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Six Sigma: History, Methods, Tools and Roles

Historical overview

Six Sigma originated as a set of practices designed to improve manufacturing processes and eliminate defects, but its application was subsequently extended to other types of business processes as well. In Six Sigma, a defect is defined as any process output that does not meet customer specifications, or that could lead to creating an output that does not meet customer specifications.
Bill Smith first formulated the particulars of the methodology at Motorola in 1986. Six Sigma was heavily inspired by six preceding decades of quality improvement methodologies such as quality control, TQM, and Zero Defects,[based on the work of pioneers such as Shewhart, Deming, Juran, Ishikawa, Taguchi and others.
Like its predecessors, Six Sigma doctrine asserts that:

  1. Continuous efforts to achieve stable and predictable process results (i.e., reduce process variation) are of vital importance to business success.
  2. Manufacturing and business processes have characteristics that can be measured, analyzed, improved and controlled.
  3. Achieving sustained quality improvement requires commitment from the entire organization, particularly from top-level management.

Features that set Six Sigma apart from previous quality improvement initiatives include:

  1. A clear focus on achieving measurable and quantifiable financial returns from any Six Sigma project.
  2. An increased emphasis on strong and passionate management leadership and support.
  3. A special infrastructure of "Champions," "Master Black Belts," "Black Belts," "Yellow Belts", etc. to lead and implement the Six Sigma approach.
  4. A clear commitment to making decisions on the basis of verifiable data, rather than assumptions and guesswork.

The term "Six Sigma" comes from a field of statistics known as process capability studies. Originally, it referred to the ability of manufacturing processes to produce a very high proportion of output within specification. Processes that operate with "six sigma quality" over the short term are assumed to produce long-term defect levels below 3.4 defects per million opportunities (DPMO). Six Sigma's implicit goal is to improve all processes to that level of quality or better.
Six Sigma is a registered service mark and trademark of Motorola Inc. As of 2006 Motorola reported over US$17 billion in savings from Six Sigma.
Other early adopters of Six Sigma who achieved well-publicized success include Honeywell (previously known as AlliedSignal) and General Electric, where Jack Welch introduced the method.[11] By the late 1990s, about two-thirds of the Fortune 500 organizations had begun Six Sigma initiatives with the aim of reducing costs and improving quality.
In recent years, some practitioners have combined Six Sigma ideas with lean manufacturing to yield a methodology named Lean Six Sigma.


Six Sigma projects follow two project methodologies inspired by Deming's Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle. These methodologies, comprising five phases each, bear the acronyms DMAIC and DMADV.

  1. DMAIC is used for projects aimed at improving an existing business process.
  2. DMADV is used for projects aimed at creating new product or process designs.

The DMAIC project methodology has five phases:

  1. Define the problem, the voice of the customer, and the project goals, specifically.
  2. Measure key aspects of the current process and collect relevant data.
  3. Analyze the data to investigate and verify cause-and-effect relationships. Determine what the relationships are, and attempt to ensure that all factors have been considered. Seek out root cause of the defect under investigation.
  4. Improve or optimize the current process based upon data analysis using techniques such as design of experiments, poka yoke or mistake proofing, and standard work to create a new, future state process. Set up pilot runs to establish process capability.
  5. Control the future state process to ensure that any deviations from target are corrected before they result in defects. Control systems are implemented such as statistical process control, production boards, and visual workplaces and the process is continuously monitored.

The DMADV project methodology, also known as DFSS ("Design For Six Sigma"), features five phases:

  1. Define design goals that are consistent with customer demands and the enterprise strategy.
  2. Measure and identify CTQs (characteristics that are Critical TQuality), product capabilities, production process capability, and risks.
  3. Analyze to develop and design alternatives, create a high-level design and evaluate design capability to select the best design.
  4. Design details, optimize the design, and plan for design verification. This phase may require simulations.
  5. Verify the design, set up pilot runs, implement the production process and hand it over to the process owner(s).

Quality management tools and methods used in Six Sigma
Within the individual phases of a DMAIC or DMADV project, Six Sigma utilizes many established quality-management tools that are also used outside of Six Sigma. The following table shows an overview of the main methods used.

  1. 5 Whys
  2. Analysis of variance
  3. ANOVA Gauge R&R
  4. Axiomatic design
  5. Business Process Mapping
  6. Catapult exercise on variability
  7. Cause & effects diagram (fishbone or Ishikawa diagram)
  8. Chi-square test of independence and fits
  9. Control chart
  10. Correlation
  11. Cost-benefit analysis
  12. CTQ tree
  13. Quantitative marketing research 
  14. Design of experiments
  15. Failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA)
  16. General linear model
  1. Histograms
  2. Homoscedasticity
  3. Quality Function Deployment (QFD)
  4. Pareto chart
  5. Pick chart
  6. Process capability
  7. Regression analysis
  8. Root cause analysis
  9. Run charts
  10. SIPOC analysis (Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, Customers)
  11. Stratification
  12. Taguchi methods
  13. Taguchi Loss Function
  14. TRIZ


Implementation roles

One key innovation of Six Sigma involves the "professionalizing" of quality management functions. Prior to Six Sigma, quality management in practice was largely relegated to the production floor and tostatisticians in a separate quality department. Formal Six Sigma programs borrow martial arts ranking terminology to define a hierarchy (and career path) that cuts across all business functions.
Six Sigma identifies several key roles for its successful implementation.

  1. Executive Leadership includes the CEO and other members of top management. They are responsible for setting up a vision for Six Sigma implementation. They also empower the other role holders with the freedom and resources to explore new ideas for breakthrough improvements.
  1. Champions take responsibility for Six Sigma implementation across the organization in an integrated manner. The Executive Leadership draws them from upper management. Champions also act as mentors to Black Belts.


  1. Master Black Belts, identified by champions, act as in-house coaches on Six Sigma. They devote 100% of their time to Six Sigma. They assist champions and guide Black Belts and Green Belts. Apart from statistical tasks, they spend their time on ensuring consistent application of Six Sigma across various functions and departments.
  1. Black Belts operate under Master Black Belts to apply Six Sigma methodology to specific projects. They devote 100% of their time to Six Sigma. They primarily focus on Six Sigma project execution, whereas Champions and Master Black Belts focus on identifying projects/functions for Six Sigma.


  1. Green Belts, the employees who take up Six Sigma implementation along with their other job responsibilities, operate under the guidance of Black Belts.


    • Yellow Belts, trained in the basic application of Six Sigma management tools, work with the Black Belt throughout the project stages and are often the closest to the work.




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