I have just come back from a 15-day Egypt-based volunteer assignment for the USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program implemented by Land O'Lakes. This assignment was conducted at SEKEM, an organic-producing organization, located in Al Sharkia Governorate, about 100 km northeast of Cairo. SEKEM was founded to realize the vision of sustainable human development. Its mission is to develop the individual, society and environment through a holistic concept, integrating economic, societal and cultural life. The SEKEM organization includes biodynamic farms, trading companies for organic produce, organic herbs and organic cotton products. SEKEM works in very competitive and tough economic environments. Lack of efficient quality management skill negatively affects the quality of their products and income. The main purpose of this assignment was to enhance SEKEM’s capacity by training the executive management staff to continually improve their business through understanding and applying the Six Sigma (6σ) approach.
Six Sigma is a methodology that reduces variations in a process, product or service; reduces process costs; and increases customer satisfaction, as variations in a process lead to opportunities for error which then lead to product/service defects and poor customer satisfaction. The 6σ system allows organizations to identify problems, brainstorm solutions (using statistical analysis and process mapping), and implement those solutions with a high level of accuracy and less financial risk. The 6σ system uses a five-step problem-solving methodology. These five steps are: define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC).
In 1987, Motorola started using the Six Sigma approach, which helped the company achieve enormous improvements in quality. In 10 years, the company increased its sales fivefold and saved 14 billion using the 6σ system. Experts identify 6σ (or a "perfect" system) when there are only 3.4 defects per million opportunities (99.9997 percent of the products are without defect). To understand the importance of 6σ, we will compare 6σ (3.4 defects per million) with 5σ (233 defects per million) in two real examples:
- On "Cyber Monday" in 2013, Amazon processed 36.8 million orders. If we assume that each order error costs Amazon about $35, the number of errors would be 125.12 and 8574.4, with costs of about $4,379 and $300,104 for 6σ and 5σ, respectively. The cost difference in sigma levels is about $295,000 for this Cyber Monday. However, if Amazon used 1σ (690,000 defects per million), the cost would be about $889 million.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 51.4 million surgeries are performed in the United States every year. The number of errors that doctors would make would be 174 and 11,976 for 6σ and 5σ, respectively.
Six Sigma Principles include:
- Customer-focused improvement: Process improvement should not be for the sake of driving up sigma levels (from one to six) but must be to meet customer satisfaction (provide what the customer really wants) according to the customer;
- Continuous process improvement: The core of 6σ is continual process improvement. The organization should never stop improving processes while maintaining financial stability;
- Reduce variation: An organization can continually improve processes by reducing variation (measured by standard deviation) among these processes;
- Removing waste: Removing waste items (actions, time, opportunities for errors and overall costs) are important in 6σ, especially in the lean approach; and
- Equipping workers: The organizations must equip their employees with required technologies to monitor and maintain improvements.
The Levels of Six Sigma Certification: 6σ levels are differentiated by belt color, including white belt (someone who becomes familiar with the basics of the 6σ methodology but is not a regular member of the 6σ team); yellow belt (someone who is a step above white belt); green belt (a regular member of the 6σ team who works under the supervision of a black belt); black belt (someone who works as the project leader); and master black belt (the highest 6σ certification level achievable for those who manage black belt members).