Six Sigma, Shmix Sigma: How to Make Your Business Efficient Without a Black Belt

Six Sigma. Just typing the words makes me want to take a nap on my keyboard. So how did such a boring process become something that business owners believe they MUST HAVE to truly be efficient? Better yet, how did this methodology become something that entrepreneurs strive to achieve various certification levels called “belts” where each color indicates a level of Six Sigma expertise (like children in a karate class)?

From manufacturing, to banking, to retail, I’ve seen Six Sigma used in every industry. But, rarely have I seen a truly efficient business. Don’t let Six Sigma’s popularity fool you. This is a process designed to create efficiencies, but the process itself is an inefficiency. The Six Sigma projects I’ve been involved with almost always result in a year long task force that is drained and unmotivated to tackle process improvements. The enthusiasm to better the company has evaporated and you are left with the same issues and a year wasted.

If you find yourself bogged down by bureaucracy and reaching for your Six Sigma book, reach no more! I am here to tell you the simple steps to take to have your business running better than the Tinman after a motor oil bath. And you don’t need a black belt to do it.

Set a Clear Vision

drive in rain

Have you ever been caught in a rainstorm while driving somewhere you aren’t familiar? Did you squint and try to see through bullets of rain as though you could somehow smush your eyes into seeing through torrential downpours? How hard was it to find your turn? Did you get lost? Probably.

If you need vision to drive your car, then you definitely need a vision to drive your business. Having a vision is more than just a business plan. It is a lofty goal to act as your business’s guiding light through a storm. It is easy to get stuck heads down, caught up in minutia and red tape. But you have to be sure to lift your head from time to time and look forward. Having a vision is like having a giant blinking light saying TURN HERE at each crossroads when you are driving in a rain storm. This can literally be the determining factor in your business’s success.

Get Organized

Ok so you know where you’re going. But, do you know what needs to happen along the way? Know the work that must be accomplished on the way to your goal. Then plan how you are going to accomplish this work. Don’t overthink it with tired DMAIC processes. Ask yourself, what is the simplest way to do this work without sacrificing quality? Then do it.

Try to avoid theoretical thinking. It is all well and good if you want to have a matrixed organization with functional centers of excellence. But at the end of the day, these are just business terms for how you get your work done. Instead of getting caught up in the academia, start with something tangible, the result.

The result could be: I need to deliver 700 postcards to my client by the end of each month. What actions MUST happen to accomplish this result?

  • The postcards need to be designed.
  • The postcards need to say something
  • Postcards need printed, boxed, and shipped

You may notice that the last item has three actions in one bullet. Look for creative solutions to combine or trim action steps. For instance, rather than having one vendor print and another one package and ship my materials, I switched to one vendor who will print as well as package and ship my postcards. If there are actions that can be reasonably condensed, then condense until the actions are as simple as possible.

Define Processes

You spent all this time figuring out where your going and the best way to get there? Write that shit down. Don’t save this for later. Do it now. Seriously, write it down.

Having clearly documented process will not only help you maintain the great workflow you created, it will prevent catastrophe later on. Remember how I said to take the simplest path? Well in order to make complicated client agreements and legal obligations simple, you have to make sure everyone who works on a project knows how to do the work. Documentation will help you juggle client agreements, legal obligations, staffing, vacation coverage all while delivering your product or service.

I can’t say it enough. Write it down. Your clients will thank you. Your employees will thank you. Speaking of your employees…

Maximize Your Talent

If you jumped to this section, go back to the top of the page and start from the beginning. You should never skip to people decisions. It may seem counterintuitive. It is human nature to want to prioritize your people first. But trust me, you need to do the other steps first to prevent you from wasting resources on jobs that do not align with your vision.

Once you know where you’re going (vision), what you are going to do to get there and how you are going to do it, you can finally assess who you are going to count on to get you there.

Take some time to list the skill sets you need for each job. Then measure your talent pool against this list. Match your employees strengths to the skills you need. This will ensure that the job is completed in the best way possible and delivering the best service or product. Additionally, your employees will be more engaged, resulting in a truly maximized workforce.

Evaluate and Evolve

You did it! You made a kick-ass process, your employees are excited to come to work, and things are going great! But you’re not finished yet. Lots of environmental changes may affect the course of your business:

  • Clients
  • Contractual agreements
  • Laws
  • People

Your business needs to change just to keep up. No, you don’t have to start over. You just need to evaluate and evolve.

A couple times a year, survey your clients, customers, and employees. Compile this feedback and assess gaps. Once you’ve identified the weaknesses, look to your vision. It is likely that these problem areas are no longer leading to your goal.

Use this as an opportunity to realign to your vision. How can this weak spot be tweaked to better achieve your goal? Now ask yourself, what work needs to be accomplished to do that. Do it. Don’t be so rigid in the processes that you can’t be flexible. Remember your vision. It will always lead you out of the storm.


Don’t waste your resources on Six Sigma. You can achieve greater business processes by following these steps:

  • Set a clear vision
  • Organize the work
  • Define processes
  • Maximize talent
  • Evaluate and Evolve

Your business will be more successful over time and your employees will be more engaged. For those of you still clutching to your black belts, let us know why in the comments! Has Six Sigma ever worked for you?


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