In a nutshell: Six Sigma is complex and complicated, but a basic understanding of Six Sigma techniques can help small businesses become more efficient and effective. Here’s a brief introduction to the basics.


When people think of Six Sigma, they might picture managers in a vast factory, inspecting equipment to find ways to reduce production defects. Or they might imagine a cadre of professionals in a cramped conference room, reviewing every last details of a major corporation’s internal processes.

These scenarios are true, but they don’t tell the whole picture. The key principles of Six Sigma can be applied at companies of all sizes, including sole proprietorships and small start-ups. Let’s look at some of the basics of Six Sigma, three implications for small businesses and where to find additional information.

This information is designed to introduce you to the Six Sigma mindset — it’s not a replacement for proper Six Sigma training, consultation and implementation. No article on the internet is a substitute for professional, customized advice.

Six Sigma 101

You’ll find mountains of books, articles, websites, journals and videos about Six Sigma, which might seem daunting, but don’t get discouraged! At its heart, Six Sigma is a set of techniques designed to help organizations improve processes. The goal is to reduce defects and decrease variables. Six Sigma managers emphasize the need to carefully define an issue and use data to analyze performance — they don’t rely on gut instincts and guesstimates.

One: Define Issues Carefully

Let’s consider some of the techniques related to Six Sigma, and the implications for your organization. First, Six Sigma requires managers to carefully define the problem that needs to be solved. It’s important to be specific: “Delivery time has slowed down” is not nearly as helpful as “Delivery time has slowed by 17% over the past three months, and this is affecting customer satisfaction and hurting our reputation.” To achieve this level of specificity, you should be able to identify:

  • What the challenge is, and how severe it is
  • What metrics are being used to measure performance
  • How the challenge affects customers
  • What processes are involved

Every organization has a limited amount of time, staff and money. Know that you’re not going to be able to address every challenge at once. Prioritize the challenges that have the biggest impact.

Two: Measure and Analyze your Data

Metrics are very important in Six Sigma, so it’s careful to know what data to collect and how to analyze it. There are three things to think about:

  • What data do you collect?
  • What data are you able to collect?
  • What data is relevant to the issue?

Large organizations are awash in data, thanks to enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms. Smaller companies might need to look a little harder for the data, but it’s probably there. A lot of cloud-based small business tools collect useful information and are able to produce sophisticated reports.

Make sure the metrics you’re using are appropriate for the challenge you’re facing. Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean that information is useful.

Analyze your data carefully and try to pinpoint the exact places that need improvement. Don’t follow hunches. Depending on the challenge, you might look for places were defects increased, deadlines were missed, quality declined, productivity decreased, spending went up or efficiency slipped.

Three: Test then Implement the Solution

Now that you’ve got a good grasp of the root problem, what do you do? The fix might be obvious: Perhaps a piece of machinery has become outdated and needs to be replaced. More likely than not, though, you’ll need to be creative and consider a lot of different approaches to improve the process. Determine which ideas are most likely to succeed, and then test them before implementing them organization-wide. You’ll probably need to make tweaks if you aren’t seeing the results you want.

Next Steps

Now that you know a little bit about Six Sigma, you might be tempted to learn more. There is a wealth of information available on the internet. Six Sigma Daily has a good blend of information for Six Sigma newcomers and discussions of contemporary topics.

Those interested in gaining more knowledge about Six Sigma can explore certificate programs. Many schools offer these courses 100% online, which means professionals can study on their own time without compromising their work or personal obligations.

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