Why Six Sigma Is Not Enough
Like all things, Six Sigma must evolve or risk becoming obsolete. What's missing is the people side of the methodology…
I am a born again Black Belt, who believes in Six Sigma and has lived its benefits (when implemented well in an organization - a BIG qualifier). But as a seasoned Black Belt AND a corporate coach, I feel I am now qualified to talk about why Six Sigma is NOT enough. Having completed more than ten projects during my tenure, when I reflect upon my successful and unsuccessful projects I realize I have been most successful when I have understood the dynamics that affect the systems that are my teams and my projects. Additionally, when I coach others in project and team management, the biggest obstacles others seem to face relate to understanding and affecting the underlying systems of their issues as well.
In some problems that we encounter at work, the solution is the institution of or modification of a work process, which can be successfully completed by a Six Sigma team skilled in root cause analysis. These types of solutions deal mostly at the task or event level of performance by individuals and teams involved in the issue and can be very successful. But in many cases, even applying the rigorous tools Black Belts have learned is not enough to solve the issue. Additionally, the functioning of the Six Sigma team itself can sometimes prevent successful resolution of the problem.
How does this happen? I have come to believe what Alan Slobodnik and Kristina Wile state in their article, "Taking the Teeth out of Team Traps" - that what is lacking is inclusion into the root cause analysis the underlying structure of the human dynamics that drive these issues. These underlying structures are best understood by applying systems thinking and human systems concepts, "which can yield a more robust picture of the issue" For instance, it is well known and learned by Black Belts that their team needs to agree on the project charter and clarify the roles of team members. However, what is NOT well known or analyzed are the dynamics that may prevent their teams from reaching these kinds of agreements. Similarly, in implementing a control plan that brings closure and provides structure to an issue, what is not typically understood is the underlying structure of the relationships that may drive the process owner to be unable to sustain the gains from the project. Attempting to fix these complex systems without understanding the structural causes of their problems becomes a "Fix That Fails" as called by Peter Senge.
As an example of this idea, in one of my unsuccessful projects the team was absolutely NOT the problem. We gelled, we rose to the occasion, we synergized to produce a fantastic model to optimize the assets in one of our businesses. The project failed, however, because the solution was never embraced by the leaders of the business, and our model still languishes somewhere on someone's hard drive. I believe that if we had evaluated the dynamics of our stakeholders from a systems viewpoint, we would have identified the causes and possibly have been able to change the course of the project. Or at least dumped the project and moved on when we realized the business leadership no longer fully supported the project. Further, with a better understanding of the business as a system in which we were operating, we could have identified the random nature of the system and more effectively sought closure for the project.
So, if Six Sigma is NOT enough, what is? Systems Sigma? Maybe - I don't profess to have all the answers. I do believe that Black Belts (and anyone else, for that matter) would be more effective project and team leaders with knowledge and skills in concepts like causal loop diagrams, systems models (Four Player and System Types, to name a couple), and human interaction (team traps, communication). Another possibility is to employ coaches trained in systems thinking and human systems concepts to aid teams and project leaders. Ability in these areas would facilitate changing the structures that lock us into patterns in both task and relationship levels. Additionally, I believe it would open up more areas for Black Belts to discover value and aid our organizations in solving historically "soft" issues.
Most importantly, I believe in the power of AND. Imagine the power unleashed of a Black Belt, trained in root cause analysis AND human systems concepts! Imagine the power unleashed of both the left AND the right brain, of resolving the task AND the relationship level of the problem, and finally capturing the value of the hard AND soft issues. That is an evolution I would like to be a part of.