Published: Jan. 10, 2020

To the casual observer, Professor Wendy Martin is a smart, mechanical engineer who, before entering the world of education, built a successful career in the beverage container industry perfecting the processes involved in the manufacture of aluminum lids. But that’s not her entire story. Behind her professional and measured exterior, Martin has another facet to her life. She's actually a highly-skilled Ninja—practiced in the arts of Six Sigma engineering.

Wendy MartinWhen Martin, an instructor in the Engineering Management Program at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder EMP), talks about Six Sigma training, she's not referring to some ancient form of martial arts. Six Sigma is actually rooted in the business of engineering and is completely focused on making improvements to specific processes to increase profitability.

What is Six Sigma Training?

Six Sigma is a company-wide initiative to generate break-through events in business performance,” says Martin. “These break-through events typically mean closing a large gap in performance. This could be related to product characteristics, reliability, efficiency, or cost.”

Martin is quick to highlight that the main focus of Six Sigma isn’t about improving the quality of a product, although this is sometimes a by-product of the process.

“A lot of people think that Six Sigma is about quality—it’s not,” says Martin. “While quality is important, all of the projects you will work on as a Six Sigma professional will focus on the bottom line with the purpose of helping a company achieve profitability in some way. Projects that don't yield some type of financial return will not be the projects that are selected.”

As Martin explains, instead of relying on trial and error, Six Sigma works by using statistics and data to solve problems in the production process. This cuts out the guesswork and reduces the amount of time spent testing new solutions—ultimately creating a smarter, more efficient process and saving time and money.

The History of Six Sigma

The history of Six Sigma dates back to the 1980s when engineers at the Motorola Corporation were challenged, in what was described at the time as a “make it or break it” situation, to reduce the number of defects in their production process. This call-to-action was issued after it was revealed that a Japanese company that had taken over a Motorola factory producing televisions, experienced only five percent of the number of defects in its production process than was the case prior to the take-over.

Two engineers, Mikel Harry and Bill Smith, rose to the challenge and designed and implemented a process they referred to as the Six Sigma Quality Program in 1987. The name, Six Sigma, was derived from terminology relating to the statistical modeling they used in their manufacturing process to measure the number of defect-free products created. 

“Their goal was to have no more than 3.4 defective parts per million across the company and they made quite a bit of improvement,” says Martin. “Six Sigma had a dramatic impact on Motorola’s fortunes with the corporation attributing some $16 billion in savings over the years to the program.”

Following its success at Motorola, the Six Sigma engineering strategy was adopted by numerous organizations, including the robotics, power and heavy electrical equipment corporation ASEA Brown Boveri (ABB) and the aerospace, automotive and engineering company AlliedSignal. However, it took the CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, who championed Six Sigma in the 1990s to really popularize the approach. By the late 1990s, it was estimated that upwards of two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies had begun Six Sigma initiatives in the pursuit of improving quality in their production processes and reducing costs.

“Jack Welch was a really charismatic CEO,” says Martin. “Once he picked it up and he was able to show the cost savings and benefit analysis to his shareholders, a lot of other companies started to take notice.”

While the Six Sigma methodology gained prominence towards the end of the last century, Martin explains that many of the principals involved in Six Sigma go back even further in time.

“I wouldn't say everything in the Six Sigma approach is new,” says Martin. “Quality science has been around for a long time. They actually used to teach quality science in the United States at universities back in the 1950s—but it didn't really catch on because back then people were more concerned about making a lot of stuff, instead of making a lot of good stuff.”

While organizations have used other quality control methods in their manufacturing process over the years, including ISO 9000 and Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma remains the most popular method used in industry.

“Its appeal is enduring,” says Martin. “There is nothing that has come along since to replace it.”

Six Sigma Engineering Projects

According to Martin, there are many ways organizations could implement the Six Sigma approach but generally, companies are trying to lessen the measurable costs of poor quality. Martin refers back to her experiences in the aluminum lid business to explain how companies select projects where Six Sigma can help maximize profits.

“The list was endless on what we could look at,” says Martin. “Most of the time we were looking at critical, end-of-line product characteristics and making sure that we could meet and exceed customer specifications.”

To the layperson, it's hard to imagine how an aluminum lid on a beer or soda bottle could be improved to the extent it provides a considerable commercial advantage. Martin explains that this is just one of the everyday problems that engineering managers are employed to solve.cans on. manufacturing line

“There was a lot of innovation in the manufacturing process,” says Martin. “A lot of it has to do with removing metal, making it lighter but stronger at the same time. You really have to break some constraints related to the improvement process because generally when you go lighter, it doesn't get stronger.”

But even a small reduction in the weight of a product can translate into significant financial savings for the manufacturer.

“We were a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Anheuser-Busch brewing company at the time,” says Martin. “We were making billions of these lids—millions every day. When you manufacture in these quantities, you soon see significant savings on material costs when you remove even a tiny amount of metal from the process.”

Six Sigma Certification

Martin’s status as a Six Sigma Ninja references the various levels of certification offered to Six Sigma practitioners.

“There are different levels that you can obtain in the Six Sigma methodology,” says Martin, “There's the green belt level, which is the beginning level where you learn how to improve your process using applied statistics and basic statistical tools and work under the guidance of a black belt. As a green belt, you will be working as part of a team and continue with your training. The next level is a black belt and that's when you get to be in charge of your own projects for improvement. Then there is the master black belt who oversees all the black belts."

CU Boulder EMP offers the full range of Six Sigma certification options and attracts students from many different backgrounds.

“Most of our students are in some type of firm where they make something,” says Martin. “So it could be a medical device, for instance, we have a lot of people coming from that background. It could be a satellite that they are making. It could be a laser. These are all areas of the engineering business where there is a zero-tolerance for defects in the manufacturing process. Most students have a bachelor’s degree and I would say that they are early career—probably in their first 10 years of working somewhere. So typically, they are an engineer who is in manufacturing or some type of business involved in industrial engineering.”

The benefits of Six Sigma training to high-tech engineering organizations, where defects and failures in the manufacturing process can be costly, are obvious.

“More often than not, it’s about preventing a failure from happening in the first place,” says Martin. “That is a large focus of the approach we take. What type of things can you do preventively to ensure quality in a product so that you don't have a bunch of costly failures and something catastrophic won't happen? It doesn't happen by accident.”

But Six Sigma training isn’t only a valuable asset to engineering managers. The Six Sigma methodology has also been picked up by members of the construction, finance, health care and supply chain industries—all looking to reduce points of failure and enhance their bottom-line profitability.

“I've also had people from the military, government and education come and use the Six Sigma approach to make improvements in their fields of interest,” says Martin. “I actually had somebody who was an English major join the Program. He decided to completely change his career, came and took some of our courses and decided he wanted to be a master black belt. Now he's a data scientist for the university. Anybody who enjoys solving problems is going to benefit from the Six Sigma approach at CU Boulder EMP.”

On-Campus or Online Learning

The Six Sigma certificate Programs at CU Boulder EMP are available both on-campus and online and, unlike some of the other online programs available on the web, offer the assurance of a high-quality university education.

“The training that we offer is fully assessed and is more comprehensive than anything that is currently available online,” says Martin. “So you are getting a university education compared with other programs that are just consultant-led. We have an on-campus option so that those people who are working or living in the Boulder area and want to take the class here can do so. For those who may not be able to come in—perhaps they are in other parts of the country or overseas or have other time constraints—we offer an asynchronous online Program. This means that all the classes are recorded and a student can watch all the videos of the week’s course when it is convenient.”

Martin explains that students aiming for green belt certification should expect to complete the 12-credit hour Program within a year. Black belt certification adds another two courses to the Program and would usually take a year-and-a-half to complete. Students considering studying for their master black belt may want to explore joining the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management Program

“By the time you get to master black belt level you might as well just go on and get your degree,” says Martin. “You can get a degree and pursue your master black belt at the same time.”

Advanced Career Opportunities

According to Martin, the benefits of Six Sigma certification can clearly be seen simply by typing “Six Sigma” into any online recruitment site.

“It makes you really marketable,” says Martin. “If there is a critical skill that you can bring to an organization—it’s the ability to solve problems. A lot of companies use the Six Sigma approach and you’ll see that they are looking for someone who has the knowledge and the ability to apply it in their business. This is especially true in quality engineering and design positions. If you can come to the organization having this, it gives you a big edge.”

Learn More

To learn more about how Six Sigma training can help you focus your problem-solving skills as an engineer or to apply to study for your green, black, or master black belt at CU Boulder EMP, visit the Program page on our website.