Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Customer Care Features
Bryan Christiansen
And when to hire one
Etienne Nichols
What medical device manufacturers need to know
Kate Zabriskie
Don’t get distracted by dazzle
Trupti Dhere
Technology helps doctors make more informed decisions, minimize adverse events, improve patient care
Greg Kihlström
First, ask the right questions

More Features

Customer Care News
Yotrio and SunVilla to provide interactive, 3D-enabled assembly via BILT app
Algorithms protect data created and transmitted by IoT and other small electronics
Customers can place orders in a self-service configurator
Application now supports 14 leading industrial robot manufacturers
New digital service supports all Fastems systems
Key Technology’s system boosts quality, throughput
Driving advances across the electronics ecosystem
Weighing supply and customer satisfaction
Showcasing tech, solutions, and services at Gulfood Manufacturing 2022

More News

Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Customer Care

Solving the Six Sigma Goat Mystery

Beware of using paradigm-colored glasses to view customer engagement

Published: Monday, November 13, 2017 - 13:03

Variation and defects. They are the bane of all manufacturing companies. They signal an absence of efficiency, a neglect of productivity, and a total disregard for cost effectiveness. Who is seen as the rescuing knight in shining armor? Sir Six Sigma!

Fundamentally, Six Sigma (always capitalized, mind you) is a data-based discipline, a collection of principles, and a set of tools designed to identify and eliminate defects by minimizing process variability.

Who could argue against the Six Sigma payoff, with its confidence-building rigor and mathematical prowess? What gets measured gets done... at least at work. It’s the manufacturing version of motherhood and apple pie. Countless organizations have trained countless employees to “Think Six Sigma.”

All disciplines carry a set of beliefs that form paradigm-shaping outcomes. With their proper application, they can enable a person to see opportunities otherwise unseen and thus missed. A Six Sigma-trained professional can spot a source of defects or process variability faster than a person who doesn’t have those tools.

Paradigm-colored glasses

A paradigm is a way of viewing the world. Years ago, psychologists showed folks a group of ambiguous photos and asked their meaning. Police officers saw far more themes of crime than those in other vocations. You get the point: A paradigm not only shapes what we see (or notice), it also influences our thinking. Far more than simply a point of view, like being a Republican, Catholic, or Cowboys fan, a paradigm strongly influences the way we process information in our brains. Literally, we think through the lens we learn.

The great news is that different paradigms, blended together, provide a rich and meaningful understanding of the world. The downside is that attachment to a single paradigm can create myopia, bullheaded correctness, and even blindness. Remember the story of the blind men and the elephant? Was the elephant a giant snake? It sure seemed that way to the blind man holding the elephant’s trunk. Or was it a rope? The blind man holding the tail was convinced it was. Perhaps it was a column, as reported by the blind man holding the elephant’s leg. Each reported what they thought was correct, yet none were accurate. Six Sigma thinking, with all its assets, has a similar problem.

Six Sigma goats

The playground of Six Sigma thinking is largely the product world. And, quality in the product world is determined by the creator of that product. A customer doesn’t show up at the factory to help a manufacturer make the products that customers ultimately will buy. This inside-out perspective can lead product makers to fail to ground their work in a customer focus. And this leads to the theme reflected in the title: Even if you could genetically engineer a Six Sigma goat, if your marketplace is a rodeo, your customers will likely prefer a four sigma horse.

So, let’s say you elected to make Six Sigma-quality dungarees for large trash cans, or a fish-finding watch, or a desktop cat seat. Your creative brother-in-law thought these products would be hot. Instead, they bomb. Not because these products lacked really, really high quality, but because the marketplace was uninterested.

Worse, you manufacture a product your marketplace does want, but you place all your eggs in the “perfect product-making” basket, and it fails because the hoops customers have to go through to get your product (i.e., the service experience) is horrible. The customer ends up saying, “Your product is great, but you make me go through hell to get it.”

Yet, there is another challenge with a paradigm-gone-extreme that is the most problematic. A Six Sigma devotee, enamored with its colossal promise, can carry its perspective into places where it has shaky application—namely, the world of customer experience.

Trying to drive a nail with a B flat

Let’s take a quick look at how making stuff and making memories are substantively different. When you buy a product, you receive a physical object; when you buy a service, you get an outcome (e.g., the light came on when you flipped the switch) plus an experience surrounding that outcome. Unlike a product, a service can’t be inventoried but is created new each time. Therefore, there are no economies of scale for mass production, and no stockpiling for a quick response to unexpected demand. The manufacturer controls the quality of product-making, and the processes that yield efficiency and zero defects, not the buyer. Again, customers don’t show up at the factory to help. The reverse is true for service: The buyer judges the quality of memory-making.

Because the product buyer is not a participant in product-making, the manufacturer’s focus is largely on the efficiency of internal processes, like the ones that Six Sigma adjudicates. With service, however, the buyer participates in creating the service experience along with the service provider. Consequently, the focus must be on the quality of the relationship with the co-creator—the customer. And in the end, the receiver of a service owns nothing tangible; thus, the value of the service depends solely on a satisfactory outcome plus a positively memorable experience.

However, there is an even deeper dimension to this product-service difference. The core property of a product is form; the core property of a service experience is a feeling or emotion. Just as uniformity is a virtue of a product, so uniqueness is a virtue of a service. Although we like french fries done correctly, we want our interaction done authentically. The service paradigm, while honoring efficiency and frugalness, recognizes the criticality of the human dimension, and thus focuses on empowered employees able to adjust, adapt, and custom-fit service experiences to match the unique requirements of customers. Variance is now a benefit!

The Six Sigma customer experience

So, what happens when you apply Six Sigma thinking and variance-eliminating to the delivery of service experiences? You get leaders trying to drive a nail with B flat, so to speak. Now, there is nothing wrong with B flats. Mozart used them all the time. However, when he was interested in doing a bit of carpentry, a hammer was much more effective for nail-driving.

The most obvious example of nail-driving with musical notes is a phone script. Remember, “Thank you for shopping at J-Mart... Next!” or, “Would you like fries with that?” Rather than relying on a consistent pattern—always warmly greet, put a smile in your voice, thank the customer—organizations required a precise script. Unless the script-quoting, contact-center operator was a world-class thespian, the customer experienced robotics instead of genuineness.

Application of affinity programs is another way that the elimination of variance runs into failure. There was a time front-desk clerks made decisions on hotel room upgrades. Now, a computer, with its programmed, rule-based fairness and a bias for consistency and zero defects, makes that upgrade decision. Consequently, the formerly surprised hotel guest is today nonplussed by a dull, procedurally driven event. The hotel’s quest for guest affinity is completely lost.

How can “B flat” lovers be encouraged to pick up a hammer when carpentry is involved? Asking leaders to abandon their attraction to logic, order, and rationality is like hoping a zebra will change its stripes. Innovative leaders add to their leadership know-how by embracing new perspectives. Innovative leaders in pursuit of influencing a marketplace that is owned by customers spend quality time with those owners. They invite them to key meetings to ensure their perspectives are included.

Instead of prototyping only in the Six Sigma-governed lab, innovative leaders take pilots to the field for the inclusion of customer beta groups. They ground all decisions in solid, up-to-date customer intelligence, not last year’s survey. And they teach their employees to apply Six Sigma thinking where it improves rather than restricts their paradigm by insisting they paint all enterprise processes and practices with the same brush. They become experts on the qualitative side of service experience (e.g., the flight attendant was rude), not just the quantitative side of service outcomes (e.g., the plane landed on time). And they recognize that although “customer satisfaction” might be an OK customer evaluation for a product, it is no assurance of customer retention or loyalty when applied to service.

When CEO Bill Marriott was asked by a group of Marriott hotel managers whether the company’s guest satisfaction index scores keep him up at night, he answered, “No, but their comments surely do.” It spoke volumes about a leader who stops guests in the lobby to inquire about their stay and solicit their ideas for improvement. Sam Walton said it well: “There is only one boss. The customer. And he (or she) can fire everybody in the company, from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else.”


About The Author

Innovating Service With Chip Bell’s picture

Innovating Service With Chip Bell

Chip Bell has helped companies dramatically enhance their bottom lines and marketplace reputation through innovative customer-centric strategies. For the sixth year in a row, Global Gurus in 2020 ranked Bell as one of the top three keynote speakers in the world on customer service. Bell has authored 24 books; seven are international best sellers. His latest book, Inside Your Customer’s Imagination: 5 Secrets for Creating Breakthrough Products, Services, and Solutions, shows how co-creation partnerships enable you to tap into the treasure trove of ideas, ingenuity, and genius-in-the-raw within every customer.


The usual SS hype and nonsense

Chip, Amid the standard SS hype, you claim "A Six Sigma-trained professional can spot a source of defects".  Have you spotted the defect central to 'Six Sigma', that is 'six sigma' itself, along with its 3.4 dpmo? 

Why is Six Sigma's most embarrassing question: "Please explain the 'six sigma' of 'Six Sigma' and its 3.4dpmo"?

Six Sigma is based on utter nonsense as described in my papers:




... and the most popular of all, now with over 10,000 views, 409 likes, 135 comments and 75 shares:


As Dr Wheeler pointed out (and was later quoted by Deming), “Conformance to specifications, zero defects, Six Sigma quality, and all other [specification-based] nostrums all miss the point.”