I am about to say something that I rarely do in public these days (I bet that got your attention!). I am a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt. There…..I did it. To those that do not know what this means, you are probably wondering what on earth I am on about. To those of you that do, you may be thinking ‘so what’. Please allow me to explain.
Over the weekend I had a little time to review my Twitter feed. I have been following a very clever man by the name of Ted Coine (@tedcoine). Ted describes himself as a ‘business heretic’ and is named as a Forbes Top 10 Influencer. With over 270 thousand followers, his excellent musings and submissions from guest authors get to be seen by many people all over the world. This particular weekend, a blog post from one of his network of experts, Dr Andrew Smart, caught my eye. This is the tweet that got my attention:
Hopefully you will all take the time to read the blog post he refers to, especially if you have been involved in or around business improvement/customer experience programmes that have used Six Sigma methodology in some way. The post is excellently written, and essentially see’s Andrew make the case for Six Sigma ‘programmes’ limiting employees and organisations abilities to be creative and innovative.
Before I get in to the meat of why I am telling you about this, I need to provide a little bit more background. I first became exposed to Six Sigma in 1998. I became indirectly involved through my wife Naomi. Naomi was working for GE, and like many business professionals around that time, was involved in the Jack Welch Six Sigma machine. Naomi was a Black Belt in a GE business looking at improving finance processes. She knew straight away that the methodology would appeal to me. Just over a year later, and completely coincidentally, I found myself taking up a Black Belt role in a different GE business.
We never intended to be a six sigma ‘couple’ – it just happened. Whilst Naomi moved on to other things after her Black Belt stint, I, as Andrew alludes to in his post, became hooked. I can categorically state that GE and its development of me as a business improvement professional changed my career – and for the better. It was the first time in my working life that something was explained to me that actually made sense. A set of tools and principles to help improve what we do as a business to better meet the expectations of our customers. It sounded so obvious, and I wanted to be a part of it. Six Sigma and its later association with Lean principles have underpinned everything I have done in business ever since. Now, as a customer experience professional, this is still the case. What I have learned from the methodology, is fundamental to my approach in improving the customer experience. So if that is the case, why am I so afraid/ashamed/unwilling to even let people know about it?
To answer this question, we have to delve deeper into what happened at GE and other corporations around the world in the nineties and early noughties. Jack Welch’s motivation behind the implementation of six sigma across the GE empire was in my opinion absolutely bang on. In their fast-moving industries and environments, it was essential that every business was able to understand what customers wanted, and how capable existing processes were of giving it to them. Six Sigma as a methodology ticked all the right boxes. Not only did the methodology work (it delivered millions and millions of dollars worth of PROVEN financial benefits, as well as happier customers), it also acted as an excellent management development programme.
However (there is always one of those), there were many, and I mean many, issues with the way GE deployed their six sigma programme. In my opinion, it is the legacy of the deployment, and many similar ones that used the GE model, that has left an indelible stigma that many trained Six Sigma professionals find hard to shake today. People knew that to get on in GE, you needed six sigma certification. They knew that the better the certification, the more likely it would become that you may be eligible for a senior role. Likewise, a trend commenced whereby ex GE professionals applying for new jobs would cite all sorts of six sigma achievements and certifications on their CVs. In reality, much of what they claimed had never been achieved. When I was deploying a six sigma programme at a UK retailer, I reviewed countless CVs when helping to bring in new resource. At least 70% of the time, the person that came in for interview was nothing like the person described on the CV. All of this was helping to damage the reputation of both the methodology and the ‘real’ six sigma protagonists.
Not everyone saw the benefits of becoming a ‘belt’. GE’s approach in 2000/2001 was one of ‘you have no choice’. Jeff Immelt, on taking over from Jack Welch, decreed that a minimum percentage of employees in every GE business (I forget what the percentage was), MUST be certified as a Green Belt, Black Belt or Master Black Belt. At the time, I was a full-time six sigma trainer for GE’s reinsurance business. I trained hundreds of people all over the world who were taking on the knowledge because ‘they had to’. This led to many disaffected business professionals who just did not believe in the method – they were being forced to learn it and conjure up projects that were often of little importance. As they have moved on from GE, they can comfortably dismiss it as something of no value.
Today, the ‘big bang’ deployment approach a la GE is rarely seen. Hundreds of people doing attending training course after training course; conducting pointless project after pointless project, was never going to be sustainable. The big deployment made everyone believe that you had to follow a completely prescriptive framework for utilising six sigma methodologies, and every tool in the box had to be used. It made the method look complicated, time-consuming and frankly very irritating.
The sad thing is, that whilst I completely agree with what I have just said, I still believe that six sigma is of HUGE benefit to organisations all over the world. If it is applied correctly, by the right people in the right way, it can transform the effectiveness (capability in six sigma speak) of your business processes. When Ted says that the use of ‘process’ is wrong – I cannot disagree with him more. Everything we do is a process whether we like it or not. Every customer journey is enabled by a series of underlying processes. It is our ability to use the method and tools that comprise it appropriately that is the key. A Six Sigma expert is not one that can fill out a set of spreadsheets and tick a number of boxes. An expert is one who can use what is needed at the right time to have the greatest impact. Sometimes the application of the skillset can be remarkably simple.
I do not tell people that I am a Six Sigma professional because they do not really need to know. I do not want them ‘thinking’ the wrong things about me. The astute business leader will want to know why I do the things I do – I may then tell them where a lot of my actions come from. Six Sigma changed my life – it is something will always thank GE for. Never write off a method that has delivered so much value to so many people and so many businesses. If you disagree, you need to talk to people who applied it correctly.