I love it when people in the office talk about what they can do to improve costs. Having said that, over the course of my career, I would say the majority ofSix Sigma office projects I’ve seen should’ve never been started in the first place.

Is there variation in the office? You bet.Why is it one person can remember how to cancel a print job while the other waits for a novel to be printed before he realises he’s made a mistake? Why do you only need one pen when the person in the cube next to you needs eight to do the same job?

You, as many people I work with, would think the office atmosphere is ripe to reap the rewards of Six Sigma. I have seen projects geared to reduce office supplies, paper usage, color copies, shipping carriers, etc. You name it, I’ve probably seen it attempted to be done. And do you know what? The majority of the time, the projects fail.

While the ideas have merit, it’s execution of piloting office projects that set the stage for failure. The fundamental rule of Six Sigma is to pick projects where the factors can be controlled.When it comes to human nature in the office, it’s often very difficult to lock in changes unless you can error-proof the process (this puts the “Lean” in Lean Six Sigma).

For example, I remember a project to reduce shipment errors and costs by standardising with one company. Although the contract with the outgoing company was not renewed, its supplies were left in the mailroom only to have people continue to use them and the company charge a higher rate (because there was now no contracted discount).

Another example involved a project to reduce printing expenses.Printers had their defaults changed to print black and white on both sides of the paper. Access to color copiers was restricted to only a few employees.Announcements were even posted on copiers and printers.Sounds like a success, right? Wrong. Although some of the modifications did initially post modest savings, they were offset by sales and marketing re-printing the double sided materials into a single sided format. Another issue arose when legitimate stakeholders did not have access to needed copiers. In addition to the rework involved to grant user access, a wave of discontent swept through the office.

This leads me to my next point. If you want an office project to succeed, you need to involve everyone working in the office. Any value you think you may save by standardising office supplies will be quickly lost in productivity by the individual making the rounds to whinge and moan about how he can’t write with the inferior pen that was 17 cents cheaper than the one he used to use.

Lastly, in order for an office project to be a success, an adequate control plan must be in place and communicated.I’ve seen a project where a mini DOE on toner cartridges was conducted that clearly demonstrated the best product, only to have results overlooked because the person quit three months later and the supplier’s part number wasn’t uploaded into the ERP reorder system.

Controllable, error-proofed, customer focused and embedded. If your Six Sigma office project can’t use these words, then you may want to find another project.

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