Motorola developed Six Sigma, a strategy that allows manufacturers to create products that are 99.9999998 percent defect free, in 1981. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the strategy was popularized and mainstreamed by General.
There is no exact protocol behind the concept, but Six Sigma instead is a collection of tools, resources, and strategies designed to achieve essentially flawless manufacturing. Consider the following case studies, in which small businesses used Six Sigma to increase overall productivity.
Motorola introduced the concept of Six Sigma in 1981.
Flickr user Rob Thompson
Case Study No. 1
In this case, a company that manufactures steel hardware used Six Sigma to keep up with a big increase in work orders. The company’s employees worked to identify opportunities for improvement in cycle times, changeover times, and work-in-progress levels.
They decided to use a value stream map, which showed them problems in their factory layout that were creating bottlenecks and decreased production, such as similar machines being located in different parts of the factory. They created more efficient work cells and were able to remove the need for forklifting items back and forth from one machine to the next. In the end, they increased production by 25 percent.
Case Study No. 2
In another case, an aluminum casting company sought to increase productivity by reducing lead time. The problem the company faced was that since all their products were made to order, they never had an early idea of how long each order would take to complete. They wanted to decrease their average work-order time from three weeks to two.
Taking data from the previous three months, they created a value stream map that entailed the encompassed casting process. They were able to identify numerous inefficiencies, such as a single mold being made by one worker instead of two, as well as the way raw materials were packaged that made them easier to handle. The result? They got the average work order down to two weeks and brought in more customers.
Case Study No. 3
Although Six Sigma is most commonly associated with manufacturing, in this case, the strategy was used to help a call center increase capacity without spending more money or hiring more workers.
Again, value stream maps were utilized to identify the top three most common calls the center received. They were able to reduce the average call time by 18 percent by making adjustments such as removing promotional pitches from some calls.
Six Sigma is most commonly associated with manufacturing.
Case Study No. 4
In the final case, a company that makes and sells formed steel wires sought a way to reduce costs. A capability study pointed out that the length of the individual wires wasn’t of great importance to manufacturing the finished product correctly. Internal specifications were made to ensure that every wire was reduced to its lowest tolerable length. They were able to reduce product costs by 1.3 percent, saving the firm about $400,000.
Six Sigma is a valuable, but complicated, process that must be fitted specifically to each operation to increase productivity or reduce costs. Each strategy is unique to each case, so sometimes the best homework you can do is to see what has worked for others.
Andrew Lisa is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He writes about small business productivity and improving your online reputation. Follow him on Twitter.