Gain Speed by Losing Tools

ISE Magazine Volume : 50 Number: 01
By Satya S. Chakravorty

Sometimes Six Sigma is more of an albatross than a solution

When threats intensify, executives who refuse to lose their tools can turn these dramas into disasters, and serious challenges become unnecessary failures.

Consider two separate tragedies. In 1994, 14 firefighters lost their lives in South Canyon, Colorado, while 45 years earlier 13 firefighters died in Mann Gulch, Montana. In both cases, the victims were slowed down because they did not drop their heavy tools. With their inefficient retreat, all the firefighters died before reaching safe areas.

And it pays to drop your tools in other arenas: Air Force fighter pilots sometimes prefer the cocoon of oxygen in the cockpit instead of ejecting, causing them to go down with fatally damaged aircraft. Navy personnel sometimes keep their steel-toed shoes on when abandoning ship, either drowning or punching holes in the rafts that could save their lives. Karl Wallenda fell during a high-wire walk and grabbed the rope with one hand while holding his balance pole with his other hand. The weight of the pole was too much, and he plummeted to his death.

The lesson is simple: Executives need to know that even the most valuable tools have limits, and at times such tools need to be dropped.

At times,speed is essential

The Mann Gulch disaster was made famous in Norman Maclean’s 1992 book Young Men and Fire. While some men threw away their equipment before Dodge’s order, others did not. One person, Jim Harrison, was exhausted from fighting the fire and sat with his heavy pack on, making no effort to take it off.

Three possibilities explain why firefighters refused to drop their tools: Tools were costly, too many simultaneous activities were taking place and they failed to realize the power of small changes.

First, firefighters had learned during training programs that equipment and tools not only were costly but were the key to survival. They spent hours learning how to use, carry and take care of their tools. They were trained to protect them by putting them down away from flames, which eats up precious time. As Maclean described the events at Mann Gulch, one firefighter trying to outrun the fire stopped, took a colleague’s shovel and “leaned it against a pine tree.”

Second, both disaster sites had simultaneous, life-threatening action taking place on many levels. The firefighters experienced information overload as they tried to assess the size of the flames, check wind direction, dodge flying debris, deal with smoke, weigh escape routes, follow their foreman’s orders and deal with physical exhaustion. With the looming threat of death bearing down, there was too much information to process. They became overwhelmed and made mistakes, which included holding on to heavy tools.

Third, the firefighters failed to realize the impact of small changes. Although many people consider small changes trivial, even a few extra inches per second could mean the difference between life and death. One analysis of the chain of events at South Canyon revealed that the firefighters could have outrun the approaching blaze if they had dropped their tools five minutes earlier.

There are similarities between these tragedies and the business world, and although loss of life is unlikely, not learning from these examples could yield huge financial setbacks or kill companies.

Six Sigma failures

Our study is based on many companies from various industries: home furnishings, aerospace, consumer goods, heavy metal, food and beverages.

In these companies, operations had become disorganized with haphazard expansion, mergers and acquisitions. Over the years, many product lines were introduced, but old ones were not discontinued. One company was offering more than 65,000 SKUs while launching 3,000 new SKUs a year. While manufacturing and distribution operations generally worked, they appeared more like a giant plate of spaghetti with operations intertwined and with flow patterns entangled. Consistently adding new technology like CNC, robots, vertical lift modules and high-speed conveyors added to the chaos and confusion. Information technology was a sore point because mergers and acquisitions brought different legacy systems with many redundancies and incompatibilities. In short, as the companies grew, no systemic analysis was performed to streamline operations or eliminate waste.

These companies implemented Six Sigma to improve operational performance and competitiveness. Implementation followed the classic model. A steering team of experts (e.g., black belts with proven track records) coordinated implementation with support from managers. The objective was to drive improvements from the bottom by forming improvement teams from all functional areas, such as production and distribution operations, human resources and sales and marketing. A continuous improvement database was established, the status of all improvements efforts was disseminated, and high visibility was maintained throughout the implementation. With managers’ support, the steering team developed improvement teams from different functional areas.

In the dying phase, no team member steps up. Minus process mapping and analysis, team members focus on their daily routines and old, comfortable ways of working. System performance regresses to the pre-implementation level and shows a downward trend.

Why they hold on too tightly

Like the firefighters, the improvement team members held on to Six Sigma tools because tools were costly, too many simultaneous activities were taking place and the members failed to realize the power of small changes.

The team believed the Six Sigma tools were costly for three reasons.

First there was the hype. Meetings touted the methodology’s benefits, while numerous presentations and emails emphasized that Six Sigma relies on objective data, uses robust statistical analysis and builds models for smart decision-making.

Second, improvement teams received a lot of training and know that Six Sigma certification could cost $5,000 or more per person. This doesn’t include statistical software. And while team members had high school diplomas or college degrees, they had little or no statistical background and were suitably impressed with exotic terms like “process (versus functional) view,” DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve and control) methodology, histograms, Pareto charts, sampling, statistical inferences, regression analysis, analysis of variance (ANOVA), design of experiments (DOE) and statistical process control (SPC).

Third, there was intense data collection from different ERP (enterprise resource planning) databases, data scrubbing and data validating activities, followed by statistical model building efforts. Obviously, with that much data and analysis, team members were bound to find things that needed remedial actions or interventions. Over many Six Sigma projects, these efforts generated 100 to 300 pages of tables and graphs, many of which were proudly displayed in hallways, conference rooms or offices.

But after the Six Sigma project was done, the new way of working implemented and the improvement expert moved on, carrying on the improvements fell on the shoulders of the improvement teams. They already were burdened with daily job requirements and had difficulty maneuvering through ERP databases to clean and validate data.

Lessons learned

Three lessons stand out from this study.

First, applying Six Sigma tools (e.g., ANOVA, DOE or SPC) often creates unnecessary information overload by requiring extensive training and excessive data and analysis interpretations. Many trainees, some of whom struggle with basic algebra, pore over hundreds of pages of training material that cover statistical concepts that they barely understand. This can create brain overload in workers who must simultaneously deal with the daily complexity of their operations where chaos and confusion often prevail.

The second lesson is that too many simultaneous improvement initiatives (e.g., Six Sigma, ERP, TPM or sustainability) create unnecessary busy work. Cross-functional improvement teams are created. While it is reasonable to expect employees who attend these meetings to respond to emails or phone calls, they often end up serving on too many teams.

The third lesson is that small improvements made frequently are significantly better than a big improvement made every now and then.

Simple examples from everyday life can lend support to this lesson. Lasting and happy marriages are created by putting a little daily effort into the relationships, not by giving the biggest bouquet on Valentine’s Day. Raising children is also the same way. Providing tender loving care daily beats minimal daily attention followed by a big trip to Disney World. Likewise, maintaining good health or becoming a world-class athlete or musician depends on small improvements every day.

The bottom line is that small things do make a difference. And those small things can quickly add up to make a big impact. Executives need to encourage small improvements from their employees. Cultivate thoughtful companywide suggestions for improvement programs, but do not install impersonal suggestion boxes on the walls, where many employees spitefully discard their chewing gum or leave inappropriate messages.