Whenever I find myself saying, “That's the way we've always done it,” I stop dead in my tracks. If you're doing certain things the way that you've always done them just because, you're probably not doing them the most efficient way.

This assumption is at the core of Six Sigma, a quality improvement initiative that was first used by Motorola's manufacturing operation in the 1980s and now, in its third generation, is being used by service organizations as well.

If you don't know about Six Sigma, you should.

When management at PricewaterhouseCoopers asked managers to apply to become part of a companywide Six Sigma program (only nine of 100 applicants were chosen), Debi Scholar, director of meeting and event services, was among the first to volunteer her department. With the help of “Black Belts” — Six Sigma experts — they mapped out everything they do and how they do it. They eliminated what are known as “non-value-added steps” (more Six Sigma lingo), measured the quality of their services by interviewing internal customers, revamped many policies and procedures, and reorganized responsibilities. Scholar's efforts saved millions of dollars. Don't miss her story, starting on page 16.

If your company isn't a $25 million giant like PwC, it doesn't mean Six Sigma can't apply to you. Most companies don't try it because they think it's too complex. But there are pieces that we can all use.

For example, most of us could do a better job evaluating what the customer wants. Phone interviews and focus groups can be real eye-openers. As Scholar put it: “I thought, ‘We provide great service and we're certainly working hard,’ but we found folks who were not happy with our services.”

You also don't have to spend weeks on a high-level process map doing “30,000-foot overviews” to get a better understanding of the architecture of your department, how people work with others in the organization, and the various steps they take to get their jobs done. Getting people together with sticky notes and markers to talk about it is a good start. And engaging employees and involving them in change will build motivation and team spirit.

So the next time you find yourself doing something a certain way just because you always have, think about finding a better way. Then gather the data to make it happen.

More on the Web

For more information on Six Sigma, visit www.asq.org/pub/sixsigma and www.isixsigma.com.