The Origins of Six Sigma


In the very first chapter of the book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations, by Ikel Harry, Ph.D., and Richard Schroeder, the origins of Six Sigma are related and this post is a summary of that portion of the chapter.

It was born in 1979, when an executive named Art Sundry complained about the bad quality of products made by Motorola, and the search into the root causes was started.    At a time when the conventional wisdom was such that increasing quality of one’s products would increase costs, Motorola took hold of the fundamental insight of Edward Deming, who believed the opposite, that improving quality would actually reduce costs.    Correcting poor quality, it was estimated, was causing Motorola to spend anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of its annual revenues on average, and with some products, that figure climbed to 20 percent.

The first focus was on trying to achieve quality by detecting defects on the manufacturing assembly line and then repairing them.  However, an engineer in their Communications Sector named Bill Smith proposed in 1985 that a product should be designed to be defect-free from the very start.   In the language of Six Sigma, detecting and repairing defects would only lead Motorola to the four Sigma level, putting it only slightly higher than the average American company.    To achieve a higher rate of quality, Motorola would have to take to heart Bill Smith’s ideas of designing in quality.

Within four years, Six Sigma ended up saving the company $2.2 billion, and it was operating at nearly six Sigma in many of its manufacturing operations.    With such an impressive achievement accredited to the Six Sigma program, it began to spread to other industries within the manufacturing sector, and then beyond to other divisions than just manufacturing.

So why did Six Sigma spread like wildfire?   Because of the wildly successful results it produced!

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