Why Many Japanese Organizations Think Six Sigma is a Joke
Statistical control methods are a founding concept in Japanese manufacturing. However, Six Sigma as a problem solving methodology* causes many hang-ups for Japanese managers. Many Americans seeking training in Six Sigma in Japanese organizations face resistance with little explanation as to why. This often leads to frustration and contempt towards management. They write off the Japanese resistance to the training as resistance to change, preventing growth and feeling unrepresented.
I think there are three reasons for the resistance without explanation:
One, there is too much to unpack. Culture is difficult to explain.
Two, they aren't against Six Sigma they are against you getting the training and are just being polite. (Tatemae Hedge Words)
Three, Japanese management adheres to high power distance and frankly it’s none of your business (if you don’t know, you aren’t ready).
The Japanese perspective deserves to be represented and the people who desire the training equally deserve a reason for the resistance.** I will break down the organizational and technical reasons Six Sigma is often not the answer for many Japanese organizations.
Traditional Japanese organizations are hierarchical and adhere to a seniority system. Leaders for improvement projects are carefully selected by management based on years of service, trust, technical expertise and the problem at hand. Six Sigma programs frequently require the student to lead a project to completion with project selection itself often being a result of taking the class. Selecting a project because of a course upends the traditional paradigm of the right person, at the right time, on the right problem.
Lack of Building Consensus
The cadence and results of Six Sigma projects don’t allow for building consensus on where the investigation goes next or what the solution should be. Ultimately, Six Sigma projects result in the belt handing down the results and solution. The belt is the Hero to a problem rather than the solution arising from the group. This is a problem in Japanese organizations where groups succeed and fail together. Anthropologically, this difference between Americans valuing “the Hero” and Japanese valuing “the Group” is likely a cultural imprint from religion. While culturally Americans are heavily influenced by Christianity where mankind was saved by an anointed hero Jesus Christ, Japanese religions (Shinto, Buddhism, and Confucianism) have no such hero analogue. Yes, yes, there was the Buddha and he doesn’t count. The Buddha was not anointed by a god and presented that there are many paths to enlightenment. If the Buddha were a problem solver, he would find a solution and develop consensus on the best way forward. If Jesus were a problem solver he’d find a solution and run around with a whip [John 2:15]. Religious themes feed into deeply rooted beliefs on building consensus as a group. These beliefs have to be respected, not because religion (most Japanese aren’t religious) but because of how deeply they are ingrained on both sides.
Jesus Christ: Problem Solver
Quality is Shared by Everyone
This seems like a part of group mentality belonging under organizational but I’ve chosen to put this as a technical point. Why? Because solving problems using Six Sigma is technically not a replacement for the quality systems and checks and the people that use them. No Six Sigma practitioner would condone replacing traditional quality tools with only Six Sigma and would argue that Six Sigma is complimentary to traditional tools. However, Japanese organizations are truly committed to the message that quality is built into the people and the processes. To append a special process such as Six Sigma dilutes this message. Alternatively, activities to improve quality are performed by cross functional teams that include members of the core quality systems.
Zero Defect Mentality
Six Sigma assigns acceptable levels of defects by having a process within six standard deviations. Literally, six sigma. Under these standards, quality would be considered “World Class” and satisfy the voice of the customer. This makes sense from the capitalist point of view but is lacking to many Japanese managers. Many Japanese managers and their organizations feel a societal commitment to do the best possible. These feelings arise from the concept of “ON” from Buddhism and Confucian ideals instilled in them.
Serious About Zero Defects
So what’s the problem? Just set goals to 8 sigma… 9 sigma. At those levels, statistical tools start to fall apart. Beyond 3ppm it is difficult to reasonably discern improvements in quality within a meaningful amount of time. Some organizations have phenomenal quality and need better tools. Japanese organizations often rely on PFMEA prevention and detection methods, employee training, and experience.
Lack of Focus on the Question
In the charter for a six sigma project the problem, metric, and targets are set prior to the problem solving. This is often where most of the leg work is done in Japanese organizations. Determining what the problem is moves frustratingly slow in Japanese organizations. This is done to align the organization before taking action and is part of a fundamental approach to solving the problem. A six sigma charter will include a statement such as:“Reduce contamination to X and save $Y”. This steers the scope away from more creative solutions such as a modification which mitigates the negative effects of contamination.
Fancy analytical tools are the gateway drug to leaving the shop floor unattended. For a novice this addiction can be fatal. Lean ideology stresse the power of leveraging useful data in small quantities as a foundational skill. Until this has been mastered, more powerful statistical tools are going to be “garbage in garbage out”. This tiered approach to learning is part of Zen Buddhist pedagogy. Ultimately, problems become nightmares without context: (Dangers of Gauge R&R)
One of two things will happen if you are a smart, diligent, problem solver in a solid Japanese organization without Six Sigma. The first: You will become a lean problem solving expert made in their image. You will have deep process knowledge, approach problems from a very fundamental standing, be capable of building strong consensus within your organization and be able to discern a lot from very little information. You’ll basically be the MacGyver of problem solving. The second: You will be dubbed the person in charge of starting the Six Sigma program at your facility. It won’t be an experiment, they’ll be all in and the success or failure of the program will rest on your shoulders as you go off on a great adventure. Like MacGyver.
Like my analysis of Japanese Culture? Learn the fundamental concepts that I teach in Course 1 for Japanese culture.
*This article refers to six sigma as a problem solving / management methodology rather than the entomological statistical concept of six standard deviations.
** Obviously, we’re entering the territory of opinion and painting with a broad brush.