Executive Suite: Textron CEO zeroes in on Six Sigma

Six Sigma, a data-driven approach to solving problems, has come under fire. The craze peaked in the late 1990s, but George Buckley, CEO of 3M mmm, was the latest to de-emphasize Six Sigma last year as he wondered if it hurt creativity. Yet, just as it was losing favor, Textron txt launched a major Six Sigma initiative in 2002. Stock in the conglomerate whose products include Cessna jets and E-Z-Go golf carts has climbed 173% since, although it has tumbled in 2008. Textron is holding fast. It will soon have trained nearly 10,000 in-house experts known as black belts and green belts. Why? USA TODAY corporate management reporter Del Jones asked Textron CEO Lewis Campbell, 61, who is a Six Sigma green belt.

Q: To those of us who still don't understand Six Sigma, do you have an elevator speech to define it?

A: You define a problem, take measurements to be crystal clear on what you're trying to improve and analyze the data using statistical tools to sort through the noise. The last piece is control, so that once you fix something, it's fixed for the last time. The idea is to create output so predictable that there are only three defects per million.

Q: Critics say that Six Sigma becomes an exercise in counting how many employees are trained as black belts and green belts rather than solving real problems. Do they have a point?

A: Textron keeps a count. I hope that one day every man and woman who is willing to be trained will hold a belt. That includes hourly workers. A mistake companies make is they don't aim projects at solving problems for the last time or create some bodacious way to satisfy customers better than anyone else. They have projects that are convenient. Even though Cessna has been producing planes for 89 years and jets since 1972, they recently took 17% of the labor hours out of their single-piston aircraft. That's a big number. They've taken the inspection time from 10 days to five. Textron financial used to take 320 hours each month collecting interest from customers. They've got that down to 56 hours.

Q: Six Sigma was designed for manufacturing. Does it work in the service sector?

A: Our legal department has been one of the most aggressive to touch Six Sigma. I came here in 1992, and as chief operating officer developed a set of financial schedules to understand the company. I got wedded to them. When my CFO was in the process of getting belt-certified, he told me we could eliminate 40% of those schedules if I would accept some changes. How could I say no? Six Sigma allows you to question the boss about the way he or she manages. You can also use it to help your customers eliminate waste, although I would caution not to do that when launching a program. We're mature enough to do that now. With a Six Sigma project, we were able to transfer employees in and out of a center in India, and it's worked extremely well. We seamlessly hand off data from someone working on it in the United States to someone in India.

Q: Bain, a respected consulting company, tracks the 25 most popular business tools, such as benchmarking and customer relationship management. Of those, Six Sigma ranks 21st, near the bottom in popularity. Usage is low and satisfaction mediocre. If Six Sigma is so great, are other companies botching it?

A: Yes. That's a bold statement for me to make. You must take the approach we've taken and do it right. We're maybe 30 yards down a 100-yard football field. We're going all the way.

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