Is Six Sigma for real? Is it the factor responsible for improvements? How much Six Sigma is really necessary to get positive results? Doesn’t any quality improvement method yield similar results? These questions are always in the minds of people in every organization – sometimes out in the open, sometimes not. In a thoughtful response to an iSixSigma article entitled “Six Sigma Applies to IT, as Evidenced by Success,” a reader brought the issue forward and asked for answers.

He said he had gone through a Green Belt program and was not sure if Six Sigma applies to IT as much as “parts of Six Sigma” apply to IT. He wanted a reasonable argument to clarify this issue. Many quality improvement methods talk about measuring and improving, he wrote, but what specifically makes Six Sigma more valuable than the others, and then, in this case, applicable to IT? Is it customer-focus, where others aren’t? Is it the rigorous measurement system analysis? He asked whether Six Sigma is really delivering the benefits, or is it just sound quality improvement/management practices.

The reader has valid questions. Success with Six Sigma requires solid answers.

Certainly there are instances of piecemeal application of Six Sigma, but there also are many examples that are “real.” Invariably, the organizations that take it seriously and do not just dabble get much better results. Benefits usually are at least three or four times costs.

Here are the top seven answers to the question: What makes Six Sigma better than traditional quality improvement methods?

1. Six Sigma places more emphasis on understanding the Voice of the Customer (VOC). Tools/techniques such as needs/context distinctions, Kano classification, KJ analysis, and Pugh concept selection help an organization better address the “fuzzy front end.” Since requirements failures are the largest single factor in software project failures, these tools add very important elements to a company’s arsenal. A software package developer, which uses Six Sigma, recently got a standing ovation from customers at its users conference in response to work the developer had done on customer satisfaction. One customer said, “You have finally really listened to us.” How many times has that happen without Six Sigma?

2. Six Sigma places more emphasis on financial measures to prove the benefits. A company’s CFO does not consider higher Capability Maturity Model (CMM) level a business benefit as such. Six Sigma is a performance-based approach to improvement whereas many earlier approaches, such as CMM integration and ISO 9000, are activity-based. Experience at Northrup-Grumman, and elsewhere, indicates using Six Sigma can significantly accelerate moving to higher CMM levels, demonstrating a positive synergy between these complementary approaches to improvement.

3. Six Sigma has a much stronger link to top management. Six Sigma requires roles such as an executive steering committee, clearly appointed and trained Champions, formal project selection and chartering process, tollgate reviews. All of these lead to greater management engagement than is the case with traditional approaches. Accountability is built in.

4. Six Sigma incorporates roadmaps – deployment process, DMAIC, DMADV. This organizes and structures the application of tools, and offers a problem-solving process, not an activity-based approach like ISO9000 or CMM. Research in many different contexts has shown that typically professionals spend more than 50 percent of their time firefighting. Eighty percent of that effort is directed at problems that have been addressed before, but the root cause not solved. Sound problem-solving methods embodied in Six Sigma lead to solutions that prevent recurrence of the same problems. One organization reduced its post-installation problem-solving effort by more than 40 percent, saving more than $500,000 per year in wasted resources.

5. Six Sigma expects substantial resource commitments. Dedicated Black Belts and Green Belts allocate a meaningful percentage of their time to process improvement. Six Sigma does not expect everyone to simply add a new set of responsibilities to their day job. Experience has shown that is not a realistic expectation. Improvement requires allocation of effort and focus. This approach means projects get done and validated dollar savings occur in the near term.

6. Six Sigma requires a formal insistence on facts to support choices. This is a discipline that applies to every level of organizations practicing Six Sigma. It takes egos out of critical decisions. It allows organizations to grow up and get the benefits that come with maturity. Many organizations never get out of diapers and suffer all the drawbacks that go with that. Everyone working in software and IT has experienced the situation in which a detailed plan and schedule is diligently developed, only to be ordered by management to take 20 percent off the schedule and budget (without reducing function to be delivered). Experienced software managers know that this sort of fiat is nothing more than an exercise in self-deception by management. Management often asks staff to run the three-minute mile (world record is about 3:40). Nobody has done it. The actual outcome will be far over budget, very late, and the functionality delivered will be less than intended. A fact-based approach to schedule/cost/deliver discussions leads to very different outcomes – higher quality, lower cost, reduced cycle time, less turnover, higher morale, etc. This is not speculation – it has been witnessed in a number of organizations.

7. Most important, all of the above. Traditional methods embodied some of these things at times – but not consistently, and not in every project. Six Sigma is a killer process when it is done right. No better process has yet been devised.

Perhaps one-third of the organizations claiming to be doing Six Sigma really get it and do everything in the answers above. Those organizations are creating a lot of distance between themselves and their competitors. Documented cases show a return on investment as high as 500 percent in the first year of Six Sigma projects in software and IT organizations. During a five-year period, these organizations will destroy their competition. They know Six Sigma is for real.

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