You're walking down a dark alley. Some shadowy types step out of a doorway. Cold stares. Hands stuffed in pockets. You know the scene. Your companion says, "Don't worry, I'm a black belt." You exhale. "A Six Sigma master black belt in fact."
Good thing you can outrun him. Many certified Six Sigma black belts are as useless in factories as they are in dark alleys. They're being churned out of four-week seminars that are offered by every business school in the country. Dropped into facilities with a mandate to save the company hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, these certified but inexperienced statistics wizards have failed to deliver in many cases, discrediting the whole endeavor. No surprise then that Six Sigma shows all the signs of a management fad on the wane. In General Electric Co.'s 2002 annual letter to stakeholders, Six Sigma was only a blip under the "Operating Rigor" header, compared with 24 paragraphs in 1997. Leaders at the trendsetting company say it has simply become "the way we work." Consultants who specialize in using statistical tools to systematically reduce variation and improve output quality are avoiding the Six Sigma moniker and yellow/green/black/master black belt jargon altogether. They say it carries too many negative associations. For serious practitioners, all of this is good news. As it loses popularity, maybe Six Sigma can get back to its roots. "When we did the first deployments, certification wasn't the point. The point was to get a good Six Sigma company going," says Mike Carnell, a Six Sigma consultant who began his career at Motorola Inc. before moving on to Allied Signal and GE. "Now it's gone from fixing companies to certifying black belts." Rolling the strategy out at different companies over the years, he's found that there is usually a small group of people who are passionate about making the improvement process work for the betterment of the company, but many people are mostly interested in the certificate that they will get and whether it will be recognized when they try to get another job. Carnell marvels at the fact that anyone can take a test today that allows him or her to put "black belt" on a resume without even completing one project. "You can't compare them to the guys who have gone out there, done a project, gotten an answer. They've struggled to find an answer. They've struggled to implement the solution. They've struggled to convince process owners and leaders that they need their support," he says. "That's the hard work. The stats are easy." Even those who have completed a few assignments and delivered some good results often approach a Six Sigma project as a series of steps. These "tool zombies," as Carnell describes them, execute the steps with little understanding of how the statistical methods fit together and have a poor feel for the overall strategy. The point, and one thing that separates seasoned Six Sigma practitioners from newly minted black belts, is not to fit the problem to the tools but the tools to the problem. No one pulls out Excalibur every time they need to slice a loaf of bread. A full-blown DOE, or brainstorming session even, isn't necessary to get to the root cause of every problem. Experienced Six Sigma leaders may follow the DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) roadmap, but they also follow their instincts, jumping ahead and using whatever means necessary to root out the problem and implement a solution. Results, after all, are what matter. To successfully harness the Six Sigma methodology to solve problems and improve your processes, you can't allow your Six Sigma initiatives to be hijacked by a self-serving black belt certification process. Manufacturing executives must also be careful when hiring people who have the right credentials, even when they come from A-list companies. All black belts are not created equally. Be wary of those enamored by the tools or the process and not focused on operating results. And stay out of any dark alleys. David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director. He also coordinates the IW Best Plants award program.