The Five Stages of a Six Sigma Initiative

You don’t start a Six Sigma program by launching right into a bunch of projects; you will need to follow the five stages. Six Sigma is strong stuff; you move deliberately and prescriptively through distinct phases. A Six Sigma initiative occurs in the following five major stages:

  1. You initialize Six Sigma by establishing goals and installing infrastructure.

  2. You deploy the initiative by assigning, training, and equipping the staff.

  3. You implement projects and improve performance, yielding financial results.

  4. You expand the scope of the initiative to include additional organizational units.

  5. You sustain the initiative through realignment, retraining, and evolution.

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Initialize: Ready, aim . . .

Six Sigma initiatives are programs. They require programmatic-type preparation and planning, beginning with a prescriptive set of readiness tasks. The initialization stage includes selecting the core team, preparing the supporting infrastructure, and enabling the processes..

As part of initialization, executive training prepares the executive staff and senior leaders by providing a comprehensive overview of the Six Sigma deployment process and what to expect. The executives also agree on macro items including scope, time frames, goals, and objectives, and they issue a formal commitment statement to all employees and constituents.

Keep the scope of the first deployments in check. The most successful Six Sigma initiatives begin with the deployment scope limited to a selected line of business or division of activity.

Deploy: Setting the infrastructure in motion

With a supporting infrastructure, corporate goals, and metrics established, the deployment stage begins with selecting the Champions and the first candidate Black Belts, Green Belts, and Yellow Belts. Champions are trained in the Six Sigma methodology, the principles, of implementing Six Sigma, and in project selection, practices, and tools, and begin the critical work of selecting the first Six Sigma projects.

The core team then deploys the infrastructure. According to the deployment plan, the first waves of Black Belts, Green Belts, and Yellow Belts are trained and assigned to projects. All types of Belt training include defining, characterizing, and improving a work process as part of the training regimen. Although this setup extends the training period, trainees deliver results to the bottom line as they complete their initial training.

Implement: Forging first successes

Upon completion of the first waves of Belt training, the early successes create momentum, and the Six Sigma initiative begins to gather traction. As successes continue, the initiative can become infectious and turn around even the skeptics.

In the implementation stage, the practitioners are defining and mapping processes, identifying critical-to-quality indicators, collecting performance data, and characterizing process performance. They’re conducting statistical analyses, discovering the root causes of problems, and improving performance levels. Your company has begun to root out waste, increase productivity, lower costs, and decrease cycle time. Six Sigma is working!

Watch the first implementations closely to ensure success and to generate positive program momentum. Black Belts must be assigned full time to their projects and given leverage to perform their jobs with backing from top management, or they won’t get the job done. Green Belts and even Yellow Belts must be supported in their projects. Technical issues must be addressed head-on with appropriate skill to ensure success.

Expand: Taking it everywhere

Following the first successful waves of implementation, the organization expands Six Sigma into new locations, functional areas, and lines of business.

Introducing Six Sigma into each new line of business is an initiative unto itself and includes the stages of initialization, deployment, and implementation. The lessons learned from the first deployment are included in revisions to the implementation plans going forward.

Deploying Six Sigma into each new business or functional area requires some form of tailoring or customization. Examples include

  • Six Sigma in engineering and design areas employs methods and tools of a subfield known as Design for Six Sigma and tools like Axiomatic Design.

  • Six Sigma in manufacturing includes Lean practices, which focus on elimination of waste, like high scrap rates, inflexible manufacturing systems, poorly documented processes, or large lot production scheduling leading to high inventory levels. (You can read more about Lean in the latest edition of Lean For Dummies by Natalie Sayer and Bruce Williams [Wiley].)

  • Highly computerized environments may incorporate automated process execution management tools.

  • Deployment into foreign countries requires internationalization and localization of materials and tools.

Also remember that as the portfolio of projects grows and diversifies, applying enterprise-class tracking and management tools is important.

The first few waves of projects in any given function or business area harvest what is known as the low-hanging fruit — the obvious opportunities with big returns. As the Six Sigma initiative matures, two phenomena occur:

  • The biggest projects have all been completed.

  • The Yellow-Belt culture is curing little problems before they become big problems.

At this point, the project-oriented Six Sigma culture begins to give way to the sustaining culture.

Sustain: The self-healing culture

The Six Sigma initiative changes character after the low-hanging fruit has been harvested. The deployment leader and Champion shift the sustaining direction away from a project orientation into a process-management approach, where the tools of Six Sigma move to a supporting role as part of how business and work processes execute most efficiently and effectively. The Six Sigma tools take their places in the organization’s methodological toolbox.

In the sustain phase, the culture is self-healing; the Six Sigma project becomes a tool for addressing issues that emerge from new initiatives and outside forces. Six Sigma training supports these project needs and is integrated with other methods to support process needs. Training is used as a refresher for existing staff and to enable new hires, contractors, and acquisitions to get up to speed in the Six Sigma culture.

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