"If you didn’t do it in Six Sigma, then it didn’t happen."


Guest Columnist – Quality Digest

Wow, this is pretty bad… allegedly about GE. Granted, any dysfunctional Lean company could end up with similar dynamics. So none of this is knock on Six Sigma… it's about human nature and organizational dynamics.

There's an expression that pretty much describes Six Sigma's infiltration at GE: If your only tool is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.

Again, the same would be true about Lean. The point isn't to “implement Lean” — the point is better serving your customers or improving the business. Not everything is a Lean problem. Lean isn't a silver bullet for any organization, nor is Six Sigma.

I explained that while I was doing this project, I had found and fixed several other processes. I was immediately admonished by one of the Black Belts for doing so. She told me I should've turned these into Six Sigma projects. I explained that it made more sense to me to quickly make the fixes so we could start reaping the benefits right away. Her retort was, “If you didn't do it in Six Sigma, then it didn't happen.” Of course, her metric of preference was dollar savings from Six Sigma projects. She couldn't care less that what I did was the right for the business. She, like many other Six Sigma “devotees,” was only interested in managing her career.

Wow. Sad. Has anyone else seen similar dynamics with Six Sigma? With Lean? The same thing can happen with Kaizen Events… don't fix something without first scheduling an Event (which might not be for a few months out). Don't let Kaizen Events or Six Sigma get in the way of your improvement efforts…

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Similar story at Dell. They teach Lean and Six Sigma (BPI). There IS a “Go Do It” category for logging that type of work; but the drive is still for “belted” projects with large dollar savings as evidenced by the Cost Benefit Analysis.

    The comment about career managing Six Sig’ers rings true.

  2. That is very lame and not very surprising. In my opinion most management implementations (not matter what the philosophy behind it is – MBO, TQM, six sigma, lean…) are poorly executed. They each have error they tend to encourage. Six sigma tends to encourage formal projects, even when a simple solution doesn’t require them.

    I actually think there are many aspects of six sigma that are good. But the execution of six sigma often is poorly done (maybe even more often than an average management style).

  3. So curiouscat, would you say that those executing Six Sigma are better people, but just poor managers or not? I believe the hypothesis of the article is that people are people and if they want to ‘exploit’ and show their poor, selfish, zero-sum behavior it will happen with lean or six sigma, mbo, etc….in other words people are still just people, all tainted with Adam’s legacy…

  4. I have a Black Belt mentor who, in order to “finish” his belt had to go back and document all the little things like that that he had done over the previous years. He had to create pretty presentations for each of the six sigma phases to check the box for things that fell into the “just do it” category. Total make work.

  5. First and foremost, this is a great article and a very good point and whether we want to admit it or not in most cases Lean, Six Sigma, etc. is not job one for all the department heads and managers of any organization. So it is hard given their #1 responsibilities their functional department(s) is going to be job one and then any other special project “Lean, Six Sigma, etc.”

    I have one hospital client that has a Service Excellence Program, Lean and Value Analysis/
    Engineering program going all at once but all have specific core focuses that validate their using all of these. Now just think about if you are a direct, department head or manager and are working in this environment and also have to work on a team for all these great programs such as Lean that has high value to your organization. Yet you are torn because job one is going to be managing your core dept right? That has been the case that I see every day and it is important for these organization to go back to “Spring Training” every year to reinstill their great processes and to market to their dept. heads and managers the importance of doing so much on top of managing their respective departments.

    I wish there was a better answer to the question would like to hear more about others experiences or from Mark!

    Best regards all!

  6. This type of story just makes me sad. It illustrates how many companies have completely missed the point of improvement, and how companies like Toyota and a handful of others will continue to pull away from the pack. And it doesn’t matter which method is being used – if we spend all our time counting pennies, we lose the opportunity to spend that time improving. I do understand that improvement people must continue to justify their salaries so they don’t become a target when business conditions go south (I have experience in that area), but that doesn’t justify quashing improvement efforts that can’t be easily quantified. Sad indeed.

  7. This is sad, and–as a GE shareholder–infuriating.

    It reminds me of a comment made by an experienced teacher about the new order at his school:
    Our new, young principal has discovered “professional learning communities” and “collaboration”.

    So what is the first thing he does? He breaks up all of the school’s teaching partnerships, some of which went back for a decade.
    See also my posts management education and the role of technique and the dictatorship of theory.

  8. An unthinking leader can go solve the wrong problem to the third decimal point; and make a religion out of a strategy execution toolset.

    Good managers lead improvements, and pull out big tools only for big problems – but don’t act like all other solutions or improvements are null and void.

  9. Then again, would a Toyota person not say “if it didn’t make it on an A3, it didn’t happen”..?

    There is something be said about adhering strictly to a standard.

    The motive may be at question (career managing) but that is more a reflection on GE’s up or out than a reflection on six sigma culture.

  10. Our company has created a full time BB / LSS Champion position. That’s me.

    My boss has told me that I need to quantify annual savings equal to or exceeding my salary.

    My bonus will be a percentage of documented savings.

    Gotta go, our purchaser just found a better deal on safety glasses. Time to open another Six Sigma Project.

  11. Bob Y.–It isn’t about doing all of these wonderful things on top of managing your department. It is about leading your department in a different way altogether. That is a vital difference.

  12. I, too am a GE Black Belt, in the Energy segment. I don’t think the author represents the panacea of Six Sigma across GE – how could he/she possibly? Seems like a lot of very bright people on this blog have forgotten to ask whether this is special cause or common cause at work.

    I will say that having been trained elsewhere, and been involved in 2 LSS deployments across organizations, I was led to believe that Six Sigma at GE was a well-oiled machine, and the main driver of everything. That’s not really the case either.

    Some examples from my own experience here: my new MBB has never even been GB certified. Nice guy, seems to be effective, but utterly clueless about the basics of LSS. In fact, being a BB is negatively correlated with becoming an MBB at GE. My computer came with Minitab 12, because it’s free, and the enterprise systems I depend on to get data are 10 years old. The fact that BB training classes had no refreshments (because the budget
    for that was eliminated) is a symbolic indication of where Six Sigma is these days.

    That said, the Energy QL came to see us and talk about how important we all are, how the role will set us up for great opportunities, etc., and I think he’s probably right about that. Quality is still an excellent role in GE.

    GB certification is not nearly as important as it used to be. Recent training classes here had 100+ participants. No project requirement. The number of BBs in my group is about 1/3 what it was a few years ago.

    In general, the quality emphasis here is back to basics, not Lean and Six Sigma. My own QL said that we really aren’t that good at Six Sigma – still falling down on basic execution, compliance, and other “traditional quality” problems. In fact, that’s where the new quality heads are going – compliance.

    FWIW – one BBs opinion.

  13. One more thing – this article is 8 years old – I didn’t notice that until I went back and re-read it this morning.

    Seems totally irrelevant now…

  14. Fair enough that the article is old. I didn’t notice that either.

    So maybe it’s not fair to criticize GE, but I think the issue is still a valid one to be aware of and to discuss.


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