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Six Sigma gains wider appeal Conference here to showcase its diverse users

Motorola Inc. may have pioneered Six Sigma, the business discipline that aims to solve problems and improve performance, but it is not just for manufacturers anymore.

A Buffalo-area hospital has used Six Sigma to reduce the amount of time patients spend in the emergency department. Several years ago, Bank of America used it to reduce a high rate of robberies at its Los Angeles branches, by identifying weaknesses in the branches' security and correcting them.

Some area employers that use Six Sigma will share their experiences on Thursday at the American Society for Quality's Buffalo conference, at the Millennium Hotel in Cheektowaga.

Six Sigma is a system that allows employers to tackle issues they determine are costing too much money or hurting customer service or results. Data is the driving force, helping Six Sigma practitioners pinpoint the source of a problem as well as measure how well a solution is working. The goal is to hatch a cure that will generate consistent results and wipe out "defects."

Six Sigma has received increased attention locally thanks to Erie County Executive Chris Collins, who has brought the principles to government operations. Collins and Deputy County Executive Alfred Hammonds Jr., a Six Sigma expert, will speak at the conference.

The system can be applied to projects in all sorts of areas. The county, for instance, put it to work to improve the process people go through to rent a picnic shelter in a park.

John Lupienski, the conference's chairman and a Six Sigma consultant, said the system can work for a variety of employers, regardless of whether they make printed circuit boards, treat patients or serve customers in retail stores.

"It is an easy translation" to other fields, said Lupienski, who worked at Motorola when Six Sigma debuted in the 1980s. "It's a translation of, who is the customer and what's the product?"

Patrick Heraty, a professor of business administration at Hilbert College, said Six Sigma has demonstrated staying power among many other quality-oriented programs.

"It's becoming much more widespread," he said. "It represents a great tool that when used properly can produce remarkable results."

But if employers embrace Six Sigma, Heraty said, they should be prepared to make a long-term commitment, with consistent support from top executives, in order to achieve good results, Heraty said.

"Organizations are always looking for ways to solve problems," Heraty said. "Unfortunately the approach they use sometimes is an approach that is going to be quick and easy. Six Sigma is not like that."

Leadership backing for Six Sigma is vital, but so is ensuring employees understand what the goals are so that they will support it, Lupienski said. "You've got to make people realize that you won't have to worry about losing your job."

Kaleida Health System has put Six Sigma to work at Millard Filmore Suburban Hospital in Amherst, to reduce the amount of time patients spend in the emergency department. The goal was to move them to the next level of care or have them treated so they could go home, in order to cut down on long waits, diversions to other hospitals and people leaving without being treated.

Using data, Kaleida scrutinized what was contributing to patient time in the emergency department, said Steve Kishel, director of performance improvement for Kaleida. It brought together key people in the emergency department and other related areas to develop plans to make changes.

The project largely used the principles of the complementary "Lean Six Sigma" program, which aims to remove inefficiency from a process, Kishel said.

The hospital emergency department's turnaround time for patients so far has improved by about 20 percent, and Kishel believes that figure can go even higher.

"At the end of the day, it's really about improving the experience for our patients, their families and our staff," Kishel said.

Kaleida has used Six Sigma for several years, and credits the system with spawning a "no lift" policy to combat a high number of employee injuries stemming from manually lifting patients. New techniques and equipment were substituted.

Six Sigma has its own culture and terminology, most notably the "green belt" and "black belt" designations given to people with different levels of training. Kishel is a "master black belt," someone expert in Six Sigma's methodology who can coach, mentor and teach black belts and green belts and is devoted full time to projects. Green belts, by comparison, work on projects when the need arises.

Heraty believes Six Sigma has endured in part because of those "belts," which help make the system distinct and provide practitioners with individual recognition for their work.

While a variety of employers extol Six Sigma's virtues, the system has also drawn criticism over the years.

Critics have claimed that Six Sigma simply repackages other kinds of quality programs. And some contend that in Six Sigma's drive to achieve consistency, it can stifle employee innovation or even lead to lower customer satisfaction.

Some companies, including 3M and Home Depot, have received attention in the business media for scaling back their use of Six Sigma.

George Buckley, chief executive officer of 3M, told Business Week last year: "Perhaps one of the mistakes that we made as a company -- it's one of the dangers of Six Sigma -- is that when you value sameness more than you value creativity, I think you potentially undermine the heart and soul of a company like 3M."

But Heraty believes Six Sigma's rigorous discipline doesn't necessarily squelch innovation.

"There is always that possibility, but it is the responsibility of the people providing leadership and training to make sure it has a creativity element to it," he said.

Lupienski has watched Six Sigma's progression from a system favored by large manufacturers to a broad spectrum of employers of different sizes. But he said the system's objective remains the same.

"The bottom line of Six Sigma is dollars and cents and customer satisfaction," he said.

For details on Thursday's conference, visit www.asqbuffalo.org

e-mail: mglynn@buffnews.com

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