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Preparing for Six Sigma

Is your organization on a Lean journey? When did it start? When does it end? Where is your organization along this path? Are you on the road to Six Sigma? Do you need to be?

All organizations (yes, yours too) require top executives to provide the vision, methods, and tools to meet “manufacturing objectives” successfully. From mature industries and big logos to fledgling disruptors, eventually, every company experiences the “burning platform,” pandemic response, or other significant impetus that drives the roll-out of a dedicated “improvement program.”

We have discussed Lean and Six Sigma in previous blogs (here, here, here, and here) and explained their similarities and differences. This particular discussion focuses on your organization’s preparation for Six Sigma and what you need to accomplish along the way.

Let’s remember that Six Sigma is not an adjective or a “state” of being. Six Sigma is a specialized method of problem-solving and process control where the organization strives to reduce negative outcomes (e.g., defects, downtime, and scrap) from an already low to a minuscule level of 3.4 failures per million opportunities (99.99967% success rate).

First, we assume you have a defined management vision, Lean trained resources on site, an active continuous improvement program, and are successfully executing projects in waste, scrap, and downtime reduction. If our assumption here is wrong, then take an honest look at where you are in the following areas with respect to your preparation for this advanced problem-solving methodology.

  • Have you made people available to dedicate themselves to the success of the effort? Is there low turnover and an absence of overload/burnout?
  • Have you provided the appropriate training and tools for them to be successful in the effort? Have you matched the training to your organizational needs and maturity?
  • Have you prepared your facility in a neat, clean, and safely-arranged manner so that waste can be easily identified? Is it regimented and woven into the site culture?
  • Have you addressed and mitigated the eight common forms of waste?
  • Have you adopted and followed a formal method to identify the root causes of recurring problems on the shop floor?
  • Continuous Improvement. Have you institutionalized your waste/cost reduction efforts and made them part of normal operations? Have you addressed the bulk of “low-hanging fruit”?
  • Results. Have you defined, measured (including financial impact), posted, and implemented actions from project outcomes? Have these results started to plateau irrespective of volume?

If our assumption was correct, you are ready for the next steps, including introducing advanced problem-solving techniques and associated tools, which can be done using a formal training program or an outside service provider to educate and instruct on Six Sigma techniques.

Some of the Six Sigma tools in wide use today which may look or sound familiar include:

  • SIPOC/COPIS Process Mapping methods (supplier, input, process, output, customer)
  • Graphic Analysis (control charts, SPC, Pareto/histogram, scatterplot/regression)
  • Root Cause Analysis (RCA) (5-Why, Fishbone, CTQ Tree)
  • Process Capability Studies (how well our process delivers to the customers’ specifications)
  • Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) (identifying the most influential source of variation (Gage R&R))
  • Design of Experiments (DoE) (isolating and addressing sources of process variation)


Six Sigma is not something that is typically selected as the first option for improvement. A firm ultimately ends up on the road to Six Sigma when basic Lean tenets of waste elimination and employee culture have been mastered, the low-hanging fruit has been harvested, and structural cost improvements have been realized and maintained. It is the path to follow when your greatest operational problems are systemic and complex, with nebulous or confounding root causes.

If you need help identifying your firm’s maturity, pinpointing operational gaps in a Lean framework, or even if you are advanced but need help with a strategic Six Sigma roll-out, reach out to St. Onge Company. We have years of experience designing, implementing, and guiding operational improvement programs, and we can help you move from the “Lean On-ramp” onto the Road to Six Sigma.
—Mike Noll, St. Onge Company

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