The History of Six Sigma

history of six sigma

The story of Six Sigma’s origin started in a place where good stories rarely begin: aboard room, in a manager’s meeting.

By the time the 1970s rolled around, the Toyota Production System had been implemented and Toyota was becoming one of the best manufacturers in the world. Motorola was finding their company unable to compete with other Japanese companies, and it was time for change.

A group of Motorola executives were discussing, among other things, quality assurance and control, when Art Sundry, who worked closely with then-COO John F. Mitchell on quality concerns, yelled, “Our quality stinks!” He said this repeatedly. Interestingly enough, his tirade wasn’t punished; he was rewarded for speaking his mind. he was given full control over quality matters within Motorola.

Measuring quality and product variation can actually be traced back to the 1920s and Walter A. Shewhart. Shewhart introduced control charts and Statistical Quality Control, a method for documenting and measuring defects in processes. Statistics were an important part of Shewhart’s and Deming’s work, and it would be the foundation of Six Sigma.

Sundry’s greatest contribution to Six Sigma came when he hired outside consultants: Bill Smith and Dr. Mikel J. Harry, who would become the “Founders of Six Sigma.” Together, Smith and Harry came up with the Six Sigma concept for quality control improvement using the foundational Lean principles created by W. Edwards Deming, Joseph Juran, Philip Crosby, Kaoru Ishikawa, and Genichi Taguchi.

In the 1980s, Motorola began focusing on product quality and implemented a four-point plan:

  1. Global Competitiveness
  2. Participative management
  3. Quality improvements
  4. Motorola Management Institute

Smith and Harry’s efforts improved Motorola’s quality tenfold and created an enduring shift in company culture that put high value in improving quality through Six Sigma methods. 1985 was the year Smith coined the term Six Sigma, and the following year Harry published the first formal description of Six sigma. Motorola founded the Six Sigma improvement program in 1987 and just a year later, the company received the first Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, a prestigious award from the U.S. Government.

In 1995, Jack Welch brought Six Sigma to General Electric and Honeywell’s production processes. Since then, Six Sigma has been implemented in countless manufacturing facilities across the world.

By the late 1990s, over sixty percent of Fortune 500 companies had integrated Six Sigma philosophies into processes and company cultures.

More recently, companies have been integrating the principles of Six Sigma with Lean manufacturing. Managers use tools from the Six Sigma methodologies and proven tools to create efficiency while still eliminating waste.

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