Since their first rummages in the outside world, as presented in documented history, humans have found a close link between their observations and the language of mathematics.
Pythagoras, in ancient Greece, was a proponent of the view that numbers held the key to understanding the world around us and saw patterns (such as that the squared value of a hypotenuse is equal to the squared value of the other two sides of the triangle) which he felt underlied important existential qualities. At a later stage in history, and presented in the
opening epithet, Galileo Galilei saw the significance of numbers and went to ascribe the qualities of a mathematician to the creator.
A question arises as to whether mathematics is in fact interwoven in the very fabric of nature, or whether it is an invention of the human mind projected onto all that we perceive.
While the existentialist questions remain fertile ground for philosophers’ reviews, the practical applications are being seen increasingly as of value to the organisations.
The link of mathematics to the business world is possibly less pervasive than that held with the academic sphere. While one of the earliest forms of writing, cuneiform, developed by the Sumerians, was mainly used to depict numerical transactions of stock levels and sales, a good part of activities in the middle ages were carried out with little consideration and/or understanding of mathematics.
In a sense, the value of linking the two outside of accountancy was only re-established with the advent of scientific management. With the development of the production line at the Ford plant and its emulators, the notions of time and motion, performance measurement and efficiency levels came to the forefront. Today there is a growing recognition that numbers and data can help organisations achieve and maintain results, leading to a growth in the use of tools and frameworks such as that of Six Sigma.
Six Sigma puts a focus on the customer and uses facts and data to drive better solutions. The methodology aims at improving customer satisfaction, reducing time that is not value adding, and reducing defects (Pande and Holpp, 2002). The Six Sigma methodology was originally developed at Motorola in 1982, and since then it has been adopted by companies such as General Electric, Allied-Signal, Ford Motor Company and others. While the historical origins lie within the manufacturing world including the quality function, supply-chain processes and production lines, Six Sigma is also being increasingly seen of value within the services industry, including hospitality, telecommunications, financial services, and others, where emphasis is being placed on the quality of customer service, as well as on the need for achieving good efficiency levels
In what follows, an attempt will be made to present an overview of the Six Sigma process, in such a way as to illustrate the potential benefits this holds for driving change and success within organisations. Consideration will be given to what is typically considered to be the de facto Six Sigma approach, namely the one which was refined by General Electric in the United States and which has come to be known as the DMAIC model. The model will be outlined in such a way as to give a flavour of the approach.
The General Electric approach.
General Electric was the company that expanded on the seminal work of Motorola and standardized the Six Sigma methodology (Stamatis, 2004). The company suggested that when implementing the process, organisations and practitioners should focus on the following five steps, which together make up the DMAIC model:
- Define - identify the improvement opportunity.
- Measure - account for the current performance.
- Analyse - evaluate the primary contributors.
- Improve - enhance the operation or process.
- Control - regulate (verify) the improved operation or process.
The methodology might come across as familiar to individuals cognizant of the scientific methodology in that, when all is said and done, Six Sigma represents an attempt at expanding this approach to the workplace.
Define is the first stage of the process and the aim at this point is to get organised, and identify what the company should be aiming at. Studies typically start with a hypothesis which lays the groundwork for the additional sections in the study. When defining a Six Sigma intervention one should determine the key members involved, their roles and responsibilities
as well as the goals and milestones to be achieved (Stamatis, 2004).
Consideration should be given as to how to obtain direct meaningful information from the customer, the scope of the project as well as the means to arriving at cause and effect - if this groundwork is not carried out well at the outset, it will not be possible to arrive at a meaningful results once the data is at hand.
Measure, in scientific reporting, represents the information that is typically presented in the methodology section. In the Six Sigma methodology, it is important that formal and informal observation is carried out before an actual measurement process to ensure that effective data is captured. Six Sigma also encourages use of continuous data (such as average sales per region) as opposed to discrete data (such as sales per day) as this allows the practitioner to draw generalisations from the information at hand. At this point, the team establishes the techniques for collecting data about current performance that highlights project opportunities and provides a structure for monitoring subsequent improvements. Subsequently, a plan is laid out for data collection, with use of an instrument with validated psychometric properties. This process allows the setting up of a baseline measure, which can then be compared with the results obtained following implementation of the Six Sigma initiative (Stamatis, 2004).
In the third stage, or Analyze stage one would strive to arrive at an understanding of the outcomes obtained, or to return to the scientific method analogy, to the results of the investigation. The Six Sigma approach, however, also differs from the scientific approach in that at this point (and together with the following stage), the practitioner is also encouraged to continue
improving and streamlining processes, once the data is at hand. The practitioner strives to develop an appropriate understanding of the data and to arrive at its functionalutilisation (Pande, Neuman and Cavanagh, 2002).
In the Improve stage an attempt is made to generate novel ideas, designs and procedures and corresponds closely to the Discussion section in the classical scientific reporting. Important Six Sigma tools in this stage are the process of brainstorming, the development of the “should be” process map, the review and/or generation of the current FMEA (failure mode and effect analysis), a pilot of the recommended action and the preliminary implementation process (Stamatis, 2004). At this point, the creative element becomes of crucial importance in elucidation and derivation of outcomes.
The final stage, is the Control stage and at this point an attempt is made to crystallize the process and product improvements, while also monitoring the ongoing performance. This is a delicate point in the process as here the outcomes resulting from the investigation, measurement, and re-engineering of the process is passed on back to the original owner of the process. It becomes critical to have this process managed in a detailed and controlled plan to ensure that any benefits identified in the investigation are transferred to the persons responsible for the process on a day-today basis (Smith, Blakeslee and Koonce, 2002).
The validity of the Six Sigma process is increasingly being demonstrated through the results practitioners achieve in the implementation of large scale projects but also through quick wins within organisations. In short, the approach is popular because it works and gives results.
In many ways, Six Sigma represents a new name for an age old practice: striving for near-perfect products and services for customers. By making recourse to numerical tools and a structured, referenced approach, Six Sigma presents a means for business to achieve and maintain results, while working within a conceptually sound framework. Six Sigma provides the fishing rod, but also the technique and measurement tools to make the fishing process sound. If the universe, of which the business world forms part, follows the rules of mathematics, harnessing this will prove to be of value for any business venture.
Content for this article was researched using the ISL’s Skillsoft online e-books and online lecturing tools:
- Pande, P., & Holpp, L. (2002). The Six Sigma Success Story.
- Pande, P., Neuman, R. P., & Cavanagh, R. R. (2002) The Six Sigma Way Team Fieldbook: An Implementation Guide for Process Improvement Teams.
- Smith, D., Blakeslee, J., & Koonce, R. (2002). Strategic Six Sigma: Best Practices from the Executive Suite.
- Stamatis, D. H. (2004). Six Sigma Fundamentals: A Complete Guide to the Systems, Methods and Tools.
Calvin Cassar is currently employed as Human Resources Manager at FTIAS, part of FTI GmbH, a multi-national company operating in the tourism industry. He holds particular interest and expertise in recruitment, assessment and quantitative analyses having gained exposure in these through academic as well as work experiences.