Toronto, Ontario -- June 7, 2019 -- In recent days, I have noted an increasing interest among members of the collision repair community in the Six Sigma approach to management. If you've never heard of Six Sigma, it began at Motorola in the 1980s and became famous after its founder, Bill Smith, implemented it at General Electric. Since the mid-1990s, its blend of pop psychology and truisms has become quite popular--and has been adopted by big name brands in many-an-industry. It has also gained its share of detractors.
While I am aware of a number of companies in the broader auto aftermarket that have bought into the Six Sigma idea, it has not--yet--made a visible mark within Canada's collision sector. Having said that, as the editor of Collision Repair, when I start hearing buzzwords come up frequently, I have begun to anticipate the fact that the buzzword is about to become common parlance among repairers.
Intrigued by the famous—or infamous—management philosophy’s possible arrival on the repair scene, I started researching it in order to write a column covering what to expect from Six Sigma, should the philosophy be taken up by businesses or banners our readers work with.
To be honest, I was left a bit cold. There is a distinct lack of empirical evidence to suggest that the collision industry would in any way benefit from the infiltration of Six Sigma methods.
While serious writing on the subject is scant, I did discover an ancient text--written by Plato--recording a conversation between Socrates (who was then a collision repair facility owner) and Sigmacles, the chief operating officer of Socrates' collision repair facility... Okay, fine. I wrote it as a piece of parody to discuss Six Sigma's possible arrival into the collision sector in a legally protected manner.
The Six Sigmaiad, as recorded by Plato
Sigmacles: Hi Socrates. I understand you are a leading facility operator.
I am Sigmacles, the new chief operations officer. I thought it would be a good idea to tell you about myself—and my business philosophy.
Socrates: Hello Sigmacles. That all sounds good—I never turn down the chance to discuss philosophy.
Sigmacles: As you may—or may not know—I am a firm believer in the Six Sigma method.
Socrates: What in Hades’ name is Six Sigma?
Sigmacles: I am so glad you asked, Soc! Can I call you Soc, Soc? Of Course I can call you Soc, Soc! We’re going to be great friends.
Six Sigma is a management philosophy that emphasizes continuous improvement. It was started at Motorola almost forty years ago, and is followed by a multitude of S&P companies.
Socrates: Should I infer that implementing Six Sigma has benefitted these S&P companies grow?
Sigmacles: Well not exactly. If Fortune magazine is to be believed, of the 58 largest firms who have implemented the technique, 91 of them have experienced growth slower than the S&P average.
Don’t let that sour you on the whole thing though. I mean, it is a philosophy followed by some truly big business names.
Boeing, Credit Suisse, Eastman Kodak, Ford and Sears all use Six Sigma—and with it at their disposal, I am sure those organizations can look forward to greater and greater glory in the decades to come.
Socrates: I see—perhaps growth isn’t exactly the best measure of success. Aesop might call my question “Hare-brained.” Why don’t I loop back and ask you about the central tenets of the management philosophy itself?
Sigmacles: Of course, Soc! There are really three big points to Six Sigma doctrine.
The first is that continuously working to achieve stable and predictable results is vital to the long-term success of a business.
The second, that all businesses have workflows that can be categorized, defined, measured, analyzed and controlled by management staff.
Socrates: It is alright—I think I see where this is going.
Sigmacles: And the third is that a business can achieve stable growth and quality improvement by having management break down, measure, analyze and control workflow, eliminating deviations wherever possible.
Socrates: So—let me just make sure I have this right—break down the business of an organization into tiny chunks, work where mistakes happen, make sure everyone is abiding by the process—rinse and repeat, eh? I believe Agamemnon adopted a similar approach during the ten-year siege of Troy.
Sigmacles: Well, Soc, that is a very abbreviated version of a very complex philosophy, but for a beginner, it sounds like a good summary of the basics. You’ll be a Master Black Belt in no time!
Socrates: A what?
Sigmacles: Ah, the belt colour system—a charming reference to the rankings used in the martial arts traditions of China and Japan, in the far east.
Beginners—who are familiar with the basics of the Six Sigma technique, or work within a Six Sigma organization are usually referred to as White Belts. Green Belts are employees who have the training needed to implement Six Sigma techniques into their workplaces.
A Black Belt’s entire job involves using Six Sigma certifications to ensuring the constant application of Six Sigma approaches throughout an organization.
Master Black Belts are Six Sigma coaches—working either for the organizations that offer Six Sigma training or as in-house teachers.
Socrates: I see. Let me guess—middle managers tend to be Green Belts, and C-suite positions tend to get filled by Black Belts, right?
Sigmacles: No—not really. In fact, while some middle managers use Black—or even Green—Belt status as a feather in the resume’s cap, the truth is that these vital roles are often performed by people in more functionary roles.
In fact, according to one of the leading Six Sigma certifying organizations—6Sigma.US—while the buy-in of senior executives is necessary, the actual nuts and bolts tends of implementation tends to fall on lower-level employees, save for when departmental barriers need to be crossed.
To quote the certifying body: “...the power and scope of Six Sigma demands a significant commitment from the organization. This requires support from management to transcend departmental barriers.”
Other bodies can back up this idea. ISixSigma, a B2B media business dedicated to providing information, research and how-to knowledge to help businesses and organizations worldwide (using Six Sigma methods) has been tracking the salaries of Six Sigma professionals for more than a decade. According to the organization, Six Sigma Black Belts earn—on average—about $80,000-a-year, while executives of Six Sigma organizations earn about $135,000.
Socrates: So what is the benefit of becoming involved in Six Sigma training?
Sigmacles: Alright, I see your point—yes, a cynic might suggest that Six Sigma serves as a weight on a career because it proffers in advice that fundamentally tethers a career to a mid-level role, but that’s a misunderstanding of the facts. In fact, ISixSigma shows that employees with Six Sigma credentials earn more than those with just a graduate degree.
Socrates: Of course. I’m sure the ISixSigma—being naturally impartial when discussing the value of Six Sigma training—must have accounted for the fact that employees with graduate degrees are, on average, younger than most employees—so would naturally have lower salaries.
Are there any other major criticisms of Sigma Six strategies?
Sigmacles: Sure there are—but I don’t put much stock in them.
A big one comes from those who say it doesn’t actually bring anything new to the table—providing only obvious advice, akin to telling a stock market investor to “buy low and sell high.”
Another criticism is that it bogs down creative development, making revolutionary innovations impossible, but favouring slow incremental improvements..
Within organizations that have used it, employees—particularly senior and upwardly mobile ones—often complain that they are put into a paperwork spin cycle anytime they want to try a new, obvious approach. The use of consultants specifically to implement Six Sigma through organizations is also a significant expense.
Nonsense, I say. Some untrustworthy romantics seem to believe middle-managers are useless obstructions, shuffling paperwork back and forth like Eurocrats on steroids.
The most pervasive criticism is that the evidence used to support the effectiveness of Six Sigma comes from organizations that either use it, or benefit from its being adopted by other companies.
For me, however, that seems like a good reason for us to submit the Six Sigma system to a regimented internal analysis. We should break the workflow process down, measure each stage, analyze the results and implement improvements to Six Sigma.
Then we should do it again. And again. And again. And again.
Six Sigma can never be stopped.