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Six Sigma: What It Is, Steps

In the domain of quality management and process enhancement, Six Sigma is renowned as a potent methodology adopted by organisations worldwide. Initially rooted in the manufacturing sector, Six Sigma has proliferated across diverse industries, spanning services, healthcare, and technology.

We at BARTERCARD intend to help you understand general concepts of the Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma systems, outline Six Sigma’s five steps, explain the belt ranking system, and offer real-life applications. We will also discuss the pros and cons of implementing Six Sigma in an organisation.

What is Six Sigma?

Six Sigma, introduced in 1986 by engineer Bill Smith during his tenure at Motorola, is a comprehensive approach comprising techniques and tools aimed at enhancing business processes. By leveraging statistics, financial analysis, and project management, Six Sigma practitioners identify and rectify defects and errors, minimise variations, and enhance overall quality and efficiency.

The methodology follows a structured approach, encapsulated by the DMAIC framework, consisting of defining, measuring, analysing, improving, and controlling phases.

Key points:

  • Six Sigma is a quality-control methodology employed by businesses to significantly diminish defects and refine processes.
  • Originating from the research of a Motorola scientist in the 1980s, Six Sigma is extensively used by companies to bolster efficiency and drive profits.
  • Practitioners of Six Sigma can pursue certifications akin to the colour belt system in martial arts.

Understanding Six Sigma

Central to Six Sigma is the notion that all business processes are measurable and susceptible to optimisation.

Initially rooted in manufacturing for quality control, the term “Six Sigma” denotes achieving a level of quality where long-term defect rates remain below 3.4 defects per million opportunities (DPMO).

Evolved into a broader business concept, Six Sigma emphasises meeting customer demands, bolstering customer retention, and refining and sustaining business offerings.

Certification programmes in Six Sigma adopt a martial arts-style coloured belt system, ranging from white belt to black belt.

Six Sigma’s 5 Steps

Six Sigma uses a systematic approach known as DMAIC, representing define, measure, analyse, improve, and control. Six Sigma proponents claim any seemingly insurmountable issue within a business can be resolved by adhering to the following 5 steps.


Under the guidance of a Six Sigma expert, a team selects a process for focus and precisely defines the problem it aims to resolve.


The team gauges the initial performance of the process, establishing a benchmark, and identifies a roster of inputs that could potentially impede performance.


Subsequently, the team dissects the process by isolating each input or probable cause of any shortcomings, rigorously testing them as potential root causes of the issue.


Building on these findings, the team initiates changes aimed at enhancing system performance.


Finally, the group introduces measures to oversee the process, ensuring it maintains its improved state and doesn’t revert to previous inefficiencies.

What is Lean Six Sigma?

Lean Six Sigma represents a team-centred managerial strategy aiming to enhance performance by eradicating waste and imperfections while elevating work standardisation. It amalgamates Six Sigma techniques and tools with the lean manufacturing/lean enterprise philosophy, aiming to curtail wastage of physical resources, time, exertion, and talent while ensuring excellence in production and organisational procedures. Anything that consumes resources without yielding value for the end customer is identified as waste and should be eradicated.

Six Sigma Certification and Belt Rankings

Six Sigma employs a belt ranking system, similar to martial arts, to indicate an individual’s level of expertise, experience in the process, and their adeptness in its implementation. This is not a complete list of certifications, as many Six Sigma training companies will have their own sub-categories. 

  • White belt. Individuals at this stage possess foundational knowledge in Six Sigma but haven’t undergone formal training or certification. This equips them to participate as team members. Some Six Sigma experts state white belts can join certain project support teams, but not teams specific to Six Sigma.   
  • Yellow belt. After several training sessions, participants reach this level, enabling them to lead minor projects and assist more advanced belt holders. They may also review process improvements as part of an overall project.
  • Green belt. Attaining this tier involves a more extensive course. The object is to train green-belters to lead green-belt projects or teams, and also assist black-belt teams with data collection and analysis.
  • Black belt. Six Sigma black-belt training is open to green-belters with a full understanding of Six Sigma philosophy and principles, including supporting tools. They will be in charge of problem-solving projects and can apply all aspects of DMAIC per Six Sigma principles. Black-belts may also coach in working projects or mentor teams of lower-ranking belt bearers.
  • Master black belt. Master black-belters mostly operate as a company’s Six Sigma programme director, setting a roadmap and KPIs. They will also mentor holders of black and green belts.   
  • Champion. The Champion belt holder is often used to convert a company’s mission and vision, and core values into an organisational development plan, complete with integrated projects and detailed resource allocation plans.
  • Executive. The Six Sigma Executive Champion ensures comprehensive alignment by setting the strategic direction of a company’s Six Sigma programme in accordance with the company’s culture and vision. Executive Champion belt-holders are usually at the upper executive level who support Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma projects.

An Example of Six Sigma — Microsoft

To understand the real-world usage of Six Sigma, let’s look at its application at software giant Microsoft, which sought to eliminate flaws within its systems and data centres while systematically reducing failures in its IT infrastructure.

Initially, Microsoft set uniform standards across its hardware and software, establishing a foundational benchmark to redflag defects. Employing root-cause analysis involved gathering data from previous critical incidents, server breakdowns, and suggestions from both product group members and customers, pinpointing potential areas of concern.

A substantial volume of data was gathered regularly from diverse servers, prioritising incidents based on their impact on the business and underlying services. Rigorous data analysis and reporting identified specific defects, paving the way for the establishment of remedial measures for each issue.

Through the adoption of Six Sigma methodologies, Microsoft reported enhancements in server availability, heightened productivity, and an overall rise in customer satisfaction.


How to Achieve Six Sigma Certification?

Six Sigma certification is obtainable through private companies, associations, and higher education centres. Australian universities such as UniMelbourne, UniSA, and UTS run their own Six Sigma courses. They are accredited by organisations such as the American Society for Quality, the Council for Six Sigma Certification and the International Association of Six Sigma Certification, which is notable for Lean Six Sigma courses.

Is it possible to attain Six Sigma Certification Online?

Many universities and organisations providing Six Sigma certification offer both classroom-based and online courses. It’s advisable to crosscheck with your preferred certification provider for any additional requirements they may have.

What Sets Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma Apart?

Lean Six Sigma applies the Six Sigma methodology (define, measure, analyse, improve, control) with a particular focus on eliminating waste in an organisation’s processes or material usage, aiming for a more streamlined approach.It draws inspiration from the principles of lean manufacturing, aiming to streamline processes and eliminate waste.


The Six Sigma system, with its five steps and belt rankings, provides a structured and data-driven approach to process improvement and quality management. Its real-life applications are diverse, making it a valuable methodology for organisations seeking to enhance quality, efficiency, and customer satisfaction.

DISCLAIMER: This article is for informational purposes only. BARTERCARD has no relations with any Six Sigma certification body, nor endorses or disparages Six Sigma as a business operations practice.


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