Karate-style corporate model grows flabby

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 January, 2004, 12:00am

Is it a statistical measure, a new economy management philosophy or a weird cult? Consult a Six Sigma practitioner about the phenomenon and you are likely to be met with a steely gaze and the laconic reply: 'How long have you got?'

At that point you should back off or risk death by drowning in a deluge of corporate hogwash.

The Six Sigma litany, dreamt up by Motorola in the 1980s, is rife with frightening references to 'paradigm shifts' and 'systematic methodologies'.

Adding to the terror is the fact that its practitioners are ranked like martial arts experts. ISixSigma, one of the rare online sources with anything intelligible to say on the concept, explains the grading system. The term Black Belt means project leaders good at stats, the dreaded 'interpersonal communication' and well, Six Sigma.

Green Belts have had less training than Black Belts and take responsibility for leading fewer projects, while Master Black Belts spend almost all their time consulting, mentoring and training.

Just like his martial counterpart, a Six Sigma Black Belt is 'self-assured and knowledgeable, the result of intensive training and real-world experience'. Better yet, he is 'disciplined, purposeful and decisive, able to lead highly focused efforts aimed at improving a company's bottom line,' iSixSigma claims.

Above all, sources close to Technopedia aver, black belts drink coffee - lots of coffee - so that, like Napoleon Bonaparte, Catherine the Great and other renowned sociopaths, they never sleep.

Another human weakness they never indulge in is self-doubt. The typical personal potted history of a Six Sigma sensei reads like this: 'Marc Zaphod is Senior Master Black Belt for Metahype - a recognised Six Sigma company. He is revered as a pioneer in the development of Six Sigma and has many lifetimes' experience in applying process-improvement methodologies. He has personally trained more than eight million executives. His devotion to excellence has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in savings for corporations worldwide'.

This exalted position is achieved through TQM (Total Quality Management), which in turn breaks down into the equally totalitarian acronym DMAIC, which stands for Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control.

According to the business skills development group Excel Partnership, any outfit prepared to submit to this regime should be guilty of only '3.4 defects per one million opportunities'.

That means holy Six Sigma status. Many companies apparently perform only at a paltry Three Sigma level, which means they are guilty of 'roughly 67,000 defects per million opportunities'. Quite how Excel Partnership came up with either statistic is perplexing, but nobody would doubt their authenticity because funny, odd numbers exude authority.

Excel Partnership stresses that any firm which achieves the perfect six is rewarded by 'dramatic improvements in business performance'.

As evangelists portray it, Six Sigma is an intensive training programme that can transform a weak and flabby business into a world-beater.

But Anand Sharma, chief executive of TBM Consulting Group and author of a Six Sigma critique called The Perfect Engine, views it differently.

'When Six Sigma started appearing in annual reports of major corporations it seemed like a monument under construction that would change the face of business. However, more and more companies are tearing it off its pedestal,' he told Technopedia.

Blame speed 'or lack thereof'. Six Sigma programmes are falling out of fashion because they suffer from a lack of immediacy, Mr Sharma claimed, pointing the finger at the Black Belts 'who run the show while other team members are relegated to being spectators'. Projects apparently drag on for months.

'Six Sigma treats defects like a crime scene, testing from every conceivable angle, waiting months to receive 'the answer' from Black Belts, eventually delivering quality savings, but never quite managing real breakthrough improvements in lead time, productivity and inventory reduction,' he said.

Perhaps it's time for Six Sigma itself to evolve into something leaner and meaner. Seven Samurai, perhaps?

Confused by computer jargon? E-mail technopedia@scmp.com with your questions.