Six Sigma May be Dangerous to Your Call Center

Recently, I received an e-mail invitation to attend a webinar titled, "Installing 6 Sigma Standards in Your Call Center." At first, I thought it was a joke! Then, as I read on, I realized it was serious. The invitation even proclaimed I could earn a "Black Belt" certification in Six Sigma. I struggled to make the association of karate with call center management practices. I was stunned. Readers, let me be direct and clear. At best, Six Sigma programs in the call center are a waste of time and money. And, at worst, Six Sigma will instigate problems and counterproductive results. Don’t do it!

The Toxic Roots of Six Sigma

The roots of Six Sigma can be traced to F. Edwards Deming and the University of Wyoming (where I am a professor). In the 1920s Deming developed a process called zero defects. His philosophy was adopted by the Japanese after World War II and then eventually by Motorola in the United States. Six Sigma is based on the statistical concept of the normal distribution also known as the "bell shaped" curve. The premise is well founded: "Do it right the first time."

An Impossible Goal with Six Sigma

At the +6 sigma end of the bell curve, there would be no more than 3.4 errors per million. So, what’s wrong with that goal? Honestly, nothing for a lot things such as heart implants, insulin pumps, aircraft navigation units and nuclear missile launch procedures. An error in any of these areas could be disastrous. The problem is that people are not manufacturing processes and to try to apply that concept to the human element of a call center is a mistake. This was the goal of Frederick Taylor and "Scientific Management" in the 1920s. The assumption was that people were like machinery and could programmed to operate the same way even in the call center. That philosophy has long since been proved to be erroneous, especially in the call center. But, now here we are again with the modern day equivalent of scientific management—Six Sigma in the call center!

The biggest problem with Six Sigma in a human call center process is that the goal is practically impossible to achieve and nobody really takes it seriously. This leads to call center management mistrust, apathy and even subtle resistance. That would be the equivalent of asking me, a 14-handicap golfer, to become a zero handicap. If someone gave me that goal, I wouldn’t even bother to try because I would know it’s unachievable. It just can’t happen in this lifetime! And thus it is with an effort to achieve a Six Sigma level in the cal center with the human process in a call center. It won’t be taken seriously!

First Call Resolution and Six Sigma

Consider the following diagram of the "Bell Shaped" curve representing first call resolutions in a call center. (Click on diagram to enlarge.)

In this illustration, the call center has a 70 percent average rate for first call resolution within five minutes. Complying with the normal distribution, half the first call resolutions will fall below average and the other half will be above average. If you analyze 1 million calls, 34 percent will be at plus one sigma (approximately 80 percent goal achievement) and an additional 13.5 percent will be resolved at the two sigma level, which would be 95 percent goal accomplishment. At the plus Six Sigma zone, your call center would have to meet the goal of first call resolution 999,999,997 times per one million calls. Do you really think that is possible? Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to focus on more realistic goals in the plus one or plus two sigma zones?

I suggest that your operators would be more likely to take these goals more seriously and make a sincere effort to achieve them. Proponents of Six Sigma argue that objectives should be set at the most challenging levels possible to inspire effort and commitment to performance. And, if people don’t achieve the goals, they will have done better trying to meet them than they would have without having a goal in the first place. This attitude is just fraught with errors and is not supported by solid research. In his article "Goals Gone Wild: The Systematic Side Effects of Over- Prescribing Goal-Setting," Max Bazerman reported, "This logic (unattainable goals/six sigma) will cause not only apathy, but unethical behavior and unacceptable risk taking to meet the unreasonable goal." A similar conclusion was reached in the Harvard Business School article, "When Goal-Setting Goes Bad." Harvard reports, "In many cases goals (Six Sigma) can do more harm than good." Furthermore, Richard Clark at the University of Southern California, reports in his book Turning Research Into Results that two thirds of performance improvement programs fail. One reason for this failure is the implementation of "stretch-goals," which are perceived as impossible to meet.

Six Sigma is an alluring, but dangerous, Cretan Siren. It has become a marketing juggernaut and will wreck the ships of the well intended but unaware. If you want to set goals, think SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely.

  • Max Bazerman, "Goals Gone Wild. The Systematic Side Effects of Over- Prescribing Goal-Setting
  • Harvard Business School, "When Goal Setting Goes Bad" March, 2009
  • Richard Clark, Turning Research Into Results