Six Sigma holds a storied place in the recent history of manufacturing. Popularized by none other than Jack Welch of General Electric in the mid-1990s (although started by a Motorola engineer), the phrase “Six Sigma” has come to be synonymous with the ideal achievement of quality — which is fitting, since the methodology strives for perfection.
In the eyes of Six Sigma, perfection is, statistically speaking, possible, and is defined as fewer than 3.4 defects per million parts. In other words, that level of production quality means that the amount and impact of defects are negligible. There’s something refreshing and inspiring about a philosophy that pushes the notion of “nobody’s perfect” out the door — and which further holds that anyone, with the proper training, can achieve and contribute to that perfection.
Twenty years later from Six Sigma’s rise to popularity, all walks of employees are as likely to encounter it as any other — it’s moved beyond the shop floor and the management suite. Nowadays, it’s not surprising for project managers, website designers and administrators, and other non-industrial personnel to at least get a primer on the tenets of Six Sigma — if not a full-on training. What are those tenets?
- • Predictability: A major Six Sigma goal is the elimination (or extreme reduction) of variables and instability in a process.
- • Measurability: All elements of a process should be quantified, tracked, measured, reported and analyzed under Six Sigma — with the ultimate goal of improving.
- • Buy-in: Six Sigma doesn’t just work for a few people. It requires organizational commitment. Even the most siloed organization runs on the interactions between each of its members, so it’s critical for everyone to be on the same page — and working toward the same goal.
Training in Six Sigma — up to and including the highest level of Six Sigma education, the Six Sigma Black Belt — is a valuable and sought-after quality among industrial employers. A Six Sigma background indicates a commitment to quality and, ultimately, the success of an organization. It is also likely to indicate that a person is a team player, and is unafraid to identify and improve on mistakes and inefficiencies — all great qualities to have in an employee.
Therefore, it’s unsurprising that Six Sigma certification or training can be a big boost to your resume. It’s also not an insignificant point that any training you’ve had in the past can reduce the amount that you’ll require once you’re part of a company or organization, saving them valuable training costs that can be directed to other employees or process improvements.
We mentioned above the extraordinary breadth of positions to which Six Sigma can be applied — which makes sense, since organization-wide buy-in is key. Let’s refocus on engineering positions now, and take a look at how Six Sigma can play a role in each.
Six Sigma for Design Engineers:
Where it all starts. As a primary conduit between the customer’s requirements and the practicalities of the manufacturing process, design engineers have many opportunities to apply Six Sigma methodology to achieve better results. Some areas are:
Full understanding of and commitment to the customer’s requirements: The time for questions on tech specs, drawings and other customer needs is before manufacturing, not after. It’s up to the design engineers to identify and solve any potential issues, problems or inconsistencies in these early stages. Guesswork has no role here. By tracking frequently occurring pain points or other issues at this early stage, organizations can improve their RFQ and RFP processes — for instance, with more in-depth online forms or more questions to ask during a discovery conversation — adding value for both the organization and future customers.
Knowledge of manufacturing processes: Technical drawings do not exist in a vacuum — they must be efficiently and properly produced. Design engineers should see no difference between themselves and the person running a machine on the shop floor in terms of how well they must understand the process. It’s not up to someone else to determine how to actually work from a drawing or design — it’s up to the design engineer. Accounting for manufacturability at this stage will lead to much lower variance in the process itself, since the design engineer is in control.
Six Sigma for Process Engineers
The goal here is to take the essential elements of a manufacturing process, and make them work better. Consider process engineers with a Six Sigma mindset to be “process hackers,” or maybe “machine whisperers” — they get completely under the hood to figure out how to gain both maximum efficiency and quality in a process. Here are a few ways how:
Data mining: The methodology of data tracking and measurement plays a huge role here, and the digital tools available make the process that much easier. By tracking every aspect of a process — in injection molding, for instance, hold time, cooling time, pressure, injection temperature and so on — a process engineer can potentially identify trends and thus root causes of errors and defects.
First pass yield: In Six Sigma, the goal is to have throughput reach maximum levels the very first time. A process engineer can play a role here by ensuring that machinery and process settings are correct at the outset of production — not after defects occur. The organization-wide nature of Six Sigma means that machine operators are encouraged (or required) to verify these settings and to speak up if something appears off. There are truly no “dumb questions” in Six Sigma.
Six Sigma for Manufacturing Engineers: For the most “hands-on” engineer in the process, Six Sigma provides an opportunity to make changes both large and small.
Facility configuration: Taking a 30,000-foot view of a facility’s layout can lead to process improvements and efficiency identifications, especially when taking into account Six Sigma’s focus on data tracking. Manufacturing engineers can model potential configuration shifts, testing which will work best — and which will offset the potential infrastructure costs associated. It helps to remember that Six Sigma’s end focus is 100 percent on value to the customer.
Quality control: The end of line testing process is invaluable for Six Sigma, and can yield a treasure trove of data from which to learn and improve. It’s critical, however, to have an organized, standardized tracking and recording methodology — if the same defects continue to occur and no one realizes it, there’s little to no chance of improvement.
Six Sigma for System Engineers:
This high-level role will typically be involved with each of the other types of engineers mentioned above — and as such, can be responsible for applying Six Sigma in that wide variety of ways. How else can Six Sigma benefit system engineers?
Full-system analysis: A system engineer already has an intricate understanding of every detail of a manufacturing process — even without Six Sigma. Following Six Sigma’s philosophy of complete focus on adding value for the customer, a system engineer might look at the costs associated with process, equipment and facility improvements differently. By modeling cost savings, quality improvements and other value-adding aspects over time — relying on hard data and statistics, not estimates — a system engineer can be better able to justify the up-front costs of investing in those areas.
As you can see, there really aren’t any areas in which Six Sigma is not useful to engineers — the methodology is designed to be useful for everyone in an organization.