Inadequate Infrastructure

The Stupid Six Sigma Tricks countdown continues this month with an increasingly common error: “Inadequate Infrastructure.” By infrastructure, I mean those systems and processes that need to be in place in order to support the objectives of Six Sigma.

Regardless of how you define Six Sigma, we expect to see Black Belts working as problem-solving experts attempting to make big improvements. The Black Belts get all the glory but, as is usually the case, the success of the few in the limelight is due to the efforts of many others.

Frequently, those who are making the buying decision about Six Sigma are given the task to call up and ask: “Hello. I would like to get some people trained as Black Belts.”

I’m a trainer, and as such I have one of two responses:

Response 1:
“Great! Send me the money and your trainees,” in that order.

Response 2:
“Great! If you want to train some Black Belts, you must have already implemented Six Sigma. What’s the status of your Six Sigma implementation? What support structure do your Black Belts have? How have you chosen your Black Belt candidates? How have you selected their projects?”

While I prefer response 2, I honestly don’t know that the first response is wrong. I like the second response because I know how difficult it’s going to be for a newly trained Black Belt to come back to a business without a structure to support the work project. They have enough to do solving difficult problems, so trying to figure out what they need and how to build it, while still learning to apply the concepts, is bound to be overwhelming.

On the other hand, if I’m talking to someone from a company that has recognized a need for some sort of fundamental change in how they do things, perhaps they’re best served by having some people trained in the tools, and who then begin to recognize the need to build additional support systems.

I generally settle for gently mentioning that Black Belts need a complete system to reach their maximum effectiveness, while warning my Black Belts of the difficulties they will encounter at a business without such a system.

Black Belts are on the front line of change and there are many hats they need to wear: change agent, statistical expert, problem-solving expert, internal management consultant, peacemaker, gadfly, politician, etc. They have a tough job already, so what needs to be in place for them to remain somewhat sane?

Support elements

Let’s use the definition of Six Sigma as a companywide effort to improve profitability through the use of advanced problem-solving techniques (a more general definition than I talked about previously, but compatible). If this is what we need to accomplish, what systems need to be in place?

Single point person

I tell my implementation champion trainees that they need to choose one executive management member to head up implementing Six Sigma and the systems that go with it. That person leads an implementation steering committee, but the lead is the person charged with the successful completion of the implementation.

If you put more than one person in charge of getting something done, no one is in charge of getting it done—and it’s always the other person’s fault.

This gives the Black Belt hierarchy a high-level person to interact with to bypass gatekeepers, so the real situation can be communicated to a level that can react as needed.

Six Sigma integrated into strategic plan

The projects that your Black Belts are working on need to be aligned with the strategic direction of the company. You can’t just tack on a parallel system—if you do that, you’re just stealing resources from those efforts your company has deemed critical to its survival. The Six Sigma effort itself must be part of that plan so that it receives the proper resources, priority and focus to be successful.

Training system

The Six Sigma training system needs to fit within the existing training structure to identify Six Sigma training candidates, set up the training events, track their completion and performance, and continuously improve the training system itself.

Project identification, prioritization and selection system

In my experience, this is one of the areas in which businesses really don’t do a good job.

If you have a good strategic planning and policy deployment process (which most businesses don’t), you will periodically figure out what needs to be done to position the business for “success.” Part of this process compares the current performance to the needed performance so these goals can be achieved. The sources of data for this gap analysis are many:

  • External sources:
    • Customer quality assurance data
    • Supplier quality assurance data
  • Internal sources:
    • Business key performance indicators (KPIs) and nonfinancial indicators (NFIs)
    • Data generated from the local processes
    • Discrepancy analyses on strategic intents

In the extremely likely event that you’re resource-constrained, the gaps between current and desired states need to be prioritized based on costs, likelihood of success, likely benefit and time required to completion. Large gaps would need strategic efforts to achieve your objectives, and, as such, would be prime possibilities for Black Belt projects. Smaller gaps or areas where you were at target would need tactical monitoring to avoid backsliding and would be deployed to your continuous improvement system. Policy deployment (a.k.a. hoshin kanri) then takes place to translate these strategic and tactical objectives into local projects which make or support the improvements.

I will probably end up writing about this topic in more detail some time, but for now let’s just take it as a given that it needs to be part of the Six Sigma infrastructure in order to get Black Belts good projects.

Results reporting

This is another area where I’m frequently surprised to find an inadequate process. Most teams do a good job of defining how they’re going to report back to their sponsor or champion, and sometimes the champion has a good way of keeping their co-managers up to date on the project status, but rarely have I found businesses that do a good job of reporting the successes—and more importantly the failures—of Six Sigma projects to the entire company. The successes build an understanding of the benefits of Six Sigma as well as provide a way to leverage the solution in one area across the entire business. Publicizing the failures and why they failed is critical in optimizing your Six Sigma process.

I’m not saying you publish a note to everyone saying, “Black Belt Joe messed up, and so his project failed.” That isn’t a very good root-cause analysis. When a Six Sigma project fails, you have an opportunity to examine the edge (and beyond) of the operating envelope of your current Six Sigma process. Successful projects could have been no-brainers, or “low-hanging fruit,” or may have required good honest work, but you aren’t likely to learn much about how to make your own Six Sigma better by examining such success stories. The failures show when your reach exceeds your grasp, and analyzing those cases can lead to significant improvements for future project leaders.

Plus, everyone knows about the failures anyway. You might as well be honest and attempt to learn from them.

The ultimate measure of the success of your Six Sigma effort is in the effects on the overall business measures, and these should be tracked and communicated as well. As Dr. Deming said, the effect of improvements may be “unknown and unknowable,” so you may not be able to say that this $200,000 came from Six Sigma, but you should be able to show a long-term and sustainable improvement in the critical business measures. This keeps upper management focused on the benefits to the business as well. If these KPIs aren’t getting better, then something is flawed in your strategic planning or policy deployment, and you’re probably working on the wrong things.


I’m not a big fan of monetary incentives, but they’re helpful in inducing the cultural change you’re seeking by fully implementing Six Sigma.

The attitude that managers have toward something is communicated to all of their subordinates, and if you have a manager poisoning the Six Sigma well, it’ll cause you to waste a lot of time and money, and may endanger the entire effort. Upper-level managers respond well to incentives linked to specific achievables, such as implementing Six Sigma in their area. They respond better to firing the doofus who’s the recalcitrant roadblock, but we must give them a carrot first. For those of you remembering Deming’s point No. 8, sometimes a needed firing in the management caste helps drive fear out of the organization, not in.

Perpetuating Six Sigma

Of course, our objective is to make it such that Six Sigma isn’t a separate program or effort, but rather just the way we deal with certain situations requiring advanced problem solving. To that end, we have to perpetuate these ideals until they become part of the corporate culture. A plan to move toward this goal needs to be built-in from the beginning, otherwise you can end up with “Six Sigma Shamans” perpetuating their power base instead of Six Sigma concepts.

This goal is achieved by visible management involvement and commitment, honest communication of results, tangible improvements visible to the worker and the business as a whole, and the…

Continuous improvement of Six Sigma

There’s no single answer on how a particular company is going to achieve its Six Sigma goals, so Six Sigma itself will need to be customized over time, while staying true to the scientific method. Any process, including Six Sigma, will degrade over time without an ongoing effort to improve it.

In the short term, a Six Sigma steering committee, or whatever you call it, should be looking for ways of smoothing the edges and making this process more effective for the business. In the long term, these continuous improvements should make Six Sigma disappear as a separately defined process, until it’s just part of the culture.

Effects of SSST #7

This stupid Six Sigma trick comes up due to the modern equivalent of a “magical” belief system. The logic goes something like this:

  • Black Belts learn many arcane things not meant for the eyes of the uninitiated
  • Black Belts lead projects that save a lot of money and solve problems
  • Therefore, Black Belts are magical beings and are all I need to save money and solve my problems.

So while the logic is flawless, it leads to an incorrect conclusion because the assumptions are flawed.

Black Belts who have been trained in the tools and methods of advanced problem solving haven’t typically been trained in the development of the infrastructure that they’ll need to become effective. They probably aren’t at the right level in the organization to make those changes anyway. If they come back to their business with problem-solving expertise, but work on the wrong problems due to the absence of good project-selection, they can hardly be responsible for Six Sigma’s failure to show results. However, the business doesn’t capture the benefit and Six Sigma (and probably the poor Black Belts) will get the blame.

A Black Belt trainee was going back to a business that had no infrastructure. We talked about some potential projects on which he might work. In the absence of a good project selection system, his project became, “Call all the customers and tell them to pay us,” which of course is no Black Belt project at all. While he certainly affected the bottom line, they didn’t need someone with four weeks of advanced problem solving to do that.

To avoid performing this stupid Six Sigma trick, a business needs to put in place processes that support the project work that the Black Belts will be doing. These include:

  • A single point person responsible for implementing and overseeing Six Sigma
  • Integrating Six Sigma into the strategic plan
  • An integrated Six Sigma training system
  • A project identification, prioritization and selection system
  • Reporting results from Six Sigma
  • Incentives to implement and continue Six Sigma
  • Perpetuating Six Sigma
  • Continuous improvement of Six Sigma

If these elements aren’t present, your Black Belts will be working at a huge disadvantage on the wrong projects with a result that’s likely not reflected to the bottom line, thus wasting the time and money used to train them.

But I could be wrong.