Readers may be familiar with the results of a survey on the integration of Six Sigma and information technology (IT) published by iSixSigma Magazine in its May/June issue. The survey, conducted and analyzed by Michael Marx, research manager of iSixSigma, revealed four important truths which provide meaningful insight to any organization attempting to apply Six Sigma in IT.
While the themes presented are familiar to those working in the Six Sigma arena, it is helpful to see them verified with data, rather than just anecdote. The four basic truths go something like this:
For those whose organization is one where Six Sigma is not frequently used to improve IT processes, there is hope – if one can be patient enough. If employees wait long enough and Six Sigma stays in their company long enough (at least seven years), then the chances that Six Sigma will be used regularly in IT are pretty good.
But all faith cannot be put just in Truth No. 3, thereby confusing correlation with causation and assuming that age of the deployment alone causes greater Six Sigma integration with IT. In this regard, it seems that Truth No. 2 (role of IT in the company) is lurking as a hidden factor.
The survey indicated that companies which embrace IT as a strategic function – software is embedded in the product or service (like online banking), and/or it is an enabling function that provides competitive advantage (point-of-sale data collection and reporting to optimize the supply chain) – are more likely to apply Six Sigma to IT processes. This is an important fact and it is observable. Scores of companies (of which the author has direct knowledge) that have deployed Six Sigma eventually recognize that IT must take on strategic importance if the company is to be successful (and many organizations that do not deploy Six Sigma also recognize this). This is because IT processes are ubiquitous, even if they do not directly add value to the product or service features. Every organizational process is touched by or built with IT in some way. Six Sigma deployments quickly reveal the fact that IT either provides much of the functionality of the process being improved or it is an important source of data – the fuel for the problem-solving process itself. As Six Sigma deployments make this fact more universally understood, the integration of IT and Six Sigma inevitably becomes a greater strategic priority.
This suggests an interesting paradox as revealed in Truth No. 4: Technology is not always the solution and when it is, the solution is often not implemented. Before discussing the paradox, one must first parse the statement. On one hand, the fact that technology is not always the solution could be positive since this suggests that Six Sigma looks to change a process in the simplest, most effective (balancing risk, cost and benefit) way instead of always opting for technology. From this, one can infer that most Six Sigma solutions do not change processes so dramatically that the enabling technology must be changed in order to support the process change. This is an optimistic view.
The more cynical – and probably more realistic – view is that technology solutions are avoided because they are rarely implemented and if they are, much of the benefit opportunities are lost with the passage of time. Invariably this happens because Six Sigma solutions are assigned low priority on the long list of projects that capacity-constrained IT departments are responsible for executing. The list of potential solutions for many Six Sigma projects includes several IT solutions, but the list of implemented solutions includes none of the IT solutions, with significantly diminished financial benefits. In fact, this is a testament to the effectiveness of Six Sigma since IT solutions can be ignored and the projects are still very successful.
It should be kept in mind that all perceived resource constraints are simply prioritization issues, and IT functions generally are not easily prioritized because it is difficult to quantify (or predict) their impact effectively. So in effect, Truth No. 4 could actually be reworded to state: “When Six Sigma solutions require technology, they are often not implemented and consequently Six Sigma solutions tend to avoid reliance on technology.” This is an important burning platform: The realization that IT, because of its internal project prioritization and management processes, is a barrier to continuous improvement in a Six Sigma organization.
And this is a result of Truth No. 1: Overall, Six Sigma is not used to improve IT processes, which completes the paradox. If Six Sigma is not used on IT processes, then IT solutions are avoided, which tends to impede the recognition that all IT processes are strategically important to the organization, thereby perpetuating the resistance to integrating Six Sigma and IT (the figure below). It is a nasty cycle, and while companies will eventually break the cycle through their natural Six Sigma deployment maturity, this takes precious time.
Organizations should not wait for the inevitable integration of Six Sigma and IT to happen organically. They should force the integration as early in their deployment as possible. Companies should make IT a strategically important function. Whether IT is both part of product/service development and enables all internal processes, or only the latter, organizations should start now to integrate Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) with their standard project management approach. At the same time, they should use Lean and DMAIC tools to make all IT processes faster, better, cheaper and more predictable.
Then they should use the same language, concepts and orientation for system-wide value optimization in order to bring more positive impacts faster to the customers’ processes that IT supports. This customer process-improvement approach will essentially become the front end of the DFSS model. Of course, the elegance of this circular relationship is much easier to conceive than it is to execute. Practitioners will find those topics addressed in other articles. Nonetheless, the survey is in and the people have spoken: Six Sigma integration with IT must happen if the deployment is to be successful, and it probably will happen – eventually. But the sooner an organization makes the integration happen, the better off it will be.