Today, Six Sigma has an impressive track record of improving processes with its wide array of tools and techniques. Sigma Belts – individuals who are trained in some or all aspects of Six Sigma – are highly demanded by companies looking for people to improve their business performance. However, not many people are versed in the origins of the methodology that they rely upon when their business operations are underperforming.
As the 80s were coming to an end, a man named Bill Smith coined the term Six Sigma. At the time, he was working for Motorola and needed an effective quality management tool to improve business performance. So he got work on the methodology, pouring all his time and energy into what would become the future of quality management. Smith had the full support of the CEO of Motorola at the time, Bob Galvin, which made his work smoother.
After Smith was done, Motorola implemented the methodology companywide. The new process management tool proved successful, which led to Motorola being awarded the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in 1988. This award recognizes organizations in various sectors that have achieved operational excellence.
Soon after that, in the 90s, Jack Welch, the chairman of General Electric (GE), adopted Six Sigma for his organization. The company evolved the methodology, making it connected to compensation for executives and return on investment (ROI). In GE’s annual report, they managed to show that implementing Six Sigma led to financial benefits. That’s when corporations listed in the Forbes Fortune 500 list started implementing Six Sigma as well in order to make their business operations more efficient.
Six Sigma borrows concepts from another quality management methodology: Lean manufacturing. While one might be tempted to think that Six Sigma and Lean are competitors, in the real world, the two are used in a complementary fashion. Their combined effect, know as Lean Six Sigma, has been shown to provide business performance benefits that are simply unmatched. Lean offers a hands-on approach to removing non-value-adding tasks to improve efficiency, while Six Sigma aims to reduce variability within organizational processes to minimize the occurrence of defects.
Lean has been around a lot longer than Six Sigma, with its origins rooted in the Toyota Production System (TPS) in Japan during the 60s. However, Lean thinking can be traced back earlier than that to the Arsenal in Venice during the 1450s. And in 1913, Henry Ford was the first to put Lean thinking to practice by fully implementing it.
Lean gained further popularity when Boeing implemented it as part of its manufacturing process in 1993. Although its initial efforts were unsuccessful (not through the fault of Lean but other outdated manufacturing processes being used), Boeing continually invested in the methodology until it paid off.
As far as Six Sigma goes, its story has just begun since it is considered to be a relatively new methodology in the business world. Many organizations across the world are still working on evolving it to make their businesses more efficient through process improvement. Regardless, Six Sigma and the recently revitalized Lean have left an indelible mark on history.