Six Sigma Quality Means World-Class Customer Focus

Oct. 1, 2005
“When I think of Six Sigma, I think of it as a world-class level of quality. You don’t need to get any better,” declares Bill Robinson, vice president of quality at EasyLink (www.easylink.com), a solutions provider for businesses located in Piscataway, N.J.

Six Sigma quality’s goal is to increase customer satisfaction and profitability by eliminating variability, defects and waste that undermine customer loyalty, says EasyLink. Six Sigma is a rigorous, disciplined methodology that uses statistical analysis of manufacturing data to measure and improve a company’s operational performance. “Six Sigma equates to an accuracy level of 99.99966 percent. If you turn that relation upside down, it equates to 3.4 defective products per million produced,” explains Robinson.

What’s real?

That’s a lofty goal. The real manufacturing benchmark is much lower, Robinson says. “Across the world today, if a company produces goods and services, but does not have a systematic approach to remove defects before products get to the customers, they will tend to hover around 3.5 Sigma.” That’s roughly equivalent to 99 percent accuracy, he adds.

The methodology to achieve Six Sigma is known as DMAIC, Robinson says. That acronym stands for the five phases of the process: define, measure, analyze, improve and control. Those who practice this methodology are highly trained experts who are designated according to the classification used in Oriental martial arts; for example, black belts. Robinson, who is a Master Black Belt—which means he is certified to train black belts—says that a Six Sigma black belt is very highly specialized, with what amounts to an almost-doctoral level of statistics training. These black belts, who are the cornerstone of the Six Sigma process, devote 100 percent of their time to the quality process, he notes.

How big is Six Sigma in companies? “Most Fortune 500 companies have corporate-level Six Sigma initiatives in place. On a broader scale, about 20 percent of all companies have some level of Six Sigma in place, but that doesn’t mean it’s corporate-wide,” Robinson says. It could be a factory or a business unit, he adds.

But he thinks most companies currently misuse Six Sigma. “Instead of focusing on delivering quality products to customers, what they’ve done is focus on internal cost reduction.” However, he believes that if a company produces high-quality products, it will save money, because the company will not be handling rework or scrap—and the customer will be satisfied initially.

If a company is considering instituting Six Sigma, it should emplace a company-wide culture that trains its workforce to produce the level of product customers seek, Robinson suggests. “Put goals around all the things your customers expect from you and then measure the daylights out of them. Ask the customers what they expect from your products and services. Then you and customers figure out a way to measure that,” he advises. That will turn quality into a competitive advantage for you, he says.

The path from 3.5 Sigma to Six Sigma may take years, Robinson notes. To those who want to embark on the Six Sigma journey, he advises: “The leadership team, in its gut, has got to believe this is a strategic initiative that is vital to the company.” That’s the most important thing, he says. “The key is leadership that says this is something that is vital to the company. We’re going to measure it; we’re going to live it. And no matter how we’re doing it, if it’s not working, we’ll change the way we’re doing it—and we’re going to keep a laser focus on the customer.”

C. Kenna Amos, [email protected], is an Automation World Contributing Editor.