Leaders of small to medium-sized information technology (IT) businesses are aware of Six Sigma and what it has done for other organizations. However, some think that Six Sigma works only in large businesses. Six Sigma can help improve any organization by providing an important competitive edge. The main thing that prevents these IT firms from exploring Six Sigma is answering the question: How does a small IT organization get started?
The need for Six Sigma often becomes clear when a business fails to meet customer needs, and begins to lose customers and internal support. When this happens, Six Sigma could mean survival. However, Six Sigma can improve any IT business, even one that is currently prospering. Implementing Six Sigma can help ensure that an organization enjoying success remains successful in an increasingly competitive and demanding environment.
Six Sigma is a structured approach to problem-solving within a disciplined, fact-based methodology. The Six Sigma approach focuses on understanding the problem, collecting and analyzing data about the problem, identifying root causes of problems or opportunities, and implementing appropriate solutions. It is a data-driven methodology, i.e., decisions are based on facts and data, not intuition.
Since most IT business activities can be seen as processes, Six Sigma drives to understand, analyze and improve processes via focused improvement projects. As people eventually become familiar with Six Sigma, they see the obvious advantages it brings. How often have software solutions been implemented to solve the same problem before the right solution was implemented? Six Sigma helps to prevent this.
The Six Sigma approach can help any business to improve customer satisfaction, quality and on-time delivery. It provides the tools to identify and eliminate defects, and to optimize processes for reductions in cycle time and cost. Six Sigma also can improve productivity and drive improvement in engineering activities. Voice-of-the-customer concepts and tools enable the IT organization to focus on (1) what the customer values and (2) developing well-defined requirements. These requirements will then increase the value of products and applications, which drives success.
Six Sigma successes are recognized across the organization, generating enthusiasm and additional successes. As associates experience these winning results, they are eager to provide more value to both the customer and the IT organization.
Once a decision is made to use a Six Sigma improvement strategy, an IT leader should determine how control of the Six Sigma program will be handled. Does the IT leader have the time to be responsible for the strategic, tactical and management decisions required for the Six Sigma improvement program? If not, there may be a need for a leadership body (e.g., a group of IT managers). This leadership team should establish the rules for how the Six Sigma program will operate. The IT leader must be totally committed to the idea of Six Sigma. Anything less and the program is doomed to failure.
Early on, communication plans must be developed to keep employees at every level informed.
It is typical for the business to outsource the initial Six Sigma training. Training plans should include classes, schedules, participants, costs, and the tools to be taught. Training should be outlined for Champions (project sponsors), as well as Green Belts and Black Belts. It is vital for the IT leader and other managers to attend the Six Sigma Champion training. Champion training is usually a one-day event covering the technical aspects of Six Sigma at a high level – how to start and lead a Six Sigma initiative and the Champion’s role in ensuring availability of resources, removal of roadblocks and issues slowing progress. This reinforces the top-down approach and gets IT leaders in synch regarding the program.
Candidates for Six Sigma Green Belt and Black Belt training must be identified, trained and certified. Many of the organizations that provide Six Sigma training also provide certification. The Black Belt candidates, usually among the IT group’s best minds, train on projects that address real IT needs and that can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time (three to five months). The projects done in training demonstrate capability and help earn the Black Belts certification. Successful completion of each project can be shared with others in the business to get buy-in and generate support for Six Sigma in the IT group and beyond.
Six Sigma Black Belt training typically includes four weeks of classroom work spread over three to five months so concepts and tools can be applied to an actual IT project between training sessions. Most programs cover each of the DMAIC phases (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control); some of the newer, more progressive ones also cover the IDOV phases (Identify, Design, Optimize and Validate) and focus on software implementations. Black Belt certification criteria vary, but typically consist of participating in class, passing a certification exam and successfully completing a Six Sigma project of significant value.
Once the IT group has a core of trained and certified Six Sigma Black Belts with project experience, one may have the skills needed to provide training for additional candidates and practitioners. Another option is to hire a Master Black Belt from outside the IT organization as a full-time trainer/Six Sigma leader.
When identifying which projects to undertake first, the IT business should focus on those areas that are underperforming. The goals should be to minimize non-value-added steps in processes and to improve all processes. Performance data must be available or data must be collected. Performance measures are essential in every Six Sigma project to demonstrate that performance improved and by how much. The leadership team should have a general idea of what should be targeted for improvement first, but in the data-driven approach of Six Sigma, data and metrics are the deciding factor.
Initial projects often focus on improving areas that affect cost, quality, delivery or customer satisfaction. When choices must be made, it is appropriate to focus on areas that are causing customer dissatisfaction.
Six Sigma works best with a top-down approach – when the leadership team owns it, supports it and drives it. After the initial deployment, it depends on how far into the IT group the leadership team wants to drive Six Sigma thinking. Some may be satisfied with having a small number of Black Belts who work on significant IT issues. Some may want the Six Sigma concepts and tools spread throughout the entire IT organization. Each organization has to learn what works in its unique culture. IT organizations as small as 10 people have used Six Sigma successfully and productively. Its practices can be lean to match the development approaches.
All will benefit from embracing the Six Sigma mindset, concepts, tools and methodologies. There will be no losers when an IT organization refines and optimizes an improvement program while constantly focusing on the customer and then driving to increase the value of its products and applications.