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Ryan E. Day

Six Sigma

What Are They Teaching Those Kids?

Do MBA degrees fall short?

Published: Thursday, May 19, 2011 - 04:30

For those of us frustrated by the prevalence of mediocrity and apathy in the management theater, there may yet be hope. The Avery Point Group’s annual employment study found a sharp increase in demand for lean and Six Sigma skills this year. That would seem to indicate companies and businesses around the world are definitely coming to realize that root cause analysis, total quality management (TQM), and Six Sigma are valuable principles that, if embraced and implemented at the core level, can translate to real-world success.

Having worked for some 20-odd different employers (not sure if that’s good or bad), I’ve had the opportunity to observe a wide variety of management “styles.” Although these ranged from autocratic, management by walking around (MBWA), Type-1, micro-managing, hands-off, and democratic to every combination possible, most managers had two things in common: They had no concept of root cause analysis or Six Sigma principles. The phrases “step over a dollar to save a dime” and “we don’t have time to fix it right once, but we do have time to quick-fix it three times” come to mind.

A few of those managers had the benefit of a college education and earned an MBA, but they seemed no closer to being effective managers than those who came up through the blue-collar ranks. I haven’t been through business schooling myself, so I have to ask, “If they don’t teach them root cause analysis, TQM, Six Sigma, and lean principles, what are they teaching them?”

It seems that the verbiage itself—“master of business administration”—would imply that effective managing should be the main thrust of the entire program, but I’m just a grease monkey, so I enlisted some bright minds and accomplished leaders to help me understand.

Doris Marin parlayed her MBA from Western New Mexico University (WNMU) into a quality assurance career in the mining industry. When the company she worked for created a quality assurance department, she was informed that a Green Belt certification in Six Sigma would be required in addition to her degree. To her credit, Marin not only got the Green Belt on the company’s dime, but also went the extra mile and earned a Black Belt from Villanova on her own. “My education at WNMU was very valuable, but I think they could have included comprehensive Six Sigma principles in the curriculum without jeopardizing anything else,” says Marin.

Judging by the WNMU website description of its MBA program, I would have to agree. It appears that only two out of 11 required courses deal with quality processes.

Yale's School of Management and Harvard Business School don’t seem to do much better. Yale’s program has only four out of 15 required courses dealing with quality processes, and Harvard only one out of 10.

No doubt these schools teach some important elements of business management, but we live in a time when the need for a dramatic shift in focus is readily apparent.

Fortunately, not all schools are created equally.

Nelson M. Fraiman, professor of professional practice and head of the Decision, Risk, and Operations division at Columbia Business School, clued me in to a few things. Although terminology may vary, the principles of quality remain the same.

“Many of the MBA courses taught [here] contain the same elements as Six Sigma,” says Fraiman, who is also the director of The W. Edwards Deming Center for Quality, Productivity, and Competitiveness at Columbia Business School. “Further training in those particular aspects would be more appropriate for fields such as engineering. The principles taught by Deming are woven throughout the curriculum at Columbia. We stress to our students that when they leave academics and enter the business world, they will be responsible for helping to create that climate for quality.”

It seems that some schools are beginning to get it.

Eastern Michigan University; California State University, East Bay; and North Carolina State all offer lean and Six Sigma training programs. Although not an official component of their MBA curricula, they have obviously taken note of industry’s demand for further quality management training.

With a continued push from industry leaders toward this type of quality training, we can reasonably hope that the overall emphasis in MBA programs will begin to reflect that demand. Then, God willing and the creek don’t rise, the core concept of a “culture of quality” can take root and emerge as a prominent theme in education and business.


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.


 "Industrial engineering is


"Industrial engineering is concerned with the design, improvement, and installation of integrated systems of people, materials, information, equipment, and energy. It draws upon specialized knowledge and skill in the mathematical, physical, and social sciences together with the principles and methods of engineering analysis and design to specify, predict, and evaluate the results to be obtained from such systems." (AIIE,1955)IE body of knowledge typically includes: Systems Engineering, Applied Decision Theory, Human Factors Engineering, Industrial Costs & Controls , Industrial Systems Simulation, Engineering Economics, Work Process Analysis & Design, Facilities Planning, Layout & Design, Manufacturing System Design, Engineering Probability & Statistics, Design of Experiments, Statistical Quality Control, Quality Engineering, Operations Planning & Control, Production Planning and Control Management, Operations Research, Modeling and Simulation.... In addition to this, courses in the humanities and engineering design process. 


Teaching systems thinking and sustainability

I think SYSTEMS THINKER is onto something with the suggestion of a "History of Business" course. Beyond that is the concept of sustainability not only in an environmental sense, but also in a business setting as well.  How do you grow and sustain an environment of continual improvement thinkers that strive for sustained business success beyond the next business quarter?  I might add with the phrases shared by the Author, “step over a dollar to save a dime” and “we don’t have time to fix it right once, but we do have time to quick-fix it three times” come to mind. Instead of viewing results with a short-term mentality, we need to build a long-term committment to using the better improvement concepts of the day as a vital part of our "toolkit" to drive us to profitability over the long haul rather than in short bursts.  The lattest quality flavor-of-the-month is clearly not the answer. (See books by Jim Collins).

Lean/six sigma on MBAs? As part of a history of business course

If MBAs do begin to teach Lean and Six Sigma they should also teach students that Sustainable change requires a change in management thinking. 

Lean and six sigma do not change management thinking (maybe why there is a 98% fail rate). Perhaps they should be taught on the history of business course?


Science curriculum

Great commentary Ryan.  In addition to industrial engineering coursework as was mentioned in another posted comment, I would also include the physical sciences as providing a good foundation for root cause analysis "thinking."  Although the quality tools are not included in the curriculum, it's the framing of an approach to discovery that I think is most fundamental.   It can be quite frustrating dealing with people who view cause and effect in a somewhat mystical fashion, rather than a challenge that can be researched, analyzed, quantified, and predicted.  

What are they teaching those kids?

The article starts off asking an excellent question. Principles such as TQM, RC Analysis, Six Sigma, Lean and the other tools drive us to create lasting change and dynamics in the world around us. Yet, we are realizing, most basic problem solving (other than math) for everyday living and in the work place is embarrisingly and virtually non-existant in public and most private education spheres. And then we wonder why our best efforts at remedying issues--poor quality, poor delivery, wasteful, bureaucratic-laden programs keep boiling over and and never truly address the problems. The study gives us some hope. What's needed is for institutions of higher learning to inject not merely the idea or theory of these tools but, more importantly, the practical application and discipline in applying these tools. I would also advocate the practical application of these tools be included in most Masters level course work particularily science, engineering, business and yes--even political science. As citizens, if we don't push and demand this in our schools, then, I am afraid we are addicted to mediocrity and firefighting problems and thus, satisfied with the harvest they bring.

SE Printz

Who teaches Six Sigma and lean?

I'd suggest that you look at graduates of BS and MS programs in industrial engineering. Such programs almost always include root cause analysis, lean, and Six Sigma. I always tell our students it's the closest you can get to a business major and still be an engineer. Some companies routinely hire BSIE graduates as production managers soon promoted to plant managers.

Jane M. Fraser, Chair, Department of Engineering, Colorado State University-Pueblo