Six Sigma in Recruiting

From recent boom to ongoing bust, many recruiters and staffing departments are using the current time to adopt and implement some form of internal process improvement. Six Sigma is definitely the most talked about process-improvement methodologies used in business today, but it raises several questions among recruiting professionals: What is Six Sigma exactly? And how it can be applied to the recruiting function? I recently wrote a white paper on process-improvement issues in recruiting, and out of that I developed some answers to common questions about Six Sigma. Before we get to these, though, we will first take a step back and look at an overview of what Six Sigma is, clarifying some of the issues that commonly confuse people about it. Then we will cover some points to consider when applying it to recruiting. Six Sigma: What Is It? Whether or not you’ve had exposure to the Six Sigma concept, understanding exactly what it is isn’t always easy?? though you may already know it has to do with quality or process improvement. To put it simply, Six Sigma is a process-improvement methodology?? or a plan for analyzing and improving a business function. It involves a specific framework and accompanying tools that walk an organization through the steps of identifying, measuring, and diagnosing a problem?? and then creating a specific solution and managing the results. In essence, it is a system to manage a process-improvement project from start to finish. Six Sigma can be summed up as being:

  • A robust methodology
  • Customer-focused
  • Data-driven

Six Sigma is normally associated with Motorola, who named one of its key-operational initiatives Six Sigma Quality. Though the name sounds technical or even cryptic to some, it could also be called “almost zero errors.” A “sigma” is the mathematical symbol for what many know as a standard deviation. In this case, it’s used as a statistical term that measures how much a process varies from perfection (requirements) based on the number of defects per million units. Without getting too caught up in the math and statistics, Six Sigma simply strives for very little deviation from requirements. Six Sigma would literally mean 3.4 or fewer defects per million units (while, for example, one sigma would be 690,000 defects per million units, and four sigma would be 6,210). Six Sigma relies on significant training of its participants. These participants are commonly referred to as Green Belt, Black Belt, and Master Black Belt to indicate a level of training, capability, and their respective roles in implementing the Six Sigma methodology:

  • Green Belts lead and execute process-level improvement projects.
  • Black Belts are technical leaders who implement the principles, practices, and techniques of Six Sigma for maximum cost reductions.
  • Master Black Belts function as Black Belts and guide Black and Green Belts. Though the methodology is very structured, and many organizations swear by its merits, Six Sigma is just one approach that strives for many of the same goals as TQM (Total Quality Management) and other process-improvement methods. It was created from many existing tools in the field of quality assurance, and the basic concepts it incorporates are not proprietary to or owned by Motorola, GE, or any of the other organizations that facilitated its refinement, widespread use, and success. Six Sigma: Can You Use It in Recruiting? The manufacturing roots of Six Sigma raise concerns as to whether it can effectively be applied to the human aspect of the employee sourcing and selection process. Staffing professionals also pit Six Sigma against other process-improvement methodologies, asking whether Six Sigma is really the best hammer for the job. Everything in business?? including sourcing and selection?? is a process. If you can break down the process, identify customer requirements, and understand what causes deviations from those requirements, you can work towards improving the process. By measuring each step of the process, you can analyze and make decisions based on data (facts) and effectively evaluate the outcome of your efforts to determine success or not (metrics). All of this is at the heart of Six Sigma, so?? yes, you can definitely apply it to recruiting. Six Sigma: Should You Use it? Whether or not you should actually use Six Sigma in your recruiting organization is another issue entirely. Several factors, including company culture and potential return on investment, determine whether Six Sigma is the best methodology for your organization:
  1. Company culture. The cultural acceptance or rejection of Six Sigma is arguably one of the most critical factors to consider. The staffing department is not the most likely part of an organization to pilot a Six Sigma program and the attitude of upper management may dictate whether it should be adopted or not. For example, even if a director of staffing is a trained Black Belt and has successfully implemented Six Sigma at another organization, upper management may not be receptive to Six Sigma (or worse, may have had poor experiences with it in the past). Implementing it may prove to be an arduous battle. On the other hand, if your organization is already using Six Sigma, then by all means fold the sourcing and selection functions into the existing culture. Upper management will already have an understanding of the methodology, and resources will most likely be available in the organization.
  2. Return on investment (ROI). Having a thoroughly trained team?? consisting of Black Belts, Green Belts, and (ideally) a Six Sigma Master Black Belt?? to guide the effort is key. If these resources are feasible and the economics of the investment are sound, then a well-trained team would clearly be an asset to your success. For this to be a sound decision, the training and time investment would need to yield a substantial return based on the savings/improvements that the project(s) could yield. In short, heed the words of Confucius: “Do not use a cannon to kill a mosquito.”

Applying Basic Six Sigma If extensive resources are not available, or the scope of the project does not warrant the substantial training investment, Six Sigma can still be utilized as a rough framework to guide your efforts. The DMAIC process of Six Sigma (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control) can be applied to existing internal processes, and the DMADV method (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, and Verify) can be effectively used in creating new processes. Let’s define these two processes more clearly: DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control):

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  • Define project goals and customer deliverables
  • Measure the process to determine current performance
  • Analyze and determine the root cause(s) of the defects
  • Improve the process by eliminating defects
  • Control future process performance

DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, and Verify):

  • Define project goals and customer deliverables
  • Measure and determine customer needs and specifications
  • Analyze the process options to meet the customer needs
  • Design the process to meet the customer needs
  • Verify the design performance and ability to meet customer needs

At a basic level, DMAIC can be utilized as an excellent framework for process improvement without commencing upon a full-blown Six Sigma corporate initiative. This is not to encourage sloppy or incomplete process-improvement efforts through half-baked Six Sigma implementation, but rather to encourage you to leverage the many tools of Six Sigma without getting so lost in rigid methodology that it damages your momentum. If you just adhere to the basics of DMAIC and DMADV, you can think of the rest of Six Sigma as a robust set of tools you can access as needed?? and not as an all-or-nothing endeavor. Conclusion Six Sigma is a process-improvement methodology that is robust, customer focused, and data driven. It provides a clear framework to help an organization complete a process improvement effort from start to finish. While some areas of recruiting are more art than science, Six Sigma can definitely be applied to the sourcing and selection processes in recruiting. If these areas can be measured, so can improvements to them. Whether it is the best choice of a methodology depends on cultural and other factors, and the resources available. At a basic level, the Six Sigma methodology can be beneficial to any organization embarking on a process-improvement endeavor in sourcing and selection.


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