Carol AndrewsWhen I first heard the term “Six Sigma” a week or so after joining CLP, my eyes rolled skyward and I silently wondered how long this newfangled idea would last. My previous job had left me somewhat jaded when it came to trendy management philosophies. Each new executive team at my former company had its own management system, complete with a cute name or clever acronym and a popular book on management that was currently flying off the shelves of bookstores everywhere. And as always, I would commit to adopting this latest philosophy.

However, in most cases, within 2 years, the top executive would be out the door—along with his way of doing business that was no longer all the rage. As you can imagine, by the third time this happened, I simply wondered how long the latest management “flavor of the month” would last. I took what was useful from each system and ignored the rest.

So it was in this frame of mind that I pondered all that I was hearing about Six Sigma. And hearing. And hearing even more. Everywhere I turned, there seemed to be discussions about the success of this quality-management system. I soon learned that Six Sigma has been around for a while; some say the ideas upon which the system is based date back to the 18th century. Most agree that the term “Six Sigma” was coined in the early 1980s by one or more engineers at Motorola who wanted to measure and improve the company’s operational performance by identifying and eliminating defects in the manufacturing process. They determined that to achieve Six Sigma, 99.99966% of what they did had to be without defects. Put another way, only 3.4 defects would be allowed per million opportunities. This measurement standard is still used, but many insist that Six Sigma is more a way of doing business than a statistical analysis. Another important component of Six Sigma is understanding customer needs to improve and reinvent organizational processes.

Six Sigma success stories abound. This month, our Lab Profile looks at Sonora Quest Laboratories and how Six Sigma has enabled the operation to reduce errors, improve processes, and save money (see page 34). Sonora Quest Laboratories has achieved tremendous success since implementing Six Sigma; in fact, the company’s COO is convinced that it would not be where it is today without Six Sigma.

So, while my jaded side would like to dismiss the “Six Sigma” concept as a fad that’s just lasting a bit longer than others, I can’t quarrel with success. And why would anyone want to quarrel with a quality system that can improve patient care?

Carol Andrews
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