Is It Greek To You?

Let's Talk About Six

By boosting quality and achieving financial success, Motorola made itself a model for other companies. Six Sigma, however, is more than a way to measure manufacturing quality, says Mario Perez-Wilson, who helped develop the Six Sigma philosophy and techniques at Motorola and is now a principal consultant at Advanced Systems Consultants, a Scottsdale, Arizona, engineering and processes improvement consulting firm specializing in Six Sigma. It can be applied to a company's services as well, such as customer service, delivery performance--virtually any aspect of a business.

"Six Sigma views a business as a bunch of processes, which include administrative processes, service processes, transactional processes and manufacturing processes," Perez-Wilson says. "[Implementing it] makes everybody look at all the company's processes."

Although Six Sigma is a goal that doesn't specify precisely how companies should attempt to achieve it, there are a number of quality improvement tricks Six Sigma fans often employ. The first step in achieving Six Sigma is accurately understanding and optimizing all of a company's processes. Standard procedure is to break an operation, such as assembling a product or processing an invoice, down into small steps and use statistical analysis techniques to see how well each process performs. Without knowing the number and nature of defects you're currently producing, you won't be able to monitor progress toward goals.

Once you determine your defect rate, there are a number of tools you can use to edge closer to Six Sigma. One is poka-yoke, a Japanese term referring to the practice of designing products and manufacturing processes in order to reduce the opportunity for error and defects. For example, a company using poka-yoke in its order-entry operation may program computers so they won't accept erroneous postal codes in customer addresses. By reducing errors in this way, a company can improve on-time delivery of shipments and move closer to overall Six Sigma quality. (To search for past articles on poka-yoke, visit http://www.entrepreneurmag.com)

Robust design is another technique companies use to achieve Six Sigma. It calls for using simple, rather than complex, designs to reduce the opportunity for errors in assembly. Robust designers also engineer products and components to perform adequately in spite of extreme circumstances. For example, designers at General Electric found putting a rougher finish on a metal connector in one of its X-ray machines reduced leakage through an important seal. This helped improve reliability to get the company closer to Six Sigma and allowed it to offer a better warranty to its customers.This is similar to the experiences of other companies seeking Six Sigma: It's a big goal you try to achieve by taking many small steps.

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This article was originally published in the July 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Is It Greek To You?.

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