Six Sigma Leadership

4 July 2007 Pete Pande

Six Sigma leadership is both hard to define and simple to understand. Pete Pande explains how it is challenging to master, but easy to apply to what you do as a leader every day.

Six Sigma leadership is about practicing principles that make up a better way of leading than what we often encounter. It is often referred to as a 'new standard', but little of what makes up Six Sigma leadership is likely to be controversial. The concepts could appropriately be called 'applied common sense' – neither earthshaking nor mind-bending, they are just smart and practical guidelines for being a better leader.

Six Sigma leadership is not about absolutes or a defined set of steps. There's no particular formula, meaning that the definition of a Six Sigma leader can appear a bit loose at first.

However, just because it defies narrow definition does not mean Six Sigma leadership is touchy-feely or a vain attempt to make you into some legendary leader like Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln or Darth Vader.

Rather than focusing on traits like charisma or brilliant intellect, the core of Six Sigma leadership is about practical skills that are directly linked to how well you help your business succeed, skills nearly any individual can apply. They help you build on, not abandon, your existing strengths and talents.


The essence of Six Sigma leadership can be described in two words: balance and flexibility. It's this combination of stability (balance) and responsiveness (flexibility) that gives Six Sigma leadership its power.

It argues against those who favour a particular leadership style, or those who excuse their own leadership approach – even when it's not working – by saying, "That's just how I am."

A lack of leadership balance and flexibility leads to poor decisions, misguided efforts, and millions, if not billions, wasted each year. We also examine how it creates scepticism from followers regarding your ability to lead, and failure of businesses to coordinate their activities to the best advantage of customers and shareholders.

On the positive side, we also see how understanding balance and flexibility can make you a significantly better leader, and help you foster better leadership throughout your organisation.

Returning to the definition, Six Sigma leadership is a set of principles that can be applied to create greater success and sustained results for an organisation. It is based on the idea that outstanding leadership is an artful, but learnable, combination of skills that combine balance and flexibility to drive goals and performance.


In all companies – in every department and function, home or branch office, senior executive to hourly wage-earner, the same patterns emerge. These patterns can be likened to an epic struggle – a tug-of-war between opposing forces of how leaders operate. It's not quite that black and white, but the conflict can help us understand Six Sigma leadership.

"The essence of Six Sigma leadership can be described in two words: balance and flexibility."

The tug-of-war features both good and bad habits. Good habits are not very controversial, few would say that to 'make decisions based on facts' is a bad idea. Neither would concern for customers, teamwork or doing things right the first time typically lead to a big debate.

On the other hand, another set of behaviours tug at the leaders. These 'forces of evil', or bad habits, are performed out of expediency, when under pressure, from laziness or just to get something done so you can move on to the next problem. Similarly, most people would agree that these leadership behaviours are the poorer choice when compared to the good habits.


Which force is stronger, the good or the bad? The nearly unanimous answer is the bad habits. Leaders by and large recognise a contradiction between what they know they ought to do and how they often actually fulfil their role.

We all tend to see the bad habits, more readily in our bosses and colleagues. VPs complain about CEOs, plant shift workers complain about their supervisors, department heads whine about other department heads. But in moments of honesty, most leaders recognise the prevalence of the bad habits in themselves.

Is it really that bad? It's certainly possible to exaggerate, and people can be hard on themselves at times. After all, businesses accomplish great work and achieve remarkable success every day. Products and services find their way to customers regularly, perhaps not as smoothly as we'd like, but not too badly. Dedicated, hard-working people who care about their jobs, their customers and their organisations put forth tremendous efforts all the time.

But the ease with which people acknowledge the prevalence of the bad habits ought to raise an alarm. Even in the places or on the days when you're leading in the right way, you are vulnerable to those 'forces of evil'. There are many examples of the insidiousness of the bad habits – as well as some showing the power of the good. The story of Ford Motor Company is one that dramatically illustrates what happens when leaders lose the tug-of-war.


Back in the 1980s, Ford had a successful marketing effort with the theme, 'Quality is Job 1'. There was an internal audience for that slogan. To people inside Ford, 'Job 1' meant the first unit of a new model. In other words, success and quality were not just a priority, but really a shared responsibility – you shouldn't count on the plant workers to fix the problems created in design, tooling or procurement.

"Six Sigma leadership is a set of principles that can be applied to create greater success and sustained results for an organisation."

Around this time Ford used some Six Sigma-type methods to conceive, design and market a new car, the Taurus, which became a legendary success story. It was well made, had features motorists loved, was a good size, looked great and sold extremely well.

You might have expected, based on that successful experience and the message of 'Job 1', that Ford would have applied the same approach to a succession of other products and been on a steady upward trajectory. Instead, the opposite happened.

The Taurus itself fell victim to old leader / manager habits. Over subsequent model years, saving pennies-per-vehicle often became 'Job 1', and the features that made it attractive, the quality that made it reliable, declined dramatically.

For members of the Taurus team, the rest of the story was not a success at all, but rather a sad failure.

By 1999, when Ford initiated its own 'consumer-driven Six Sigma' effort, it had fallen to the lowest ranking of all major auto manufacturers in initial quality. Whatever lessons had been learned about smart leadership in the early 1980s had failed to be accepted as a new standard and were overwhelmed by old behaviours.

Ford is just a representative example here. Looking behind why many past business 'fads' have failed, there is a common denominator – the improved skills and habits were never truly embraced, or made a fundamental aspect of leadership.