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The History of Six Sigma


Six Sigma is a whole lot more than the conventional quality tools which are often haphazardly applied. While none of the tools in Six Sigma are considered to be new Six Sigma however provides a roadmap, on how and when to use each tool. Conventional training and improvement methods do not do that. Furthermore (and most importantly) Six Sigma requires that projects actually affect the bottom line a significant amount. Conventional methods also do not require that. And perhaps most importantly Six Sigma requires accountability from the project leader.

With the success and growth in popularity of the Six Sigma methodologies it has lead many people to wonder how Six Sigma came about. The roots of Six Sigma as a measurement standard can be traced back to Carl Frederick Gauss (1777-1855) who introduced the concept of the normal curve into manufacturing standards. Six Sigma as a measurement standard in product variation can be traced back to the 1920's when Walter Shewhart showed that three sigma from the mean is the point where a process will requires correction.

Many measurement standards later came on the scene but credit for coining the term "Six Sigma" goes to a Motorola engineer named Bill Smith. (Incidentally it is interesting to note that, "Six Sigma" is a federally registered trademark of Motorola).

During the early and mid-1980s with Chairman Bob Galvin at the helm, Motorola engineers decided that the traditional quality levels (measuring defects in thousands of opportunities) did not provide enough granularity. Instead, they wanted to measure the defects that happened per million opportunities. Motorola then developed this new standard and created the methodology and needed cultural change associated with it. Six Sigma helped Motorola realize powerful bottom-line results in their organization so much in fact; they documented more than $18 Billion in savings as a result of Six Sigma efforts.

Motorola has launched thousands of improvement projects during that time. A key realization that leads to this in the 1980's was that a product quality issue usually resulted from the accumulation of defects in the manufacturing process. During the 1990's and a time of rapid expansion, Six Sigma was then used to improve supplier quality and to replicate successful processes around the world. The next transformation, which was named Digital Six Sigma, occurred in early 2003. The core methodology was now directed at very high-leverage issues, and a variety of new digital tools were then integrated into the system.

Since then, hundreds of companies around the world have adopted Six Sigma as their way of doing business. This is a direct result of many of America's top manufacturing leaders openly praising the benefits of Six Sigma. Some of these leaders are Larry Bossidy of Allied Signal (now Honeywell), and Jack Welch of General Electric Company. Allegedly it has been rumored that Larry and Jack were playing golf one day and Jack bet Larry that he could implement Six Sigma faster and with greater results at GE than Larry did at Allied Signal. The results now speak for themselves.

Six Sigma has greatly evolved over time. It is now more than just a quality system like TQM or ISO. It's a way of doing business that is efficient with both time and money. As Geoff Tennant describes in his highly popular book Six Sigma: SPC and TQM in Manufacturing and Services:

"Six Sigma is many things, and it would perhaps be easier to list all the things that Six Sigma quality is not. Six Sigma can be seen as: a vision; a philosophy; a symbol; a metric; a goal; a methodology." Proponents of Six Sigma could not agree more.

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