Sky High with Six Sigma

The iconic variability-reduction system developed by Motorola in the 1980s is helping several U.S. ethanol plants and industry service providers boost operational performance and improve their bottom line results.
By Chris Hanson | December 11, 2013

In the mid-1980s, as the semiconductor industry soared and American business executives wielded Motorola’s giant mobile phones, an unsung engineer named Bill Smith developed a standard that allowed the iconic telecommunications company to measure the number of production defects that it suffered for every 1 million opportunities, or chances, for nonconformance. Six Sigma, as the methodology was named, aimed for high efficiency and low variability. It created what would become a global standard in manufacturing and business operations worldwide—a goal of 3.4 errors or less per million chances for one to occur. The results were extraordinary. By the late ’90s two-thirds of all Fortune 500 companies had adopted the program and Motorola alone is said to have saved an estimated $17 billion over 27 years as a result of its use. 

Today, the Six Sigma philosophy has been applied to all manner of companies ranging from beverage producers, food processors and pharmaceutical makers to electronics manufacturers, auto makers and financial institutions. Not surprisingly, ethanol plants, too, are putting Six Sigma in play. Most ethanol producers are adopting the practices to more efficiently operate their plants, says James Fruge, consultant and Six Sigma master black belt. Six Sigma allows the producers to increase ethanol yields with existing equipment and maintain a quality product that meets customer needs, he explains.   

Among the barriers facing Six Sigma implementation in the ethanol industry are the system’s somewhat involved training requirements and its relative novelty to the sector. “Well, it does take some training,” explains Fruge, adding that what usually works best is for companies to bring consultants in to train personnel at the plant. Fruge recently conducted Six Sigma training at Pinal Energy LLC, a 50 MMgy ethanol plant in south-central Arizona. There, he trained Pinal’s lab manger, Johannes Kor, and two of the facility’s operations managers. Fruge also provided entry-level Six Sigma training to additional members of the plant’s crew—operators, lab technicians and maintenance personnel. 

There are various ways to learn Six Sigma and, in fact, it is taught by thousands of master practitioners. It is also typically included in MBA curriculum and its core principles are taught in undergraduate business schools at universities and colleges globally. In-the-field training of plant personnel by consultants and other accredited professionals, however, is still the best, some say the only, way to master it. 

Inspired by the color-coded belts of karate, Six Sigma practitioners are granted symbolic status belts—yellow, green and then black—for advancing through the various tiers of program training. Classroom-style seminars are typically two weeks long, but most people separate the two weeks by a month or more to minimize disruption to their work schedules, Fruge says. 

In-the-classroom training has its advantages, but returning to a facility and applying the concepts of Six Sigma on the job site can be challenging. So Fruge and other Six Sigma gurus encourage onsite training whenever possible. When plant personnel learn Six Sigma on the job, they’re more likely to understand how to integrate it into their facility’s processes and use it to optimize production and performance.    

The first level of Six Sigma training is yellow belt, which teaches the basic understandings of Six Sigma and its available tools. Next, green belt training encompasses more in-depth training on starting and running a project, operating statistical programs and monitoring processes. The black belt level requires roughly four weeks of training and encompasses a deeper understanding of statistical tests and procedures. The highest level of training is “master black belt,” a status that indicates that a practitioner has mastered the system to a degree that qualifies them to teach it to others. Unlike some professional accreditations, once Six Sigma training is complete, recertification is not required.  

Certain elements of Six Sigma are no doubt challenging, particularly those related to applied statistics. However, Fruge says, if the most difficult cogs of the system are taught in practical, easy-to-understand terms, they should be within reach for most Six Sigma pupils. “It’s a lot different than when you take a stat course, and their goal is to teach the technique,” Fruge says. “We really simplify it and make it easy for anyone to understand what the test means, [and] how and when you use the test.” Fruge says he encourages students of Six Sigma to think of applied statistics as part of the system’s tool set and not “something to be dreaded.”

Top-Down Support 
In addition to promoting quality and efficiency, Six Sigma has been making an impact in product creation and ethanol production. DuPont began implementing the system's continuous improvement methodology in 1999 and uses it as its primary business improvement process. The company decided to implement the methodology primarily to improve its business performance, which led to a better economic return to stakeholders, explains Eric Sumner, global market development manager for DuPont Industrial Biosciences’ FermaSure business and certified Six Sigma black belt. “We use Six Sigma to develop new products through market-driven innovation,” Sumner says. “We assess customer input on what their needs are. Then we can bring solutions to the market through innovation, science and technology in order to deliver high value to our products.”

DuPont implemented Six Sigma through a companywide rollout that lasted roughly a year. Consultants were brought in to train multiple levels of management and personnel. By the end of 2001, the second full year of implementation, DuPont saw its Six Sigma expansion encompass more than 6,000 trained green belts, 1,300 black belts and more than 5,000 active projects. By the sixth full year, DuPont reported that black belt leaders were leading projects in every business region and function. 

Support from senior company leadership is critical to Six Sigma implementation. “It’s very important that it’s implemented as a top-down program, meaning it has management’s support from the top-down, because it’s implemented from the ground up,” Sumner says. “Management has to support it and what the ground floor employees bring as a result. If they do, they’ll see the benefits.”  For instance, Six Sigma improves decision making by removing ambiguity and subjective thinking through its data-driven decision making, he explains. “The decision really comes down to an objective measure of performance and looking at data that’s around the decision, and once you get to that point using the Six Sigma methodology, usually the solutions are obvious,” he says.

Sumner says DuPont’s FermaSure product line was conceived using Six Sigma’s famed DMAIC principles—define, measure, analyze, improve and control. In collaboration with Wisconsin’s Badger State Ethanol, DuPont created the antibiotic alternative in 2006. 

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there to implement a program such as Six Sigma in the ethanol industry,” Sumner says, “particularly because we have such a strong data-driven background in the industry.”

Bottom-Line Results
Plant consistency was one of the biggest motivations for Winnebago, Minn.-based Corn Plus to implement Six Sigma. “I feel strongly that without Six Sigma in place, it can be extremely challenging to determine if the plant is in a consistent state of running,” says Courtney Ireland, lab manager at Corn Plus. 

Unlike DuPont, Ireland received her Six Sigma green belt during an accelerated course at South Central College in Mankato, Minn., over a two-week period. The course was followed by a four-month project specific to the Corn Plus facility—a program that not only provided plant personnel with a deeper understanding of Six Sigma skills and methodologies but also yielded significant process improvements at the plant. “Since completing my Six Sigma green belt, it has helped me get a much better handle on our data,” Ireland says. “I have been able to significantly reduce our process variance and increase our overall ethanol yield. I have also been able to implement Six Sigma in other areas such as tracking the quality of our coproducts. This helps our marketer more easily advertise the quality of our product.” 

Importantly, Ireland says, Six Sigma made an impact on the plant’s bottom line. Decreasing operational variability not only produced greater efficiencies but also increased profitability and plant optimization. For example, implementing Six Sigma methodologies at Corn Plus helped the staff decrease the frequency of poor performing fermenters, Ireland says. “In Six Sigma, you learn extensively to make changes slowly in order to better track the control of your processes. I have been pretty strict about this since my training, knowing that it is not always possible to make changes one at a time but making sure that we move slowly when it is possible.” 

Predictive, Actionable Data   
During the first quarter of 2011, Pinal Energy implemented Six Sigma after one of its former general managers observed the system’s success in the chemical industry. The plant hired Fruge to implement the program and train Pinal’s staff. During the first few months of application, the trainees at Pinal worked nearly full time on Six Sigma enactment. That intense focus paid off, according to Pinal Energy Plant Manager Matt Rynearson, who says the benefits of the program were manifest during and after its roll-out.   

Rynearson’s team enjoyed early success in focusing Six Sigma methodologies to yield improvement. Making more ethanol with the same amount of corn was a huge benefit to the plant as corn prices at the time were roughly 80 percent of its bottom-dollar cost, Rynearson says.

In addition to greater ethanol yields, the new processes led to lower natural gas usage and provided the facility’s management team with a more intimate understanding of operations. “Not that we were always mistaken, but [Six Sigma] helped us organize the data to the point where we truly understand what’s going on with this facility,” Rynearson says.

In one instance, the principles helped identify a cracked heat exchanger that was negatively affecting a fermenter at Pinal, Fruge says. After data pointed out issues with the unit, the plant ran a series of tests that initially read as inconclusive. However, once the plant inspected the heat exchanger, two fractures were discovered in the unit. “They would have never seen the falloff of performance of that fermenter if they hadn’t set up their Six Sigma and hadn’t known how to analyze their data,” Fruge says. 

Echoing Sumner’s call for management support of Six Sigma implementation, Rynearson feels that fully committing to the change will greatly benefit plant production. “What you’ll see is, if you get total involvement, there is a total culture change in your plant in how you look at your data and what your goals are for that facility,” he says. 

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]