Challenges Faced Today Offer Solutions for Tomorrow
Six Sigma has come a long way from statistically oriented tools to today’s “not so data driven” tools like Lean and quality function deployment (QFD). The application of Six Sigma across different sectors has made this change from statistical tools to softer tools possible. The methodologies and framework have, ironically, occasionally lagged behind as they cope with different industries. DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) is applied the same way in the information technology (IT) services sector as it was in manufacturing. Some of the challenges facing Six Sigma in the IT sector are:
- Lengthy projects
- Data oriented tools
- Lack of knowledge in a knowledge-based industry
- Failure to properly use DMAIC in a software development project
- Six-Sigma as a Project Based Approach
Historically Six Sigma has been termed a project-based approach to improvements. Each project, however, could take between five weeks and six months. In the IT services sector the length of the project is often too long to realize the benefits. Projects are completed, resources are re-aligned and team members are transferred to other teams or sent to onsite assignments. These changes affect the cohesiveness of improvement teams. Many Six Sigma projects are either delayed or canceled due to lack of participation.
Minimize the Project Duration
A revised approach to Six Sigma should include a DMAIC life cycle of not more than three weeks, and the complete Six Sigma project should not take longer than three to five weeks. Six Sigma remains a project-based approach, but shortening the duration of the projects will eliminate frequent changes at the organization level, and teams will see projects through to completion. Six Sigma methodology and tools must be ingrained into the process framework so that it becomes part of “business as usual.” This reduces the cycle time for executing projects.
A successful Six Sigma program empowers employees with problem solving tools. The benefits of Six Sigma are realized when employees or teams use Six Sigma tools, methodologies and philosophies as part of their day-to-day activities. Though not project-based these improvements drive the true bottom-line.
Six-Sigma as a Data Driven Approach
The IT services sector as a whole is still evolving when it comes to metrics. Companies are investing huge amounts of effort in arriving at “good indicators” of project/organizational health. It is difficult to have a database created for a team, which results in a longer measure phase. In the absence of data, personal opinions take over and adversely impact the effectiveness of the framework. As projects stretch and lose their focus, teams lose faith in Six Sigma.
The strength of Six Sigma lies in the data driven approach, hence it has to be supported by a well-implemented metrics program throughout the organization. With the inclusion of Lean in the Six Sigma framework, practitioners can use fewer data oriented tools.
Six-Sigma Professes Y = f (X)
Software engineering activities are largely manual and are greatly dependent on the skill of the developer. The IT sector is knowledge base driven – organizations are investing huge amounts of money in finding skills outside the organization or developing them internally. Six Sigma offers little in terms of improving the productivity of engineering teams – a team’s productivity increases as it moves up the learning curve.
Improve Skills and Knowledge with Minimal Cost
The software engineering process rests heavily on manual processes. Results have some inherent inconsistencies because of the varying capabilities of individual developers. The new approach has to focus on automation and optimizing the learning curve. With the majority of the organization’s costs going toward manpower, increasing employee knowledge is core to management. Companies are focusing on support functions such as organizational training and cultural awareness classes. Six Sigma projects create strong processes that enhance learning and reduce costs without compromising the efficacy of the function. A focused application of Six Sigma concepts in developing the knowledge management processes would yield positive results within the services sector.
Choosing the Methodology
Unlike repetitive manufacturing processes, software development is an engineering activity and, therefore, DMAIC fails to help achieve improvements by inculcating quality into the software engineering process. Some companies are exploring options of inculcating Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) tools/methodologies into the software engineering process – these still need to be integrated with the software engineering frameworks like the capability maturity model integration (CMMi) and ISO (the worldwide federation of national standards bodies for approximately 130 countries). It is important to remember software engineering activities are not repetitive; the true benefit lies in integrating tools into the frameworks like CMMi and ISO.
Organizations are working on applying Six Sigma tools as part of the software engineering practices. Some of the tools that have a wider application can be:
- Failure mode effect analysis (FMEA) helps organizations reveal the overall system architecture for any kind of failure and helps reduce potential test defects especially in system and field testing.
- QFD used during the requirements gathering and analysis phases help prioritize requirements and high-level technical solutions by providing engineers leads into areas to be considered in the system.
- Design of experiments (DOE) is used in test phases to identify test cases that best match the expectations from the system. This is a useful approach when there are multiple interactions between the features of a product. DOE can also assist in optimizing software and hardware resources in a complex infrastructure project.
Although only a few tools are mentioned here, that does not limit the applicability of other Six Sigma tools in an IT service organization. As industry awareness grows, more tools are used.
Changes in the application of Six Sigma tools and methodology are evident in many different forums. Change will only become more prevalent as the need for being more competitive becomes a reality. Like any initiative in a business sector, process improvement managers need to transform Six Sigma to suit their industry needs. Six Sigma experts must tailor the tools for successful deployment and thereby help organizations improve their bottom lines. Today companies that have reached the pinnacle are re-inventing themselves and Six Sigma will find its place throughout IT service organizations.