Six Sigma and HPT are more similar than many realize. I've recently completed a Six Sigma project in Australia and have enjoyed the similarities throughout the entire process.

What is Six Sigma?

Six Sigma is a rigorous methodology that attempts to reduce variability and defects within a process/company using a systematic process and a set of statistical tools. Six Sigma has been adopted and used successfully within major corporations around the globe. The term Six Sigma is based on the statistical theory that defines the accuracy of a process. Operating at 6 Sigma would give a company 99.99966 percent accuracy. Most companies operate at 3 to 4 Sigma.

The Six Sigma methodology uses five steps commonly referred to as DMAIC:

  • Define
  • Measure
  • Analyze
  • Improve
  • Control

Many companies use the structure of Green Belts and Black Belts. Black Belts are the experts at implementing Six Sigma methodology within the company. Green Belts work part-time on Six Sigma projects supporting people who are Black Belt certified.

How do Six Sigma and HPT compare?

My experience with Six Sigma has shown me that HPT and Six Sigma strongly complement each other. As noted in a May 2004 ASTD Links article by Eileen Banchoff and Barbara Stebbins, Six Sigma compares to HPT in the following way.

Six Sigma Phases HPT Phases
Define Performance Analysis
Measure Cause Analysis
Analyze Cause Analysis
Improve Intervention Selection & DesignImplement
Control Evaluation

What I do as an HPT consultant compares with what I've recently done in a Six Sigma project. In the hopes of improving our own HPT processes, I'd like to share some of my personal thoughts and lessons learned. Remember that each Six Sigma experience will be unique to that project and person.

My recent project analyzed the amount of time it takes for a specific change management process from start to finish. We had 13 steps in the process that were included in the analysis. Since the project followed the Six Sigma methodology, I'll review the events as they happened in that order.

Define Phase: (HPT = Performance Analysis Phase)

The Six Sigma Black Belt did an excellent job of collecting representatives from each department to be core team members. One lesson learned for future projects is to ensure those core team members are truly empowered by their superiors if that is what the project requires.

This phase attempted to define the scope of the project, which originally included the 13 steps. The project was scaled down a bit, but it was not enough. This one project could have easily been several smaller projects. On future projects I will review the scope sooner.

Measure Phase: (HPT = Cause Analysis Phase)

During the Measure phase, we did use a Cause and Effects fishbone diagram. The idea was to determine where the problems were, based on each team member's opinion. Unfortunately, the facilitation of this diagram raised more questions than it answered. Solutions were being suggested during our Cause and Effects analysis, before we had collected any data.

This phase was also difficult because the Black Belt was from another area of the organization and therefore unfamiliar with our terminology. Because of this, the team spent extra effort explaining terms and processes that we all understood.

This was also the phase where we collected our data. The data collection technique the team chose was not truly a Six Sigma tool, which led to some difficulties. The data collection technique had been previously used successfully at another organization. However, in hindsight, it led to some difficulties for our project. The chosen data collection technique was collecting detailed information for all 13 steps. The opposing viewpoint was to collect high-level data on all 13 steps to get the big picture. From the high-level data, the critical points could then be determined and deep-dived individually. It was decided to deep dive the whole process. In doing so, we sacrificed the quantity of the data collected. We could only collect a small sample because of the amount of time taken by the deep dive. Therefore, the conclusions were based on a few samples, rather than many samples. My lesson learned during this was to keep the data gathering simple, because people are voluntarily contributing to your project. Frustrating them is not the way to say "Thank you." However, this did solidify in my mind the need for HPT projects to be based on data and numbers.

The measure phase also included good qualitative data gathered by a team of interviewers. It was great to have the quantitative and qualitative data to compare.

Analyze Phase: (HPT = Cause Analysis Phase)

The statistics are brought into the Six Sigma methodology during this phase. The Black Belts are trained in the statistical tools and interpretations. Six Sigma has some excellent computer programs to create Pareto charts, box plots and many other statistical graphs. These charts make the outcomes clear and help determine the critical areas that need interventions. Having data that clearly shows and supports the upcoming phases of intervention and implementation is an incredible strength.

Improve Phase: (HPT = Intervention Selection & Design, Implement)

Once the data was analyzed and the critical areas were identified, the team suggested possible interventions based on global best practices. Through team meetings, ideas were generated and possible interventions were brainstormed. This aspect of the project felt a bit rushed because we were behind on the Six Sigma deadline. One area of downfall was that assumptions were made regarding the level of empowerment on the team and agreement from mid-level managers. Also, because of the time limitations, only a few individuals made the decisions on what interventions would be implemented at Ford of Australia. These things led to some issues as the project progressed to upper management.

Another area of concern was that the suggested interventions were actually the original solutions people developed prior to completing the project or collecting data. While the data collected supported those interventions, what about being open minded to other suggested interventions? It appears possible that the title of a Six Sigma project was used to get upper management to approve the changes people already knew needed to happen. Yes, this sometimes happens in organizations, but what other creative interventions could have been developed outside of the preconceived solutions?

Control Phase: (HPT = Evaluation Phase)

Six Sigma does have a control phase that matches the HPT evaluation phase. Our Black Belt didn't have the team create the control plan for our project, possibly due to schedule constraints. A detailed control plan was created after the project was finished.

The Six Sigma project technically closed at this stage with the Black Belt moving onto other projects. However, there is a department taking on the responsibility of piloting the interventions and evaluating the effectiveness.

Although the Six Sigma project is officially closed, I feel the Improve Phase and Control Phase were too rushed and didn't include the entire project team. In order for the benefits to be fully realized, the cycle has to be completed with proper evaluation and changes, just as a full HPT cycle would include. From a team member standpoint the project felt a bit unfinished because the team was not included in the Implementation and Control Phase planning. Also, once a Six Sigma project is "closed", that Black Belt moves onto other projects, regardless of how long our pilot or implementation takes.

In summary, my experience with Six Sigma has been extremely positive. HPT has a powerful knowledge of how the people affect the processes and has a stronger grasp of the evaluation phases. Six Sigma clearly has more powerful data collection to support the outcomes. The Six Sigma methodology strongly compliments what we already do as HPT professionals. Below are a few of my specific lessons learned.

Define Phase: (HPT = Performance Analysis Phase)

  • Check the scope and be willing to downsize.
  • Know as much as possible about the departmental processes being evaluated.
  • Take the time to clearly define the problem. Don't push forward too fast.

Measure Phase: (HPT = Cause Analysis Phase)

  • Be willing to listen to the people collecting the data if changes are suggested.
  • Take the time to collect data because it provides an almost impenetrable base for the suggested interventions.

The Analyze Phase: (HPT = Cause Analysis Phase)

  • Be open to other solutions not just pre-conceived ideas.

Improve Phase: (HPT = Intervention Selection & Design, Implement)

  • Don't rush through the final phases.
  • Involve all team members in the decisions.
  • Make sure lower-level stakeholders buy into your solutions before you take it to upper management.

Control Phase: (HPT = Evaluation Phase)

  • Include all team members.
  • Take time to plan this phase or it may never happen.

2006 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.