Tools, Technologies and Training for Healthcare Laboratories

Six Sigma Quality and Desirable Laboratory Precision

Have you heard about Six-Sigma? One of the popular trends in quality management, it was used to revolutionize business processes in companies like GE and Motorola. The famed Jack Welch of GE even made it a mandatory requirement that all executives learn and practice Six Sigma. Dr. Westgard explains what's new about this approach, what's hype, and what can be applied in the laboratory. (preview)

An updated version of this article is available in Six Sigma QC Design and Control

If you haven't heard about it yet, there's a good chance you'll hear about it soon. "Six Sigma Quality Management" is the latest buzz coming from industry.

Six Sigma is the next wave in quality management and you'll be able to catch it soon at a bookstore near you. One of the first books aimed at the popular business and management audience is Six Sigma: The breakthrough management strategy revolutionizing the world's top corporations [1], written by Mikel Harry and Richard Schroeder, former Motorola employees who founded the Six Sigma Academy. The American Society for Quality (ASQ) has partnered with the Six Sigma Academy to provide training in Six Sigma Quality Management. The December 2000 issue of ASQ's Quality Progress features an advertorial theme on Six Sigma and a directory of companies that provide Six Sigma training. A year from now, you won't be able to avoid talking about Six Sigma if you want to be considered a knowledgeable manager.

Management Fad or Fundamental?

It would be tempting to suggest that "this too will pass," in the same manner that other management programs come and go. Witness the changes in JCAHO's quality management programs from TQM to CQI to IOP and ORYX. In the time it takes to implement a new program, the program is often replaced by something new and apparently different.

The truth of the matter is that the names of the programs are often changed to reflect a change in emphasis, not a change in the overall principles. All these programs have evolved from the quality management philosophy espoused by Deming, Juran, and others. The names are usually important in marketing the program.

  • Total Quality Management emphasizes a broad perspective for quality management, identifies the importance of customers and understanding their needs or requirements, and focuses on processes as the critical mechanism for producing the desired quality.
  • Continuous Quality Improvement emphasizes that quality isn't static but needs to be improved on an on-going basis. It provides problem solving methodology to support the identification and resolution of chronic problems, particularly those that occur across departments. Teamwork and group problem solving are important elements.
  • Improving Organizational Performance emphasizes that quality management applies not only to work processes, but also to management processes that determine how the various parts of an organization work together to deliver quality to the customers.
  • ORYX emphasizes outcome measures that will help an organization measure how well they're doing. The name ORYX has no practical meaning in relation to the underlying principles and concepts of quality management; it reflects only a marketing faux pas (pardon my French).

Now comes Six Sigma Quality Management. This is, in fact, a new marketing approach for TQM! There's a lot of hoopla about Champions, Master Black Belts, Black Belts, and Green Belts to describe the training and implementation structure [1]. However, the emphasis on Six Sigma is also truly important for making quality management a more quantitative science. Six Sigma provides a quantitative definition of the desired specifications for production processes and allows those specifications to be related to the customer needs or requirements. When six-sigma performance is recognized as a fundamental goal for processes, quality can truly be measured and managed in a more quantitative way.

Six Sigma, 2nd EditionWant to read more of this article?

We invite you to purchase the Six Sigma QC Design and Control manual, Second Edition, available at our online store. You can also download the Table of Contents and a Sample chapter.