking too long and delaying the solution design process and ultimately the implementation.
  • Six Sigma 'belts' are happy with the analysis methods but often struggle to get the people to 'buy in'. The people and change management aspects of the method very much rely on the capabilities of the individual 'belt'.
  • There are also concerns that, although Six Sigma tools can identify the problem, insufficient time and focus may be spent on designing the solution.

Issues with the Six Sigma method can be heard through the frustrations of the business, IT and project managers. Six Sigma methods can be seen as a non-value add overhead to projects that are already under time and budget pressures. Many of these complaints are anecdotal and highly emotional and Six Sigma methods can be, at times unfairly, blamed for project failures.

So why try?

So why try and implement Six Sigma? A common, shared and well-understood approach to improving business processes is essential for any business today and, despite any claims to the contrary, there is simply no perfect method out there.

Processes are an integrated sequence of activities throughout an organisation. To improve these processes an organisation must have:

  • a clear understanding of the high level business process model;
  • a common language and structure to describe processes and procedures;
  • an agreed ownership and control for managing and changing processes;
  • a standardised approach to analysing, evaluating and redesigning processes;
  • an integrated set of methods to efficient change the organisation. an integrated approach to systems development, organisation change, change management and process improvement is essential to avoid conflicting methods and rework within a project;
  • a simple approach to assessing if all methods are being applied to each project correctly and efficiently;
  • a simple method to measure costs of processes and, therefore, benefits achieved through redesigning processes;
  • a business that understands the reasons for improving processes and how it will support business strategy and have the core skills internally to improve the processes.

Without the above, any organisation will struggle to understand how they operate and how and when to change to improve the organisation.

So, every organisation needs a simple, standardised, straightforward, accepted and well-understood approach to process improvement. It doesn't really matter which process improvement method is used providing there is one.

Dealing with the challenges of Six Sigma

It is not impossible to implement any process improvement method successfully but, in addition to the method itself, organisations need to look at the bigger picture rather than assume the method itself is the solution.

Some key areas to watch out for are:

  • Review whether the right framework is in place to make the method work. If necessary backtrack and correct any problems with the framework. Ask the hard questions, and give honest answers:
    - Are my people comfortable and familiar with change?
    - Do we understand our business process model?
    - Do people understand, and are they committed to the team roles and responsibilities?
    - Does everyone really understand the organisation strategy?
    - Are processes really well understood within the organisation?
  • Put in place valid measures for the method. Test whether it really is adding value to projects. Is there a better approach or does the method need to be adapted to suit the organisation?
  • Ensure the business understand the reasons, mandate, approach and purpose of implementing the method.
  • Don't expect any method to make a good analyst of a poor one. It really is a case of GIGO (garbage in, garbage out). Before training any analyst in a new method, pre-screen and assess the analyst's overall skills and be prepared to train in more than the method.
  • Understand that today's business analysts need well-rounded skills including an appreciation of systems, organisation design, culture and people change. Analysts are not back room operators and these days they need excellent people skills, a willingness to listen and genuine respect for the people who do the work. Analysts are not just analysts; they must be able to coach and mentor people through the change.

Listen to the people and encourage your belts to gather honest feedback about the method too. Although a method may be sound, a level of customisation to suit your organisation may be needed. Listen to feedback and be prepared to customise the approach, tools and techniques to suit the organisation and projects.


Any process improvement method can be made to work within an organisation. And no process improvement method is magical. There is no simple quick fix or buzzword to implementing a consistent and reliable approach to process improvement.

To overcome the challenges of implementing Six Sigma, or any other method for that matter, the organisation will need a structured approach to assessing the status of the organisation, prepare the organisation at all levels in all ways, selecting and training personnel, ensuring well-rounded skills in all analysts, listening to feedback in an unbiased way and using structured measurement methods to assess if the method is truly adding the desired benefits to the business.

Having a single method is not an answer but merely one piece of the puzzle to introduce capabilities for long-term improvement in an organisation.

About the author

Sue Tan is the CEO of Miragroup, a consulting company specialising in programme and change management.