Advantages and disadvantages of Six Sigma

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Advantages and disadvantages of Six Sigma
Six Sigma is commonly associated with manufacturing processes. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Six Sigma is a system used for improving a process to reduce errors and unwanted variations, particularly in manufacturing and industry. Although here is some dispute over the precise definition of the term, Six Sigma is is widely used to describe a target of 3.4 mistakes in every one million operations.

Advantage: Simple framework

Although different consultants offer different programs for implementing Six Sigma, they usually follow a basic framework that's easy to understand. With existing processes, the framework is definition of the problem, measurement, analysis, improvements and control to make sure the improvements stick consistently. With new processes, the framework is definition, measurement, analysis, design of a new process and verification of the new process.

Advantage: Quality improvements

The Six Sigma Group, a British consulting firm that uses and promotes the Six Sigma system, estimates savings equivalent to between five and 20 percent of turnover each year by producing fewer defective products that can't be sold. Looking at it from another perspective, successful Six Sigma should mean fewer faulty products that might get through quality control and reach disappointed customers. Six Sigma Group cites General Electric in the US as having made cost savings of more than $2 billion while winning awards for being admired by customers.

Disadvantage: Generic

Six Sigma doesn't actually create any new techniques or practical measures, argues quality consultant and author DH Stamatis, writing in Quality Digest in May 2000. Instead, he claims the system is merely a way of measuring existing failures and doesn't give clear solutions. Stamatis says that Six Sigma is mainly a marketing term used by consultants to make generic and predictable suggestions seem more innovative and special.

Disadvantage: Limited results

Stamatis argues that the nature of Six Sigma means its results will initially seem impressive but will soon become limited. This is because a firm that uses the Six Sigma approach will typically begin by finding and solving the simplest problems, something that appears dramatic but could have been done by any objective measurement and analysis system, whether or not it used the Six Sigma branding. Stamatis questions whether Six Sigma will have much effect when it comes to further refinements and trickier problems.

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