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Collins sees Six Sigma program as key to growth in Erie County

Chris Collins says he likes the results so far from Six Sigma, the business discipline he has brought to Erie County government.

But the county executive and his deputy, Al Hammonds, say they are determined to go much further so that within a few years, Erie County will become the first large county in the nation identified with Six Sigma.

Collins said he knows some wonder if Six Sigma, which focuses on reducing costs and improving efficiency, is merely a fad in county government. "It's not going away," he said.

Collins and Hammonds were the keynote speakers at a Six Sigma conference on Thursday in Cheektowaga, hosted by the American Society for Quality's Buffalo chapter. About 250 people attended.

Collins says Six Sigma can improve county operations and save taxpayers money. Under the system, practitioners identify problems and launch projects to solve them, setting deadlines and targets for savings. It relies heavily on data to both measure a problem and the results of a solution.

The system's backers praise its ability to generate savings and reshape an organization, while its critics claim it stifles creativity or simply repackages other quality programs.

Hammonds said the county is wrapping up its first round of Six Sigma-related projects and is preparing to introduce an additional set.

Employers at Thursday's conference, including health care companies, banks and manufacturers, talked about changes they had made using Six Sigma or similar programs.

McGard Inc. used a "kaizen" event -- a 12-step quality program used by Toyota -- to attack a persistent problem with "dings and dents" in its parts. The Orchard Park-based manufacturer of wheel locks has 400 local employees.

The defects were only cosmetic. But the company felt shipping imperfect-looking parts didn't project a good image, so they were turned into scrap.

McGard aimed to reduce dings and dents -- its largest single cause of scrap -- by 50 percent over the course of one year, to save an estimated $131,300, said Wally Kensy, quality assurance engineer.

McGard used "town hall" meetings with the chief executive officer at the outset to get employees involved. Posters were hung and periodically changed so that employees would keep noticing them.

Employees analyzed the causes of dings and dents and found ways to handle the parts more carefully as they moved through the plant.

Kensy tracked the savings from reduced scrap on a paper thermometer like the kind used in fundraising campaigns. Employees started asking him what the latest savings were even before he added another red strip.

There were also financial rewards. McGard's CEO agreed to share a total of $30,000 -- roughly half the total projected savings -- with the employees after the project met its six-month goal. As the employees received the payouts, the company made sure they knew the money was directly related to the "dings and dents" effort, Kensy said.

"It wasn't just handing out envelopes in mass ways," he said.

A little more than a year after the one-year project, McGard has recorded savings of $206,000, far exceeding its goal. A portion of the savings was offset by the roughly $35,000 to $40,000 in equipment investments it made as part of the effort to combat dings and dents.


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