Exploring Six Sigma's Impact on the Chemical Industry

Sept. 15, 2002
How far has Six Sigma come in the chemical industry? Has it really made an impact in processes overall? Where will it take chemical producers in the future?

Since the early 1990s, Six Sigma has been a topic of interest in the business world. The chemical industry began to sit up and take notice of this quality tool in the mid-1990s. For some manufacturers, Six Sigma is simply a measure of quality that strives for near perfection. However, many chemical firms are taking hold of the disciplined, data-driven methodology to eliminate defects in any process. These companies are actively driving toward six standard deviations between the mean and the nearest specification limit.

To achieve Six Sigma, a process must not produce more than 3.4 defects per million opportunities. A defect is defined as anything outside of customer specifications. An opportunity, then, is the total quantity of chances for a defect.

But how far has Six Sigma come in the chemical industry? Has it really made an impact in processes overall? Where will it take chemical producers in the future?

Taking hold

"The industry embraced Six Sigma first with the corporate entities of DuPont and Dow," says John Krupar, executive consultant for Six Sigma Academy, a Scottsdale-Ariz.-based consulting firm, "which gave the industry the leadership and examples that it needed to ensure that Six Sigma would work."

"Six Sigma is alive and well at DuPont," adds Don Linsenmann, DuPont's vice president and Six Sigma corporate champion. "It is not an abstract concept, but a well-managed process of execution. We have more than 10,000 Six Sigma projects around the world in all regions and lines of business."

DuPont is one of the premier models of Six Sigma implementation to date. According to Six Sigma Academy, DuPont has integrated Six Sigma into all of its operations and has used the process tool to boost its productivity without significant capital investment. The company reportedly has attained a $360,000 average project benefit thus far.

Effective Six Sigma implementation can prove challenging, however. A simple out-of-the-box solution is not available.

"The biggest challenge in an early implementation is to get people aligned with the approach," says Linsenmann. "Six Sigma is a rigorous data-based, disciplined process of improving processes. People must see Six Sigma as a how' and not a what.'"

The size and scope of the project can be off-putting. "Without this clarity of purpose and prioritization, very busy people will see Six Sigma as one more thing they need to do," says Six Sigma Academy's Krupar.

Linsenmann suggests that "working through the education and training helps to create the view that Six Sigma can be the utensils' to help deal with what is on the plate.'"

Issues at hand

Six Sigma has come face to face with some common misconceptions within the chemical industry. Many in the field had to be convinced of its viability and that it was worth the time and effort.

"Early on, Six Sigma was delivering results for discrete parts manufacturing, and a typical comment was that it could not apply to continuous chemical manufacturing processes," recalls Linsenmann. Once it became clear that Six Sigma was delivering benefits in chemical plants, many still considered the quality tool suitable only for manufacturing, he adds.

"The biggest issue surrounding Six Sigma is the misconception that Six Sigma is about a tool kit where the hammers and wrenches are statistics and quality," says Krupar. "Those corporations that see it as a business strategy that applies to all functions have reaped tremendous gains for their shareholders, their employees and clients."

The future of Six Sigma

Once a chemical company gets past the initial doubts and concerns regarding such a complex undertaking, the rewards and benefits of Six Sigma certainly will seem worth the effort. But the challenge then becomes sustaining that profitability. Will Six Sigma continue to deliver five, 10 or even 20 years from now?

"Five years ago, Six Sigma was seen as a large company cost-out initiative that was only suited to manufacturing," says Krupar. "What we see today is a strategic problem-solving approach that businesses large and small in all industries have applied."

Based on his experience, Krupar believes chemical companies will have to remain actively involved with their quality processes to see the benefits. Six Sigma does not work all on its own. The companies that embrace the methodology as a part of their core business process will continue to grow.

"Our clients have partnered with us to drive Six Sigma to the next level, creating a revolution of change rather than an evolution," he says. "What we are seeing now as the trend in Six Sigma is the transformation of the company culture to a fact-based organization that asks why and doesn't settle." CP

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