Dec. 21, 2004
Six Sigma's continued success requires genuine support.

The yearly shareholders' letter from the CEO of the company that owns the "must see" television network is a business "must read."

General Electric Co. Chairman and CEO John F. Welch Jr. has used his front-of-the-annual-report platform to discuss boundaryless behavior (1993); the competitive combination of boundarylessness, speed, stretch goals, and simplified processes (1994); a new kind of (big) company (1995); and "a global service company that also sells high-quality products" (1996).

Welch's business vision is legendary. GE's CEO sees things other executives don't see--or at least well before they do. That draws attention. And there's Welch's personality: intense, impatient, a person of few and often tough words. People pay attention.

This year people will be paying attention to the nearly four pages in GE's 1997 annual report that Welch devotes to the seemingly arcane subject of Six Sigma quality. (Six Sigma provides a statistical methodology for improving quality, with the goal of experiencing less than four defects out of 1 million.)

Welch writes with excitement and pride about how GE is suffusing its operating activities with a customer-oriented, disciplined methodology of defining, measuring, analyzing, improving, and controlling process. Welch expects this Six Sigma regimen to move every GE product and service "toward near-perfect quality."

Early results have been impressive. For example, Six Sigma designs have produced a ten-fold increase in the life of CT scanner X-ray tubes. GE's industrial diamond business has quadrupled its return on investment and, through improving yields, has added a decade's worth of capacity without investing in new plants and equipment. GE's operating margin, about 10% pre-Six Sigma, is now approaching 16%. Welch figures that Six Sigma delivered more than $300 million to operating income in 1997.

But if all of this makes for must reading--and it should be for any executive who's serious about the present and future of the company he or she leads--one must ask if Six Sigma at GE could be coming at a price.

Think about this Welch sentence: "As we move toward [the year] 2000 and beyond, with Six Sigma permeating much of what we do all day, it will be likewise unthinkable to hire into the company, promote, or tolerate those who cannot, or will not, commit to this way of work." There's a "must do" quality to this statement--a kind of regimentation and control that seems to be at odds with the restless pursuit of better ideas and best practices that is (or should be) at the heart of Six Sigma. People should want to embrace Six Sigma and through their enthusiasm and accomplishments be constantly redefining it in ways that work for their customers and their company.

Think about some of the projects you've been a part of lately. What has been the better experience: efforts dominated by one person or a rigid and imposed process, or efforts where the interplay of people and ideas has defined goals and defined and redefined the ways of achieving them? Think about the commitment you made--the commitment you made because you were caught up in the unfolding dynamics of the process and not because you were, in effect, commanded to make the commitment. Involvement, it seems to me, includes an important element of self-discovery that cannot be commanded or imposed.

During the past few years, Welch has made much of GE becoming a $100 billion company with the agility, customer focus, and entrepreneurial spirit of a small company. And that is leadership vision that ranks among the very best in business. GE's customers, shareholders, and employees all stand to benefit, even more than they have already.

Six Sigma, at least as Welch sees it, seems destined to play the central role in GE fulfilling its CEO's corporate vision. But to fulfill a leader's vision, the pursuit of better ideas and best practices needs to draw its energy from throughout a company, from the restlessness of the many who are not executives as well as from the few who are its senior leaders. And I have this notion that the energy level is likely to be higher, the places to which it is constructively directed greater, when people want to pursue those better ideas and best practices rather than when they must do so.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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