Struggling against competition from foreign companies, Motorola launched an effort in 1986 that evolved from a process to improve quality to a business management system that has leaped from electronics manufacturing into an array of industries.
The company coined the term Six Sigma as a measurement goal of improving manufacturing to where 99.99966% of the products were expected to be free of defects.
That translates into roughly 3.4 defects per million.
Sigma is a letter in the Greek alphabet used to describe variability. The six represents units of standard deviation in statistics and in Motorola’s case is where the 99.99966% comes from.
Six Sigma Spreads Beyond Motorola
The Six Sigma strategy is now a management system used for business operations beyond the manufacturing floor. Motorola, Inc. has trademarked the term and established training and consulting services in the concept. Six Sigma training also is offered through some universities.
The idea of improving processes to where there are only 3.4 defects per million manufactured units was the basic core of Six Sigma. The process involves establishing teams and giving them projects that are clearly defined and have an impact on the company’s profits, training some people in statistics and project management and being able to define, measure, analyze, improve and control solutions to problems, according to the American Society for Quality website, ASQ.org.
Those who take Six Sigma training earn designations at various levels, including yellow, green, black belts and master black belt. All are assigned different roles in the project based on their degree of training and a master black belt typically oversees the project.
Above these team members are management level executives who handle organization, identify projects and provide overall focus, according to ASQ.org.
The Various Six Sigma Levels
Here’s how ASQ, an organization that provides certifications in 17 quality assurance categories including quality auditor, quality engineer and quality inspector, breaks down the Six Sigma levels:
Yellow Belt: A team member involved in the project.
Green Belt: Helps collect data and can lead other teams in less advanced tasks.
Black Belt: Leads projects aimed at solving problems as well as trains and coaches teams.
Master Black Belt: Trains and coaches black and green belt workers and works at the strategic level of projects.
In the nearly 30 years Six Sigma has been around, an industry has emerged to train workers in the yellow, green and black belt certifications. Companies and colleges offer training to receive Six Sigma certificates in online and traditional class settings.
For example, the University of South Florida offers a green belt certification that requires taking a prerequisite course lasting at least 56 hours and completing a project.
Six Sigma In Business Administration
Though Six Sigma was developed to improve manufacturing and adopted by Ford Motor Co. and General Electric Co., other firms have applied its statistical and analytical methods and used it for business administration Six Sigma.
In the professional services field, Bechtel implemented Six Sigma procedures, such as streamlining the analysis of neutralized poison gas during a disposal project, the company’s website said. About half the company’s employees have Six Sigma training and the firm recovered implementation costs in three years, it said.
Aero Fulfillment Services, a national company that helps clients with marketing operations, hired a quality manager who is a black belt in Six Sigma, according to a 2011 article on Businesswire.com.
A Mayo Clinic department used Six Sigma techniques to shorten the time taken to review a student’s application and speed admissions, according to a 2012 article on Dark Daily, an e-news service covering clinical labs and pathology groups.
Another evolution of Six Sigma seeks to combine elements of lean manufacturing with Six Sigma, called Lean Six Sigma. Most lean processes focus on speed and eliminating steps, sometimes at the detriment of quality, while Six Sigma focuses on maintaining quality.
Xerox Corp. instituted its Lean Six Sigma program in 2003 and hired a Six Sigma black belt to oversee the process, the company’s website said.