Six Sigma

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Oper Manag Res (2009) 2:44–55 DOI 10.1007/s12063-009-0020-8

Six Sigma failures: An escalation model
Satya S. Chakravorty

Received: 20 May 2009 / Revised: 13 August 2009 / Accepted: 17 August 2009 / Published online: 28 August 2009 # Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2009

Abstract Despite the pervasiveness of Six Sigma programs, there is rising concern regarding the failure of many Six Sigma programs. One explanation for many Six Sigma failures could be escalation of commitment. Escalation of commitment refers to the propensity of decision-makers to continue investing in a failing course of action. Many researchers have applied escalation of commitment to explain the behavior of individuals, groups, companies, and nations. Using the escalation of commitment model (Staw and Ross 1987a; Ross and Staw Acad. Manag. J. 36:701–732 1993) as a basis, this research describes a Six Sigma failure in an electrical components company. In documenting this failure, this research contributes in two ways, both in the practice and in the theory of Six Sigma. First, while examining the Six Sigma failure, this research uncovers important factors for successful implementation, which should improve the practice of Six Sigma. Second, academic research (e.g., Schroeder et al. J. Oper. Manag, 26:536–554 2008; Zu et al. J. Oper. Manag, 26:630–650 2008) is engaged in uncovering the definition of Six Sigma, and its differences from other improvement programs. This research provides a new direction to academic research and has the potential to impact the theory of Six Sigma. Keywords Six Sigma . Process improvement . Escalation theory

At an early stage of the U.S involvement in the Vietnam War, George Ball, then Undersecretary of State, wrote the following in a memo to President Johnson:“ The decision you face now is critical. Once large numbers of U.S. troops are committed to direct combat, they will begin to take heavy casualties in a war they are ill equipped to fight in a noncooperative if not downright hostile countryside. Once we suffer large casualties, we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot– without national humiliation– stop short of achieving our complete objectives. Of the two possibilities, I think humiliation would be more likely than the achievement of our objectives — even after we have paid terrible costs.” - Staw (1981)

1 Introduction Despite the immense popularity and the wide spread adoption of Six Sigma, there is a rising concern regarding the failures of Six Sigma programs. Zimmerman and Weiss (2005) claimed that less than 50% of the survey respondents from aerospace companies were satisfied with its Six Sigma programs. Mullavey (2005) reported many difficulties in implementing Six Sigma programs. Berg (2006) reported that their Six Sigma program was expensive and did not yield results. Concerned about Six Sigma’s problems, Sutton (2006) described nine ways to get the best out of Six Sigma programs. A national survey of healthcare companies revealed that 54% do not intend to embrace Six Sigma programs (Feng and Manuel 2007). Both 3M and Home Depot abandoned their Six Sigma

S. S. Chakravorty (*) Department of Management and Entrepreneurship, Michael J. Coles College of Business, Kennesaw State University, 1000 Chastain Rd., Kennesaw, GA 30144-5591, USA e-mail:

Six Sigma failures: An escalation model


programs due to negative impact on their employees or customer satisfaction (Hindo 2007; Hindo and Grow 2007). Foster (2007, p. 19) reported that “the benefits of Six Sigma may be marginal.” According to Gupta (2008, p.22), at times, Six Sigma “… improvement programs cost more than the improvement they drive….” Angel and Pritchard (2008, p.5) reported that “nearly 60% of all corporate Six Sigma initiatives fail to yield the desired results…” In short, we lack an understanding of how and why so many Six Sigma...
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