In theory ... Six sigma

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak

It may sound like a cult with funny handshakes, a Da Vinci Code-type mystery or even a dark martial art. Actually, at first glance, this management theory could easily be confused with a form of karate, what with its talk of green belts, black belts and master black belts. 

Six Sigma was developed by US technology company Motorola, which is one of the biggest manufacturers of microchips, to improve its efficiency. Sigma is the Greek letter used in maths to denote standard deviation, and in layman's terms this theory is about reducing the number of errors, or deviations, that occur in any particular process - be it posting a letter and making sure it gets delivered on time, or signing up a new donor to your charity.

Confused? Don't be. Although there are lots of statistics involved, Six Sigma is essentially about analysing each act involved in getting something done in your organisation and then making sure that nothing and no one deviates from the proper process (once you've worked out the best way to do it, that is). There are different levels of Sigma, and attaining the sixth means virtually no mistakes are ever made and that your organisation is superhumanly efficient. It goes without saying that in the real world this is an impossibility.

So where do the belts come in? They refer to the level of training that Six Sigma practitioners need to receive before spreading the good news in the organisation. A green belt means you've had to endure a short course on the basics, while a master black belt denotes a real pro, ready to lead others towards a faultless brave new world of super-efficiency and perfect process.

If all this leaves you feeling a little queasy, then don't despair, because you won't be in the minority. Despite its noble and proven claims to achieving greater productivity, Six Sigma's jargon and techniques involve a suspension of scepticism impossible for any level-headed Brit. We'd be snorting in our tea cups with derision. Master black belt? Master idiot, more like.

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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