Six Sigma Doesn’t Belong in Customer-Centric Environments


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Folks—about half of you are going to hate us after you read this article (if you even get through it). You’ll want to visit our physical addresses with a loaded gun. Target our email address with vicious spam. Or boil us in oil. But as people of passionate beliefs who love debates, we’ll never shrink from the opportunity to start a full-fledged food fight.

The subject is six sigma. In customer-centric environments. Where it doesn’t belong (unless we’re considering the shop floors of line manufacturers to be "customer-centric"). So let’s cut right to the chase and explain why.

First, business process has two basic components:

  • Workflow: how work (and information) flow from function to function (or person to person within a function)
  • Work process: how individuals within a function perform their work

In front office and support staff and service company environments—unlike in line manufacturing—workflow is the dominant component. But in line manufacturing—especially through a six sigma lens—work process is the dominant component. Ergo, we have two very different workplace environments. And it’s not too much of a stretch to call them diametrically opposed in business process terms.

Now, where does customer-centricity play out? Primarily in front office and support staff environments. So why would we use a business process improvement methodology designed for manufacturing in the front office and other variable environments—especially customer-centric environments, which are the most variable of all? Beats us.

But before the Six Sigmys get their undies in a bundle and start sputtering about "process is process" wherever it’s applied (yeah, right) and "six sigma is flexible" (once you strip away all the six sigma elements), let’s drill down deeper to see why business process approaches applied in variable environments have to be so different from process approaches applied in manufacturing.

Comparing Variable Environments With Manufacturing Environments
Manufacturing Variable
High repetition Low repetition
Fixed process Decision-based
Consistency critical Adaptability critical
Dozens of key flows Hundreds of key flows
Defects split between workflow and process levels 90% of defects at the workflow level (in the seams)
Substantial activity independence Maximum activity interdependence
Visible defects Invisible defects
Compliant staff Empowered staff
Accept “external” input Resist “external” input
Process guides the work Process is the work (information flow guides the process)
Detached workflow & information flow Fully joined workflow & information flow
Moderate dependence on application-level software & data Application-level software & data are principle constraints

After reviewing this table, does it even seem possible that a process improvement methodology designed for manufacturing would work in a variable, customer-centric environment? Right answer.

So why do we even see this obsession with six sigma? Is it because former GE CEO Jack Welch championed it? We don’t think so. We believe it is because the customer dimension does not exist in most organizations. Management teams focus on products, internal operations and shareholders. As a result, the optimization of all activity is governed by a preoccupation with cost control. This preoccupation on cost, when applied within individual, functional silos, results in an obsession with the operational efficiency of individual process steps—at the expense of the overall effectiveness of end-to-end processes designed around customer events. Ergo, we get tangled up in adding value to ourselves and forget about adding customer value.

To be fair, the six sigma process does aspire to manage customer events. However, all too often, six sigma is used as a blunt instrument for beating employees into submission, which is another reason why it’s acquired a bad name. The stupidity of using six sigma as a big stick is that shackling customer-facing people in an operating straightjacket prevents them from developing customer satisfaction, customer loyalty and long-term customer value—which is, of course, against the interests of shareholders as well as customers. Not bright. The cost justification for an organization becoming more customer-centric is overwhelming.

But attaining customer-centricity requires an organization to change the way it does business, and senior management has to lead this change. Embracing six sigma as an antidote for "whatever ails us" often becomes a giant placebo that gives management an excuse for not making customer-centric changes. And that’s management’s fault—not six sigma’s.

Now let’s look at another chart that lists the critical requirements for effective process design in variable environments and see how six sigma, which is designed for manufacturing environments, and Visual Workflow, an alternative approach designed for variable environments, meet them.

Meeting Critical BPI Requirements for Variable Environments
  Six Sigma Visual Workflow
Highly efficient scanning system No Yes
Total workflow/information flow design No Yes
Systems design component No Yes
Drill down from workflow to work process No Yes
Line staff owns their own change No Yes
Approach accessible to all No Yes

Yes, Dick does have a bias here, because High-Yield Methods developed Visual Workflow. But requirements are requirements are requirements. And if you substitute for six sigma an alternative, albeit more flexible, BPI approach called theory of constraints (TOC)—at least we’d have half "yes" answers.

So, we’ll ask again: Why would we use six sigma in the front office and other variable environments—especially customer-centric environments? Actually, we fibbed before. We can answer that, in two ways.

First, there’s Abraham Maslow’s immortal quote:

When the only tool you own is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.

That’s especially true when six sigma is your only tool—plus you already have a green belt or even a black belt—and using another approach would reduce you to being no better than anyone else.

Second, there’s, "Let’s pretend we’re doing six sigma, so we get some buzz—although all we’re doing is generic business process analysis."

This crap galls us. It’s even caused Dick to break off several past friendships. We’ll give you two quick examples of how this plays out. In one instance, Dick was invited to participate in a global teleconference among a number of supposed "six sigma in sales and marketing" gurus. Throughout the conference, he didn’t hear a whiff of six sigma. Only garbage like, "We may not be measuring to six sigma [actually not to zero sigma], but we’re bringing discipline and measurement to marketing and sales." Can you even imagine any process improvement program that doesn’t require discipline and measurement?

Dick had the pleasure (and the honor) of competing with Dick Evans of Adtrack in the early 1980s, then consulting with him in later years—and especially of consulting with Joe Lethert of Performark for a number of years, starting in the late 1980s. Know what? These guys were delivering discipline and measurement to marketing and sales a decade or more before any loose cannons decided to apply six sigma there. In fact, they were doing it before six sigma reared its head. And during the aforementioned teleconference, Dick related this to the group. In reply, an über black belt said, "But you weren’t measuring." Dick asked him to clean out the ear wax and then repeated himself. He said again, "But you weren’t measuring." Then Dick realized he was in denial, not hard of hearing.

The second instance was seeing a "six sigma in sales and marketing" newsletter that someone gratuitously sent Dick. The cover story was from the editor, protesting accusations (not his) that six sigma in marketing and sales bore no resemblance to six sigma. Her response was a haughty, "Of course, it’s six sigma, we’re measuring," or words to that effect. Raw opportunism is raw opportunism is raw opportunism. Hell, the bad elements of the CRM software industry are more ethical than that.

We rest our case. Now the Six Sigmys can fire back. But do us all a favor. Try rebutting what we actually wrote here, instead of glossing over the facts and delivering yet another round of six sigma puffery. You betcha.

Dick Lee
Consultant, author and educator Dick Lee is founder and principal of High-Yield Methods, a Twin Cities-based consulting firm that helps clients globally manage CRM implementation. David Rance is managing director of Round, a U.K. consulting company dedicated to helping organizations across the world become more customer-centric.


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