Avoiding Six Sigma Pitfalls - dummies

Avoiding Six Sigma Pitfalls

Navigating your business through the Six Sigma methodology can be treacherous. Identifying — and avoiding — common Six Sigma mistakes and perceptions can keep your business from running aground.

Not allowing enough time

An organization breaking through to a new level of performance requires an engine of project activity. That’s why a small portion of an organization is asked to dedicate all their time and efforts toward completing Six Sigma projects. They set aside their usual job duties and concentrate full time on completing assigned project(s).

A common mistake is to assume that an organization can get the same magnitude and speed of change by having these individuals work on projects on the side, as a part-time assignment, between the tasks and duties of their regular work. This approach simply doesn’t generate the force necessary to sustain organizational change. Project completion drags out and resulting savings languish. Ultimately, momentum and interest wane.

Who’s the leader?

Some organizations have tried to deploy Six Sigma without a designated, empowered deployment leader. They train people, they assign projects, they infuse tools, they track results. They believe breakthrough change will occur by the sum of the individual, independent efforts. But a Six Sigma deployment without a leader is like a ship without a captain — individual crewmembers may know what to do in their own areas, but there is no direction or overall progress.

Taking too big a bite

Almost invariably, the failure of any Six Sigma project can be traced to a scope that was too broad. Trying to minimize variation in an entire product, for example, is so defocused that little improvement can happen on any part of the product. Concentrating on minimizing the variation in a single critical characteristic of a product, however, allows you to dig deep enough to discover the real source of improvement.

Always err on the side of scoping your projects too small.

Focusing on isolated areas

A mistake companies can make with Six Sigma is to implement it in isolated pockets, rather than as a uniform and pervasive campaign. Organizations are living, connected organisms. When you make an improvement in one area or in one process, you have to make other improvements in other areas to receive the full benefits. What sense does it make, for example, to improve the design of a product but not improve your ability to manufacture that product?

“But we’re different”

It’s natural to consider yourself or your organization to be unique — so unique that you may even think that what’s worked for others couldn’t possibly work for you. This is one of the most common myths people have about Six Sigma.

Six Sigma is a general methodology. It has proven itself in every arena where it’s been applied — manufacturing, operations, logistics, design, supply chains, services, transactions, processing, legal, human resources, software, sales, marketing, management, healthcare, the public sector, defense contracting — the list literally goes on and on! Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’re the lone exception to the rule.


Not every officer of the peace needs to be trained as an elite Special Forces commando. Likewise, not everyone doing Six Sigma needs to know the details of every advanced statistical tool and method.

The amount of information in Six Sigma courses has ratcheted up, as consultants and trainers have competed against each other in their marketing efforts. But the use of the tools tells the real story. Only a handful of the taught Six Sigma tools are used regularly.

Don’t get fooled into thinking that more and more knowledge is always better. And don’t think you have to use every tool on every project. Expediency in learning and in application is the key! The best system gets the right knowledge to the right person at the right time.

Blindly believing your measurement system

Data and measurements are the foundation of Six Sigma. All too often, however, Six Sigma practitioners neglect to check the validity of their measurements. Unknowingly relying on a faulty measurement system is like building a house with a crooked ruler — you won’t get what you thought you were going to get, and you won’t know why.

Always take the time to perform a measurement systems analysis at the beginning of your project. Taking this step saves you from many potential headaches.

Exaggerated opportunity counts

The definition of Six Sigma performance is no more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities for defects — counting every single opportunity for defects in a given system. But one way to achieve a high capability is to offset the discovered number of defects with a falsely inflated assessment of the number of opportunities. Some practitioners erroneously inflate the number of opportunities in a system to make their performance look better than it really is. What you want is performance that looks and is great.

Not leveraging technology

Technology and software are inseparable from Six Sigma. Yet many people try to segment technology into its own, isolated corner. Others dismiss its contribution outright, because they don’t understand how to leverage its potential.

The right technology can help any person in Six Sigma do his or her work better and faster — and that’s a goal everyone desires.