General Electric is renowned for the success of its Six Sigma improvement programme which has contributed several billions of dollars to the company’s bottom line as well as delivering improvements in customer satisfaction. GE was not the first to adopt Six Sigma – the approach originated at Motorola, but it was the first major corporation to also extensively deploy the approach in non-manufacturing businesses.

Many other companies across manufacturing and service sectors have since adopted Six Sigma and achieved proportionately similar results.

There are many reasons for GE’s Six Sigma success, though arguably the most significant contributing factor has been the constancy of leadership during the reign of Jack Welch. Six Sigma was a consuming passion for him and all the business leaders working for him, and as a result the company made the necessary investment in training and releasing its people to undertake the process improvement and design projects that are characteristic of the Six Sigma approach. Because of sustained determination and persistence with the approach the investment has paid back many times over.

But not every company has a Jack Welch look-alike, and in today’s tough business climate CEOs are increasingly focussed on short-term results from a declining level of investments. Many are impatient and demand results in the current quarter when many Six Sigma projects typically take two quarters to complete. How can we persuade the CEO to invest in Six Sigma if this requires a substantial initial investment and a payback period of close to a year in its beginning phase – no matter how good the results of companies that have invested over years to achieve three-fold paybacks in the later years?

Of course one answer is to find ways to lower the starting hurdle to get Six Sigma results. Most companies have many processes with cost incurring steps that add no real value. Even manufacturing companies that have embraced Six Sigma have often not paid enough attention to their support service and transaction processes! Many initial Six Sigma projects do not require ‘rocket-science’ techniques and complex statistical analysis – though that may well be useful later for more intractable problems once the more straightforward ones have been tackled. For every major problem that requires complex analysis there is likely to be at least one other that can be solved simply - provided we can assemble the facts and use fully the knowledge and experience of the people affected.

So the first ingredient is to select the right initial projects – those problems significant and urgent to the business that have a high probability of being quickly and effectively addressed with a minimum of complex analysis.

The second ingredient is to simplify and shorten the training cycle to get people proficient in those limited number of simpler tools and techniques truly essential to completing these initial projects expeditiously. Whilst the traditional Six Sigma Black Belt (project leader) training has taken 4 weeks or more and Green Belt (project team members or leaders of more localised projects) 2 weeks, the fast-track training for initial projects for both team leaders and members can be reduced to a week or less with considerable consequent financial and time savings.

The third ingredient is the Six Sigma project methodology. More complex projects of course require the full traditional DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control) approach and toolset, but what if we could call timeout on these steps? We can - provided that the solution is within the knowledge and experience of the people affected by the problem, and provided that simple facts and data are available and sufficient to identify the root causes and develop an appropriate solution. This may well be the case for the correctly selected initial projects we referred to above.

Getting the decision makers directly involved with the project team is also important enabling the business to cut through and implement improvements in an accelerated timescale.