The Leaning Tower of Six Sigma

Whatever happened to Six Sigma? It was so intently-discussed in years past — then faded from the conference table. Well, it’s back. From the Obama administration’s Oval Office to siloed enterprise facilities in rural areas of America, Six Sigma is a hot topic — again.

What is Lean Six Sigma? Lean emphasizes removing waste from organizations and processes while focusing on and delivering more value to customers. Six Sigma focuses on variation reduction in processes, products, and services. Lean Six Sigma is basically streamlined processes but faster, simpler. (And yes, there’s an app for that.)

Lean Six Sigma has been back in the spotlight recently as several U.S. presidential candidates have pledged to use the management tool, if elected. Also, the Obama administration is reportedly studying how Lean Six Sigma could help eliminate federal government waste.

Lean Six Sigma online survey  More than 2,500 quality improvement professionals participated in a recent survey around the subject of Lean Six Sigma. A group called ASQ conducted the survey, ASQ being a “leading global network of quality experts,” and in all fairness is a reputable organization. It was conducted using online technology, across disparate geographies.

Lean Six Sigma could help reduce the soaring national debt, decided the survey respondents, but it faces some key challenges in government implementations. The biggest obstacle, survey respondents said, is a U.S. federal government structure that can be a barrier to comprehensive evaluation and accountability.

In addition to noting challenges with the federal government’s structure, survey participants noted other obstacles to implementing Lean Six Sigma in government agencies:

  1.     An environment faced with conflicting strategies, goals, and priorities
  2.     Creating a sense of urgency to deploy a comprehensive improvement methodology across all government agencies
  3.     The personnel management model currently used by many government agencies
  4.     A lack of familiarity with Lean Six Sigma and how it can benefit the organization
  5.     Ongoing political partisanship

Lean Six Sigma in Action  “In business, some process improvements are obvious,” said Russell McCann, national speaker on Six Sigma and President and CEO of Actio. “For instance, if a scientist is creating a new product, and the product contains a chemical that is banned or is restricted in some countries, then it’s best to identify the issues at the request stage.  This averts a scenario where the enterprise spends millions of dollars developing an unusable product.

“While these sorts of process improvements can be done manually – with traditional paper-based systems – process efficiency and accuracy are compromised,” said McCann.  “Critical information is inevitably ‘siloed’ at individual locations rather than being shared across an enterprise; in some cases data is not even shared within a single facility.  This type of scenario presents an ideal environment for a Six Sigma program.

“A Six Sigma initiative that includes Six Sigma software such as Actio modules will reduce cost, improve control processes, and rationalize materials management,” McCann said.

Survey says…  Many participants in the ASQ survey said there are benefits to using Lean Six Sigma. More than 75% of participants surveyed said they have implemented Lean Six Sigma in their organizations and an impressive 79% said the tool is very effective in improving efficiency and productivity.

The respondents found that Lean Six Sigma has also been effective in the following areas:

  1. Raised levels of quality in their organization (74%)
  2. Reduced costs (73%)
  3. Helped individuals in their organization be competitive in the marketplace or to pursue the organization’s core mission (68%)
  4. Had a positive impact on employee safety (56%)
  5. Improved innovation (46%)

Kudos to ASQ for pulling this data together, certainly an interesting study.  ASQ is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with national service centers in China, India, and Mexico.  Learn more about ASQ’s survey, their members, mission, technologies and training at

No End for Space

I, for one, am thrilled to see the US is not ignoring the challenges of moving beyond our humble domain on Earth.

As NASA announced yesterday, the Obama administration has given the go ahead to push forward on deep space missions. Tapped for the mission is a design called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle developed by NASA and Lockheed Martin.

So much of the communications capability we take for granted today — from cellphones to satellite communications to GPS and so forth — was enabled by federal funding of bleeding-edge technology used in the space program. (And that doesn’t even begin to cover the major advances in rockets, materials science and other areas.)

Even in the midst of a severe cash crunch, the US is betting that the benefits outweigh the costs.

While some opined that it was a mistake for the Bush and Obama administrations to give up on moon landings and obsolete the Space Shuttle, the picture that is now emerging is more complete. Far from completely giving up on space travel, the US is once again putting the proverbial stake in the ground (or its celestial equivalent) and moving the bar well past where man has thus far traveled.

The electronics industry historically has benefited from NASA’s investments. Let’s hope history once again repeats.

Enhancing US Competitiveness

President Obama yesterday continued to preach the need for the US to dramatically increase its exports, but there’s an element missing in the equation.

In remarks at the Export-Import Bank annual conference, Pres. Obama reiterated a stated goal of doubling US exports over the next five years. According to published reports, he called boosting exports a “short-term imperative” that would pay off in higher US employment and long-term economic stability. That’s a worthy – if perhaps unachievable – objective, and one that would go a long way toward resolving the country’s longstanding one-sided trade practices.

In his talk, Pres. Obama pinpointed to certain specific actions to help steer toward that goal, including US IP protection, enforcement of existing agreements and ratification of new ones (e.g., the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement),shortening governmental reviews of certain high-tech exports from 30 days to 30 minutes, and new agreements for Pan-Pacific trade.

But what was missing in his remarks was a strategy for enhancing the competitiveness of US businesses on the world stage. Despite perception, it’s true the US remains the world’s largest manufacturer – and by a large margin. But the US is losing ground in certain critical industries – electronics being one – where competitors have overtly or covertly signaled intentions to snare as much of the pie as possible.

I would like to see the US government invest in companies seeking to achieve true “lights out” manufacturing. While the direct impact on employment would be nominal, rebuilding the domestic manufacturing infrastructure requires a local supply base – materials and equipment providers, service specialists, programmers, etc. – something the US is in danger of completely losing. While I don’t envision massive technology parks here made up of the entire electronics supply chain, the needs to be an ample domestic market to ensure the sources of supply do not dwindle to a small number of distributors.