Six Sigma–Preparing an Organization’s Culture for Change

The last two chapters of the book Six Sigma:  The Breakthrough Management Strategy Revolutionizing the World’s Top Corporations, by Mikel Harry, Ph.D., and Richard Schroeder, contain some very interesting material.

Most of the book is concerned with how to get the physical results changed through a Six Sigma process run by Black Belts.    Both of these are external phenomena, meaning that one deals with the physical environment, and the other with the social environment in the form of a Six Sigma project team.

The last two chapters deal with internal phenomena, namely, the psychology of Six Sigma (chapter 14) and the culture of Six Sigma (chapter 15).   A culture is a series of shared values, and the authors talk about how to prepare an organization’s culture so that Six Sigma can effectively change the organization.

Mikel Harry’s belief is that, rather than trying to change a company’s culture to adopt Six Sigma in order to achieve hard, unmistakable results, the adoption should be done first with an eye towards achieving hard, unmistakable results which then force an organization to reassess values and beliefs.

And yet … and yet I wonder if there has to be some sort of psychological and social priming that has to occur first.  It must become apparent that old practices no longer work.   This gives people a sense of being open to new solutions.    A very telling anecdote comes in the beginning of the section called “Results Change Cultures; Cultures Don’t Change Results.”

Joseph Juran was one of the masterminds behind the Japanese approach to quality.   Its focused efforts to recover after it lost in World War II made it more receptive to change than the Western world which had won the war.   It made the phrase “Made in Japan” go from being synonymous with shoddy goods prior to World War II to meaning world-class quality as it does now.  The words he and Dr. Edwards Deming were NO DIFFERENT than the ones they had been telling American audiences for years.   The difference was that the Japanese audiences heard and interpreted them.   It was only after economic shocks had rocked the Western world in the 1970s and 1980s that Americans started paying attention to what they had been saying.

You have to create success stories with your first Six Sigma projects that will break the resistance of others to its power to change the organization.   In retrospect, this is why the selection of Six Sigma projects has to start with those that have the greatest impact in terms of reduction of defects that are critical-to-quality and which impact the bottom line.

In fact, this is analogous to the success story of Six Sigma, but on a global scale.   Companies like GE and Motorola whose company culture has been transformed through the success brought about by Six Sigma cause other companies, first in similar industries, and then in industries totally unrelated, to think “maybe we can have a similar success?”   It is in the posing of that question of wonder that the mind becomes open to the possibility of it happening.   Unfortunately, like many great ideas, it doesn’t necessarily take hold in an organization like wildfire.   Why?  Because there are many “wet blankets” who are willing to put out that fire because the methods are new and are outside their comfort zone.   Well, you know what else is outside one’s comfort zone?   Having one’s company go out of business?

In the tumultuous economic times we now live in with global competition, one can literally not afford to be aware of Six Sigma.   That’s why in the first month of the new year coming up, my first New Year’s resolution is to obtain my Green Belt certification.   In today’s world, it is a vocabulary you need to learn in order to be able to converse fluently with those who speak the language of quality!


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