A lot of lean six sigma professionals have in recent years wondered why this utterly successful business improvement methodology has been fading away from the collective consciousness and management radar so steadily and surely. Some have of course denied that such a trend exists in the first place and are happily engaged in projects and initiatives still packaged as six sigma. So what is really happening and can something be done? Should something be done?
I believe that six sigma has been sliding downhill (especially in the western world and in large organisations). In fact, this has been happening for several years now. Two key pieces of evidence support my personal experience and opinion in this regard: Google trends search interest on six sigma is down by ~ 70% since 2005 and six sigma job postings is down ~ 80% since 2011. Notwithstanding the financial crisis (which some would argue should actually have increased hiring of six sigma skills), this is a formidable trend. Many six sigma professionals and belts I personally know have moved on to core operations or other roles. Several lean six sigma initiatives have been folded up and teams disbanded. So maybe it is indeed time to write the obituary after all.
But hold on, this is not the full story! It is really important to dig down to understand what is happening below the surface.
I think the above trends are actually composed of two major sub-trends that almost counteract each other:
Sub-trend 1) There is indeed a downward trajectory that is quite secular: every management innovation has an adoption cycle and saturation/decline beyond that point is generally a given. Six sigma, after all, has now been practised intensively for 30+ years! One could also argue that over and above the natural lifecycle related hypothesis, certain contradictions within the methodology itself and an inadequate response from the profession to flexibly respond to the rapidly changing scenarios have led to a situation where the application of six sigma has become increasingly focused on tactical improvements rather than being implemented as a transformative strategic priority of the CEO. This certainly was not the case during the early years at Allied Signal or GE, for example, when six sigma drove breakthrough results. The need for transformation has not gone away. In fact, it has only increased and accelerated. But lean six sigma is more and more used to “run” business as usual instead of “galloping” ahead of competition or “flying” businesses into new blue spaces by fundamentally reimagining processes and products. According to me, this diagnosis gives hope, not doom and gloom. In most cases, if we understand the root causes, we can put in the right counter-measures too (this calls for a separate blog!).
Sub-trend 2) Google trends for Lean, Operational Excellence, Customer Experience, and Business Analytics are all sturdily going up! I believe two things have happened here – a) lots of lean six sigma initiatives have got repackaged and rebranded primarily as “Lean” and “Operational Excellence”. Very few companies are doing pure “TPS lean” anyway – usually it is a modified version of LSS with more lean tools thrown in and less analytical rigour. And b) when markets mature, they often break up and segment into related categories – what earlier was just six sigma has split up and developed into separate specialties like “customer experience” and “business analytics”. Incidentally, these have developed outside the realms of six sigma. So although they share the same umbilical cord and have borrowed concepts and methods heavily from six sigma, they have grown stripes of their own and are being branded and marketed as distinct capabilities/skillsets.
Therefore, the bottom-line to me is that lean six sigma is transforming, and renewing itself but becoming quite unrecognisable in the process. The change is not in the content or the philosophy so much but in the structure and the identity. So, while the old six sigma as it was increasingly being practiced in many places is indeed dying, the answer to the original question raised in the title of this post is much less obvious. Can a makeover really be reason enough to write an obituary?
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Disclaimer: The point of view and opinions expressed in all my blog posts are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my current or previous employers