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There's plenty of life left in the old Six Sigma.

There's plenty of life left in the old Six Sigma

The late Joseph M. Juran, regarded by some as the father of modern quality-improvement systems, was never greatly impressed by Six Sigma He called it 'a basic version of quality improvement containing nothing new'.

Try telling that to Honeywell, General Electric or any of the thousands of other firms across the globe that have transformed their operations over the past 30 years through the Six Sigma techniques of identifying and removing the causes of defects and minimizing variability in manufacturing and business processes.

Six Sigma was born at Motorola in the 1970s, following senior executive Art Sundry's criticism of the company's poor quality performance. At that time, the prevailing view was that quality cost money. Motorola demonstrated the opposite; that increases in quality helped to reduce the costs of production and repairs. By 2006, when experts estimated that around two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies were using Six Sigma, Motorola reported that the system had saved it more than $17 billion.

But is Six Sigma getting a little long in the tooth? There is now growing evidence of companies moving 'beyond Six Sigma' into more sophisticated systems of quality improvement.

Take the case of Xerox. In Volume 30, Issue 6 of Global Business and Organizational Excellence, published in 2011, Joyce Geier (GUY-ER) reveals that, despite almost a decade of experience with Lean Six Sigma, it had not been fully absorbed into the corporation's culture. In particular, employees tended to regard it as a programme 'for the privileged few' and aimed only at massive problems rather than day-to-day issues.

Blending a traditional project approach with creative developments from the behavioral sciences, Xerox used Lean Six Sigma principles to develop QwikSolver, a personally relevant and straightforward method for applying Lean Six Sigma every day. The company soon noticed the results, with 93% of the employees trained in QwikSolver using it at least once in the weeks after their first application and more than half using it at least five times.

Or take the case of Ritz-Carlton Hotels. In the September 2011 issue of Quality World, Carley Sutton describes how the organization adopted the so-called Human Sigma approach because of the weakness of Six Sigma in the area of human resources.

Specifically designed to reduce variability in the delivery of services, Human Sigma seeks to improve the way in which employees engage and interact with customers. It urges the need to:

*manage employee and customer experiences together, not separately;
*accept the role of emotions in driving and shaping the employee-customer encounter;
*measure the employee-customer encounter and manage it at a local level;
*quantify how employee and customer engagement interact to drive improved financial performance; and *use the results to change how employees are recruited, placed in roles, rewarded, recognized and managed.

Now the Ritz-Carlton reports on everything -- from the time-keeping of cleaners in Cannes to the deportment of door staff in Detroit. Every day, the company's staff determine whether they are meeting key success factors -- and if not, what needs to change. It is one of the most powerful tools for reform in existence.

In Quality World's September 2011 issue, Alex Lindsey-Clarke summarizes the changes that have taken place in Six Sigma - away from the traditional large-scale deployments that now appear to be too expensive and too slow, and towards much more focused and results-driven approaches.

They have altered Six Sigma almost beyond recognition and, in the process, come up with quality techniques that are genuinely ground-breaking and effective. Nothing new in the old Six Sigma, Mr Juran? That's hardly a valid criticism of its offshoots, 2012-style.