November 12, 2006
Six Sigma Upside Down
Six Sigma programs have been a common aspect of the quality movement that swept industry over that past twenty years. Among the key principles of these programs are (1) all work can be described in terms of step-by-step processes; (2) there are always 'customers' of these processes (that is, people, whether inside a company or, more traditionally, beyond it like real customers) who receive the benefits of the work at hand; (3) defects or errors matter to these customers; (4) data can be kept about such defects; (5) a variety of problem solving and improvement efforts can be made to continuously root out the causes and eliminate such defects; and, (6) those involved will do better if continuously challenged to reduce the number of defects.
Six Sigma itself is a statistical notion conveying that there will be less than 3.4 errors or defects for every milllion opportunities. This is a steep mountain to climb. Still, as an aspiration, it has vastly improved the quality of work over many years now -- especially when combined or driven through an expectation of continuing reducing the number or incidence of errors at some rate (e.g. every year cut defects by 70% or 90% or some other goal).
The six sigma statistic crossed my mind while reading about the track record of the federal and state Road Home program designed to help Katrina victims with the money needed to repair or replace damaged homes. Whether organizations are governmental or private sector, one doesn't expect six sigma performance in an effort only 14 months old. 3.4 four errors out of a million opportunities would be too high a bar.
Still, it came as a bit of surprise that, in a process essentially aimed at providing money to needy homeowners, the pace at getting it wrong would be so wildly at odds with six sigma. Indeed, the numbers turn six sigma on its head. Instead of getting it wrong 3.4 times out of million, this program has gotten it right only 22 times out of 79,000.
Only 22 home owners have actually received cash -- out of nearly 79,000 who have applied.
In six sigma upside down terms, this translates as "of every million opportunities to get it right, those doing the work in the Road Home program succeeded 278 times."
So, here's a suggestion to the Road Home program:
Invite all who have applied to the program to a football stadium. Ask them to use their application as their ticket to get in. Take the $7.5 billion allocated to the program, divide it up by the projected number of those in attendance, put that amount in a cashier's check on the stadium seats, provide some entertainment and call it a day.
Will there be defects?
Will there, for example, be folks who spend the money on something other than home repair or rebuilding? Will there be folks who shouldn't get the money? Will people get the wrong amount of money?
But, here's my guess: The number of defects will be far lower than the current rate of getting it wrong at a pace of 999,732 times out of a million.