What is Six Sigma?
Six Sigma is a business methodology that aims to improve processes, reduce waste and errors, and increase customer satisfaction throughout an organization. Driven by data and statistical analysis, Six Sigma provides a way to minimize mistakes and maximize value in any business process, from manufacturing to management.
There are lots of different ways to improve your processes, and you’ve likely heard of Six Sigma methodology as one possibility, particularly for large manufacturing businesses, like GE and Motorola, looking to reduce defects and improve the quality of their products. But Six Sigma is more than just quality improvement for manufacturing––it’s also a project management methodology.
Regardless of the industry, companies need to develop efficient processes to complete projects and stay relevant. As a project manager, you might feel like your goals don’t fit within a Six Sigma framework. However, you and your team stand to benefit from the boost in efficiency a Six Sigma mindset can create. Read on to find out how.
What is Six Sigma methodology?
In case your business school notes on Six Sigma have (understandably) blurred over the years, Six Sigma is a methodology used to find and address the weak points in a process that hinder efficiency or that result in more errors than is ideal.
Six Sigma specifically refers to the goal of reducing the number of manufacturing defects to less than 3.4 per 1 million units.
Over the years, however, Six Sigma’s usefulness has expanded far beyond the world of manufacturing to help a diverse assortment of companies like Amazon, Xerox, and Bank of America save money by improving efficiency.
By visualizing how your product or service goes from its initial conception to your customer's hands, you can start identifying ways to increase efficiency and quality, which is what the Six Sigma methodology is all about.
When to use this project management methodology
First, it's important to see if Six Sigma methodology is a good fit for your project. Bernardo Tirado, a Six Sigma expert, starts by asking himself a few key questions:
"What is the objective of this project? Is it to introduce new technology? Is it going to result in changing a job more than 50%? Is this project going to lead to efficiency gains? I found Six Sigma to be most effective on operations initiatives. In part, operations have processes that could be complemented with newer technology or repeatable processes that could be centralized elsewhere, allowing the current employees room to do advanced type of activities."
In addition to this operational focus, here’s a few more considerations for when to use Six Sigma:
- To eliminate waste, whether that’s wasted time, materials, or other resources
- To reduce defects or variations in your product or service
- To define what’s causing problems
- To use data more effectively to increase efficiency and productivity
- To increase customer and employee satisfaction
- To design a new process or redesign an ineffective one
Still looking for the right project management methodology?
Check out our ultimate guide to project management methodologies flowchart.
Benefits of the Six Sigma methodology
Nobody likes change, but if you decide to go with Six Sigma for project management, you’ll find that it touches every area of your business––and in the best of ways.
- Informed decision-making: Six Sigma methodology rests on a bedrock of statistics. Without accurate measurements and data on what’s actually going on in your processes, you’re operating on gut feeling and assumptions. Data empowers you to make objective decisions and find the best solution or idea. Six Sigma aims to back your performance or production initiatives with quantitative data and be better equipped to meet them.
- Increase communication and collaboration in your team: Six Sigma is meant to be an organization-wide effort, encouraging everyone to see problems as opportunities and truth as the most important goal. As a result, employees won’t feel afraid to voice concerns and will see other teams and departments as partners in improvement rather than competitors in performance.
- Improved quality and customer satisfaction: As we’ve mentioned before, Six Sigma is all about reducing defects and variations in customer experience. It doesn’t matter if it’s for something made in a factory, like a box of cookies, or something more intangible, like a web app. Once you begin measuring and quantifying your processes, you’ll be able to make the changes necessary to improve the experience for your customers.
- Reduced costs: Poor quality and inefficiencies in process cause a lot more expenses than we think––missed deadlines, lost customer loyalty, design changes, managerial changes, engineering changes, and so on. Whether due to poor planning or to fix mistakes as they occur, they add up. Six Sigma takes a ruthless approach to cutting those out with structured teams of experts, a rigorous review of processes, and a strict adherence to data.
- Better productivity and time management: With better team structure, project planning, data collection and analysis, and business strategy, your entire organization will be more efficient. And if you aren’t spending time fixing problems that should have been avoided or mitigated, then you can spend more time on the things that matter.
Six Sigma certification
While anyone can apply Six Sigma principles, Six Sigma certification guarantees that you have a certain set of skills and that you have a standard level of knowledge about Six Sigma methodology. You can get your Six Sigma certification online or through a business school.
The advantages of Six Sigma certification to a company include compliance, improved performance, and reducing errors and waste, of course. For employees, it might mean a higher salary, more job opportunities, improved leadership skills, and a portable set of competences that can easily transfer from job to job.
Depending on your previous education (e.g., if you already have a business degree), your expertise, or your employer’s requirements, though, you might choose not to get certified since it can be expensive.
Six Sigma belts
The different levels of Six Sigma certifications are organized by belt color, like in karate, to show the varying levels of expertise and training that a Six Sigma practitioner may have received.
Here are the different Six Sigma certification levels:
- Champion: Though not technically a belt, champions are an important part of the Six Sigma deployment strategy. They act as the Six Sigma team guide, aligning projects with organizational goals, keeping the team focused, and removing roadblocks.
- Master Black Belt: The in-house authorities and teachers for Six Sigma, they train lower-level belts. They also manage Six Sigma program strategy.
- Black Belt: The most highly trained experts in Six Sigma, they lead, mentor, and coach Six Sigma teams.
- Green Belt: Trained to solve most process problems, they assist Black Belt projects by collecting and analyzing data. They sometimes lead less complex projects themselves.
- Yellow Belt: Trained in basic Six Sigma methodology, they participate in Green and Black Belt projects as team members.
- White Belt: With only an introductory overview of Six Sigma concepts, they are the recruiting base for future Yellow and Green belts. They assist in simple tasks for Six Sigma projects.
Six Sigma relies on strong leadership to push a project forward. Additionally, every single person in the organization must be committed to and understand the effort, especially top-tier management.
As project manager, you can decide whether this kind of structure would make sense within your organization and for your project’s goals.
Six Sigma methodologies
Once you have chosen Six Sigma as the best approach for your project, there are two main sub-methodologies that diverge slightly to allow businesses to tailor the Six Sigma approach to their project and industry. They share the same ultimate goal of improving processes, but each offers a more specialized approach.
DMAIC works best for an existing business process, for example, when looking to improve the manufacturing or production aspect of a business.
- Define: Identify the need.
- Measure: Assess the current process and its effectiveness.
- Analyze: Use data to evaluate current processes to find where the defects occur or where the areas of improvement are.
- Improve: Make changes and improve the process so it helps you meet your goals.
- Control: Design a system to keep the improved process in place, anticipating potential future roadblocks.
DMADV works best for planning a process that doesn’t yet exist, for example, when creating a new product or improving customer relations.
- Define: Establish the client’s or customer’s need.
- Measure: Use data to assess customer needs, response to a product or service, and the product or service’s capabilities.
- Analyze: Review data and use that information to create new goals or designs to meet customer or client needs.
- Design: Create a product, service, or process that will better address customer needs based on findings.
- Verify: Test the design and either deliver it to the client or put a plan in place to monitor its success and efficacy at addressing customer needs.
Find out how DMAIC can help you manage your project more effectively.
Applying Six Sigma to project management
As a project manager, you likely have your own way of setting up a project and seeing it through its various stages, and you might not be willing to fix something that isn’t broken. Even if you borrow or adapt just some of the elements from the methodology, Six Sigma’s rigorous approach can improve your chances of success.
- Structure your team for success: One reason Six Sigma methodology is so effective is that it places an emphasis on clear organization from the start. Many projects fail not because of poor goals or contributor errors but because of organizational issues that can be traced back to the project’s inception. While you may not have a Black Belt leader or Green and Yellow Belt team members, you can still apply the same concept of having strong, experienced leadership and clearly defined team roles to avoid conflict or lacking the proper skills to get the project completed.
- Use DMAIC and DMADV as your project process: Project management in itself is a process. The steps you take to ensure a project’s success are all part of a larger process that could always be improved. If you take the time to do a DMAIC-style assessment of the way you and your team manage projects, you could uncover weak spots and areas for improvement you weren’t aware of before. Even if your plan deviates from DMAIC or DMADV, you’ll benefit from Six Sigma’s emphasis on clearly defined steps and its concrete, empirical approach.
- Measure and analyze to find gaps: Six Sigma methodology may have roots in manufacturing, but don’t let that deter you from using its approach to finding and reducing mistakes. If your team is struggling to understand failures or unexpected results, don’t make assumptions about what you think might be the cause. Taking a Six Sigma-inspired, scientific approach will help you comb through your process effectively to find any gaps.
- Rely on data for a more accurate picture: Even if your team has already been successful at achieving its goals, Six Sigma’s approachable steps could help you better use data to measure your wins and areas for improvement.
By taking pieces of this proven methodology and adapting it to your existing workflow, you’ll be better equipped to maintain consistency, streamline your processes, and achieve success across your projects.
Ready to put Six Sigma process mapping to work for your projects?