Six Sigma Tools Most Implemented Incorrectly

Most abused Six Sigma Tools

Every week, various LinkedIn discussions pop up in professional groups meant to bring debate, and (hopefully) then clarity, to their audiences and members. In particular, I spend a lot of time in the Lean Six Sigma group, and a particular topic caught my attention this week.

Lee Duncan, a Six Sigma manager at Hertz, gets the prize for opening up my current favorite: A discussion on the “most abused Six Sigma Tools.”  Duncan opens up by talking about the surprising frequency with which he encounters misused or misunderstood Lean techniques. He acknowledges that while this doesn’t always cause a problem, it has the potential to bring about costly and devastating consequences in the wrong situation. Duncan says he’s been compiling a list of common mistakes in LSS that he sees in hopes of incorporating them into his training sessions. Most of us could probably benefit at one time for another from compiling such lists.

Throughout the discussion, several contributors brought up specific tools and techniques, but some of the most useful information came about in suggestions of how things get done wrong. More accurately, these were general mistakes people make rather than with individual techniques. Let’s take a look at some of these categories; we’ll get to specific techniques as they’re relevant within each category.

Simple Does Not Equate To Easy

Contributor Meera Revaliya had this to say:

“The tool I see misused the most is one of the simplest – the fishbone diagram. It often confuses root causes, symptoms and hypotheses. Often the categorisation of each branch is not very well understood and you’re left questioning what causes what.”


Ravaliya is the first to introduce the idea that some of the simplest ideas and tools in LSS are also the most easy to misuse, and she’s not the only one to address that point. In general, some of the simplest tools, such as those in which people draw simple diagrams, seem to be common culprits for misinformation, or more accurately misinterpretation. There are a few reasons for this, namely:

1. Perceived Access. Tools that are perceived to be simple or easy to use are more likely to be underestimated in their complexity (this makes sense intuitively). When people underestimate the complexity of a tool, they are less likely to be critical of their own usage, and mistakes are likely to slip under the radar. Yikes!

2. Interpretation Bias. Another problem with simple tools is that it’s easy to interpret them one way when they, at a glance, seem very easy to read and understand. The main danger of this is what’s referred to as “confirmation bias,” or the way in which we naturally interpret data, arguments, and information in a way that best supports our preconceptions. In the business world, this can mean accepting as fact things that really might not be supported by empiric evidence at all.

3. Lack of Depth. As a continuation of point number 2, it’s worth noting that sometimes the fact that diagrams and similar tools provide a seemingly clear picture can cause people to not bother looking deeper. As Ravaliya mentions, simplifying models are useful for getting an overall picture of a business, but it can be easy to forget that root causes and the like still exist in a very real workplace underneath our 2D drawings and diagrams.

The Nature of LSS

Lean and Six Sigma are also sometimes their own barrier, as people don’t fully understand their goals or know how to get in the proper mindset. Misunderstanding of the intended outcomes of using LSS tools or implementing LSS projects can mean that employees easily lose their motivation or are unsatisfied with how things turn out. Obviously, this does very little to further your cause I’m any sort of positive direction.

For example, poster Marnix Zoutenbier talks about the DMAIC framework for Six Sigma. Despite the importance of the process, workers might not deem every single step they take to be particularly applicable to what they’re working on. They may be inclined to skip steps, or feel like they’re wasting their time if they are forced to complete them.

Another aspect of this is failing to see any direct connection between the project and its intended outcomes. Most of this comes down to effective communication and training. Often, an organization will bring in a professional to help them with LSS (a good thing), but will isolate their workers from the idea and projects (not a good thing). The thinking here is that management is already spending money on an outside advisor, so take up more time and materials with training workshops for their regular employees.

If knowledge is power, then lack of knowledge can become a barrier to progress, and this is exactly what such workplaces sometimes run into when they shut workers out of the process. Educating workers on the intricacies of LSS might not be practical, but the basics aren’t too hard. If they know what you’re working toward, at least, and the basic ways in which LSS achieves those goals, they’ll likely be more on board with a number of ideas as they develop.

Not Garnering The Necessary Support

Just as workers play their role in the success of LSS projects, leadership and other parties with a vested interest need to be with you before can proceed. One of the biggest mistakes people make is applicable to any Six Sigma tool, and that’s proceeding without 100% commitment from those with the power to start and stop improvement projects.

Before engaging in any kind of LSS effort, all levels of an organization should be actively engaged and educated in plans, theories, and expected results. This will help to avoid interruptions or changes in direction along the way, and will also allow the powers that be to feel more comfortable in their decisions to invest time, money, and manpower into Six Sigma strategies.

Focusing On The Wrong Places

Also important to avoid is a habit to jump at the seemingly obvious problems. Sometimes, what you see right away will indeed be the first project you should tackle, but that’s not always the case. Proper collection of data is absolutely essential, and all decisions you make about where to allocate your efforts should be based upon it.

Using various diagraming tools correctly, especially those employed by Lean practitioners, can help you to get a realistic idea of the weak or slow points within your production, and then to identify where you most need to put your effort.

Unrealistic Range of Expectations

Finally, a big problem people run into is a disconnect between the tools their using – and by extension their capabilities – and their expected outcomes. If you’re using a tool meant for identifying problems and projects, for example, don’t expect it to also offer up to you the perfect solutions for what it finds.

Likewise, don’t try to tie too many separate projects into one, doing so is likely to dilute your efforts and, again, create unrealistic expectations as to the number of things that will improve and the degree to which each will do so. Lean Six Sigma tools are usually very tight, precise, and focused, so make sure you’re in the right mindset to use them.

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