History of Six Sigma

Instructor: James Kuhn

Jim has taught adults for more than 20 years and has a Masters Degree in Christian Leadership.

Six Sigma is a powerful tool for any organization to use to improve the quality of its product or service. This lesson will provide a brief overview and history of Six Sigma and an introduction to this quality improvement methodology.

What Is Six Sigma?

Organizations of all types must constantly strive to remain competitive in today's global marketplace. Fortunately, many tools are available for leaders to use to improve their products and services. One of the most common and highly trusted tools is Six Sigma, which is a management tool and methodology for quality improvement. The term 'sigma' itself is actually a statistical metric that describes the occurrence of deviation from a set standard. Think of the standard as a bullseye on a target and each sigma are the concentric rings that surround the bullseye. Six Sigma represents, statistically, missing the standard (target) only 3.4 times for every million opportunities (shots).

Six Sigma, although having very thorough processes with a highly robust toolset, is still a rather young methodology. Developed initially in 1986, the concept was adopted by only a few large companies, but as word (and expertise) grew, more and more organizations adopted Six Sigma. Today, more than thousands of organizations around the world have implemented Six Sigma as their quality improvement methodology.

Six Sigma History

The best way to explain the history and evolution of Six Sigma is through its major generational 'ages' and iterations throughout its development, as shown in the above chart.

Manufacturing Age

Six Sigma got its start with an idea to help a manufacturer produce better products. In the early 1980s, engineers at Motorola, Inc. sought to reduce errors in their products before they were shipped out of their factories. Building upon prior quality initiatives, they sought a statistical, metric-based system to quantify quality in their manufacturing business.

Engineer Bill Smith, working with statistician Mikel Harry developed a defined four-phase methodology - measure, analyze, improve, control (MAIC) - to focus on reducing errors and defects in the production process. Smith is known as the 'father of Six Sigma' and came up with the term 'Six Sigma.' In 1987, Motorola filed for a trademark on Six Sigma. Over the next decade, it is reported that Motorola saved more than $16 billion using the Six Sigma methodology.

Financial Age

The financial age marked a period of expansion in the use of this new tool - Six Sigma. Within a few years, the news of great progress at Motorola and the accompanying rewards spread, and other mega-industrial firms began to take notice.

As Motorola refined and advanced its Six Sigma methodology, the giant electronics company, Texas Instruments, began its initial deployment of Six Sigma with a primary focus on reducing manufacturing defects - similar to the goals of Motorola. As its clients demanded very exacting standards for electronic components used in military and aviation industries, Six Sigma was just the tool for Texas Instruments.

Global conglomerate, Allied-Signal, was the next significant user of Six Sigma, but for a far different reason. Their leadership understood the business value of using Six Sigma and its precise measurements, reports, and controls and credited it with a huge turnaround in the organization.

Refinement & Adoption Age

During the mid-1990s, the competitive pressure moved several large companies to consider Six Sigma, marking the beginning of the refinement age. Once he heard about Six Sigma, its power as a quality, financial, and business tool, GE CEO Jack Welch became the strongest supporter of Six Sigma. Soon, the methodology became the standard tool, and its use was required across all GE divisions and industries, including their services operations (a first-time use for Six Sigma). During this time, GE further developed and refined the methodology, adding an upfront 'define' phase to the Motorola methodology with the result being a five-phase process still known today as DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control).

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