The value and impact that a solid Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) approach can bring to an IT business is well known. While many organizations understand the relationship between DFSS and their own project management approach, what they often miss is attention to the foundational concepts of Lean and DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) to ensure that DFSS is applied most effectively.

The IT practitioners’ situation is uniquely challenging in that they must see their world from two very different perspectives:

  1. How the business uses their services.
  2. How IT provides services to the business.

Interestingly, both views of the organization distill to one fundamental concept – the value stream, applied in two different ways. And of course, anyone with even limited experience with Lean or Six Sigma will recognize this concept as a critical element of both process management and process improvement.

Better Core Business Processes

From a simplistic point of view, the IT function exists to make the core business processes (marketing, developing, selling, producing and distributing a product or service) more successful. In fact, whether providing its wares to external customers or supporting the management systems and operations of its own organization, the IT function is an operation unto itself. IT’s processes provide products (applications, hardware, networks) and services (security, maintenance, support, technology consulting) that create value for its customers (internal and external).

Users of IT products and services seem to demonstrate a unique lack of restraint when expressing feedback relative to the quality (cycle time, capability and cost) of their customer experience. As a result, when introduced to the utility of the Six Sigma approach, many IT managers immediately embrace the notion that DFSS is the most useful application of Six Sigma to enhance their current project management discipline and delivers better applications, networks or hardware faster and at a lower cost. In executing this well-conceived notion, IT organizations are quick to realize the importance of understanding the customer’s value stream and both the latent and expressed requirements through the effective analysis of use cases and language data. By this point, a typical DFSS project will have facilitated completion of the requirements-gathering component of a project management discipline by executing the Define and Measure phases of the DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify) approach.

But the IT dilemma becomes more acute in the Analyze phase of the DMADV cycle when a project team must determine which combination of features and levels of functionality will best satisfy the requirements of the customer(s) in terms of quality, cycle time and cost. To make matters more difficult, the project team must have some way to objectively evaluate cost and quality both in terms of the initial release as well as ongoing support. The DFSS project team must optimize the natural conflict between the need to satisfy the customer requirements and the capability of the complex IT architecture – the combination of people, hardware, networks and management systems that defines the IT organization. Many useful tools exist within Six Sigma to conquer this challenge. They range from the very simple (brainstorming and prioritization matrices) to the very complex (statistical experimentation and simulations). But no objective assessment of the alternatives is possible without quantitatively measuring the various value streams that exist within the IT organization. And furthermore, no meaningful project plan can be developed without the same IT process information.

Back to the Dual Process View

This brings the subject back to the dual process view that characterizes the IT environment. For any given project, a DFSS project team must understand the value stream of its customers. This is often facilitated by some combination of the voice of the customer tools from the DMADV roadmap and the data provided by the customer’s own process management system. (Any effective process design should include the ability to document, measure, monitor, report and control the critical aspects of that process. IT software, hardware and network development projects must take those process management needs into account when participating in the design of new processes. In addition, the new process should be flexible enough to change its management system when critical process characteristics change.)

But this understanding of the customer value stream is not enough. The IT organization must document, measure and control its own value streams if DFSS projects are to be successful. This view then completes the Six Sigma management system within IT by addressing the three process dimensions upon which the Six Sigma methodology is built:

  1. Process management – document, measure, monitor and control internal processes.
  2. Process improvement – use the DMAIC cycle repetitively to continuously improve.
  3. Product/process design – apply DFSS (DMADV) to radically redesign internal processes or to create new products/services for customers.

Dilemma of the Analyze Phase

Inevitably the dilemma of the Analyze phase of the DMADV cycle begs the question: “If we need process management data to execute DMADV projects but we have urgent needs to apply DMADV tools to new projects, do we need to implement process management before applying DFSS in our project management system?” Fortunately, the answer is no. But understand that without an effective process management and improvement system the results of DFSS projects will necessarily be compromised. As a result, the Six Sigma deployment plan for an IT organization must account for the need to document, measure and – where applicable – manage and improve both types of value streams.

One important characteristic of Six Sigma is that no project is perfect and no set of data is perfect. This is particularly true in new Six Sigma deployments where the three process dimensions have not yet been adequately addressed. Choosing to apply DMADV to current or new projects without the benefit of a robust process management infrastructure is a viable strategy as long as there is an explicit plan to document, measure and control the critical value streams within the IT organization. The development of a mature process management system takes time and will ultimately require the participation of most, if not all, IT employees. The result, however, will be powerful as this view of the internal value streams will provide the organization with the basic understanding of Lean principles as it relates to value, waste and process performance measures (including quality, cycle time and cost). This internal process perspective will provide a foundation which will enhance the application of DMAIC to continuously improve internal processes and DMADV to optimize the effect of IT products and services on the customers which it supports.

In both service and manufacturing environments, the IT systems play an important role in determining the capacity, flexibility and capability of its customers’ processes. As a result, the IT organization is particularly suited to deployment of the three Six Sigma process dimensions. Recognizing the need to understand both internal value streams and customer value streams is an important first step to creating a successful Six Sigma deployment in IT.

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