RIP Six Sigma: Management Fads and the Apocalypse

The End of Six Sigma?

The End of Six Sigma?

On December 21, 2012, the Sun aligns with the Galactic Center precisely – for the first time in 26,000 years. At the same time, the 5,000 year Mayan calendar resets to the year zero. Apocalyptic fears are running higher as a result (those Mayans must have known *something*, right?), and internet bulletin boards are swimming with speculation: “Is it the end of the world?”

As a scholar of quality management, I can’t help but notice a correlation between this prediction and one offered by Goeke & Offodile in a 2005 edition of the Quality Management Journal. By studying the frequency of articles tagged with “Six Sigma” in the ABI-Inform catalog over time, and comparing the results with quality circles and TQM (which they considered to be earlier fads) using a technique called “analogy forecasting,” they observed that a “fad” pattern seems to be apparent.

What is a fad? According to Abrahamson (1996), it’s a “relatively transitory collective belief… that a management technique leads rational management process.” In their pursuit of rationality, a mass of people tries out a particular management approach, and time ultimately leads them in another direction (hence the transitory part). Thus we shouldn’t look at a fad as something bad, necessarily – it might just reflect a normal collective learning process. Fads help us learn and develop tacit knowledge, regardless of whether they are perceived to “work out”.

If time confirms the forecast provided by analogy forecasting, Six Sigma will last about another 7 years. Hmmm… article published in 2005, add to that 7 years… and you get… 2012! Based on the faith that so many have placed in Six Sigma, it would not be surprising that a transition to a new management paradigm – for them – would feel like an apocalypse of sorts.

I am a proponent of applying Six Sigma analytical methods for improving performance in many situations, especially those that call for the systematic removal of defects and reducing variation. But it’s important to remember that underlying so many of these management methodologies is a foundational layer of common sense: your people must be aligned according to the values they share with one another, those values have to be aligned with the organization’s values, and the people have to know what to do day by day to keep things running, improve on them, and innovate for the future.

Some of the conclusions that Goeke & Offodile offer are excellent as well as fundamental:

“Management fads, when successful, disappear from view because they have become part of good, mainstream management practice.”

“Even when management fads don’t work out as planned, they still benefit by adding to the firm’s collective knowledge.”

I’d like to second this latter quote, and toss in two more benefits: a) attention to a new management approach, even if it turns out to be a fad, can stimulate collective awareness of a company’s current and desired core values, and b) the common language that is often provided can help rally people around a common vision – one step towards achieving real results.

Six Sigma, whether it is a management fad or just solid management practice “in transition” to something that becomes more invisible, will not change the underlying strategy of a business. Managers should always seek to establish solid, sustainable foundations – and continually improve upon them to achieve ever-increasing standards for excellence – regardless of whether they call it Six Sigma, or something else.

Abrahamson, E. (1996). Management fashion. Academy of Management Review, 21(1), 254-285.

Goeke, R.J. & Offodile, O.F. (2005). Forecasting management philosophy life cycles: a comparative study of Six Sigma and TQM. Quality Management Journal, 12(2), 34-36.


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