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Six Sigma and IT: Jump Start your IT organizations quality

May 13, 2008

Six Sigma forces organizations to focus on the quality of the customer experience. This quality mandate can definitely be applied to IT.

  • Use IT to support Six Sigma processes on a project and organization-wide basis.

  • Apply the principles to internal and external IT services and processes using the DMAIC methodology.

  • Develop new products and services using IT and the DFSS methodology.

Where do You Start?

Ask yourself the following questions.

Does Six Sigma makes sense for your organization? Think twice about deploying Six Sigma if your resources are in short supply. Stressed out managers and burned out employees are not going to offer the dedication required for implementation. Also, make sure that you have senior management buy-in. Six Sigma is a top down initiative, and if senior management does not back it up, it’s going to fail. Some other considerations include:

  • Do you have metrics in place to collect, store, and present relevant data regarding process efficiencies? Often, companies with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems in place are in a better position to go the extra step and convert raw data into usable information.

  • Can you define what constitutes a defect? This is often difficult in service industries where defects are quantified using measures such as service turnaround times, customer satisfaction ratings, and customer defections. Aligning with the needs of customers and creating a mechanism for feedback will be necessary for a successful Six Sigma implementation.

  • Is your organization prepared to monitor cultural change and provide incentives and compensation that are aligned with organizational objectives?

  • Are you prepared to stick with it? It doesn’t matter how many people have been trained on Six Sigma. Without the ongoing application of techniques, your Six Sigma initiative will be unsuccessful.

Are there specific processes that will benefit from Six Sigma? Identify the processes that would benefit from the implementation of Six Sigma. Start small with processes that are self-contained and do not affect other processes before moving to more complex projects.

Keep in mind that Six Sigma tends not to work very well for highly customized processes, such as complex IT systems integration or customized Web development projects. It does, however, work well for mass-customized processes where small improvements in efficiency can reap significant benefits over large volumes of activity. Six Sigma is also very well suited for standardized services such as credit card processing, fast food services, project administration, payroll and benefits processing, client set-up, billing and collection, project reporting, and so forth. For example, the following are common areas in IT that have been exposed to Six Sigma implementations:

  • Improve processes (patch management) and/or policies (security).

  • Maintain fewer servers.

  • Reduce data center sprawl.

  • Achieve faster call response times.

  • Hasten and improve project delivery.

Have you done your research? Look for comparable companies that have implemented Six Sigma and understand their successes and failures. Also, look for companies who considered it, but did not implement. Find out why they chose to bypass it. Discovering this information from other companies is very valuable because you must consider the bias that will come with talking to any firm that delivers Six Sigma services.

Can you overcome pre-existing hurdles? IT has faced hurdles that have prevented it from adopting Six Sigma in the past. Can you resist the urge to quickly throw technology at an organizational problem? Aim to streamline and improve processes first. Only then should you consider implementing a technology to further continuous improvement. Otherwise, all you are left with is a bad process with a new technology.

Have you considered costs? Six Sigma is a significant investment, both from an organizational and cost standpoint. Evidence suggests that benefits outweigh the costs for large and many medium-sized organizations. Smaller and mid-tier modest-growth companies will want to perform a more careful cost analysis and should expect to wait longer to see quantifiable benefits. When considering costs, think about the following:

  • Time to recruit a Black Belt or Master Black Belt to become the Six Sigma experts and lead the initiative internally. The ideal person/ people would have a technical background, understand basic statistics, and have experience using quality and problem-solving tools.

  • Training or hiring costs (tuition, salary).

  • Hiring consultants to run internal training centers. Six Sigma consultants usually fall into two categories:

    • Large corporations, such as Motorola, Siemens, and Honeywell International, who embraced Six Sigma themselves and then started their own consulting divisions.

    • Boutique management consultancies that specialize in Six Sigma, such as George Group, Niku, Breakthrough Management Group, Six Sigma Oualtec, and Six Sigma Academy.

Are you prepared to recruit your Six Sigma team? Recruit motivated people for Six Sigma training. Start by training “star” employees to establish a high-performance team and enable others to see how training is part of an upward career path. Don’t give staff training without having a project for them to work on. In fact, consider sending them to training with a project already assigned so they have something to start with immediately afterwards.

Are you prepared to customize? Don’t toss aside other control initiatives like Control Objectives for Information and related Technologies (COBIT), Capability Maturity Model (CMM) for software development, and the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) for operations and services used in your IT shop. Just because Six Sigma contains a specific toolset, don’t be afraid to tailor these tools and processes to fit your organization. Some examples include:

  • Textron and Honeywell have their own internal tools that, in some instances, are combined with Lean Manufacturing techniques.

  • Others added an additional step to the DMAIC model called “implement.”

  • Raytheon Aircraft uses tools like brainstorming, fish-bone diagrams, value mapping, and something called the “five whys” to assist in getting to the root cause of an issue.

Are you prepared to handle all of the numbers? Six Sigma efforts can fail if you get lost in the numbers. Make sure you know what you are measuring; otherwise, all of those data points and statistical analyses won’t add up. Ensure that you spend adequate time in the “define” phase (which has the fewest metrics) to determine what the defect is, who the customers are, and what a good customer experience entails

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