Lean Six Sigma for information technology (IT) is still maturing and has not hit the critical mass to transform the industry to its next level, as it has in other industries in the past 10 years. This may be due in part to common myths about Lean Six Sigma for IT. These myths include:

  • IT as a stand-alone department does not reap much from Lean Six Sigma.
  • Every IT project is executed through Design for Six Sigma (DFSS).
  • Only process-rich companies have successfully applied Lean Six Sigma to IT. Without a bureaucratic, top-down approach, it will not work.
  • A majority of the DMAIC projects in software development companies are transactional in nature, focusing on defect reduction, testing and design process improvement.
  • The DMAIC approach primarily provides a structured project flow with not many breakthrough improvements.
  • Black Belts in IT firms are mere program managers, preachers or coaches instead of real practitioners.

These myths can be damaging to the prospects of using Lean Six Sigma in IT, and practitioners must learn the truth in order to improve the chances of success with the method.

Creating the Vision

Lean Six Sigma practitioners in the IT industry need to look inward to keep application of the method simple and relevant. Looking inward means focusing on the traditional principles of Lean Six Sigma:

  • Structured, factual process thinking at all business levels
  • The definition of organizational goals and strategic alignment of those goals with the key performance indicators
  • An organization-wide focused and structured framework for development (DFSS) and continuous improvement projects (DMAIC)

These three characteristics should be the basis of the vision for a Lean Six Sigma deployment, irrespective of the target industry domains – and IT is no exception.

The Three-phased Deployment Model

There are quite a few variants in IT deployment areas, from technology and product innovators to custom software solution providers to the technology wing of a multinational operation. Hence there are many complex organizational parameters that need to be handled when it comes to deployment of Lean Six Sigma. Trying the right projects at the right organizational maturity level is the key to success.

Typically, Lean Six Sigma is deployed in one of three ways: top down, middle out or bottom up. Each approach has its own strengths and shortfalls. As the culture matures, the approach must mature along with it. Therefore, an effective phased deployment model is needed (see figure below).

Figure 1: Recommended Three-phased Deployment Model
Figure 1: Recommended Three-phased Deployment Model

The following are the three phases of this deployment model:

  1. Middle out – This phase is driven by an individual or a small group of visionaries in the firm from middle management level. This group must keep the cost of the Lean Six Sigma program under check at all times. Projects may have a primarily bottom-line focus due to weak top leadership commitment.
  2. Move to top – This phase the first step toward a long-term business process excellence approach. Balanced scorecards should be created for every business unit or department and they should align directly to the firm’s corporate vision and mission.
  3. Top down – In this phase Lean Six Sigma benchmark practices and market performance should be discussed and an adoption decision should be made in the boardroom, with the CEO driving from the front. Champions, Master Black Belts, Black Belts and Green Belts should be developed to own and lead the Lean Six Sigma program. Projects should involve both top-line and bottom-line growth objectives, with a primary focus on customer satisfaction.

Selecting a Project Approach

Like deployment models, there are also various tactical project selection approaches for IT firms:

1. No Lean, Little Six Sigma

This approach is about reaping the lowest hanging fruit. Practitioners collect product performance and defect data, perform simple Pareto analysis and create fishbone diagrams. From a vital few x’s they move to a solution set and pilot an improvement. This lightweight DMAIC is best used during Phase 1 to win confidence and increase the comfort factor around Lean Six Sigma.

2. All Lean, Little Six Sigma

Here practitioners stress improvement of visible problems based on Lean thinking . With this approach, the seven types of Lean wastes are introduced. The quality issues addressed may relate to flow or speed, for example, in transactional software processes as well as software engineering.

A Lean thinker should ask basic questions, such as How many of the software design stages add real value to the customer? Where is the maximum lead time? Where is the weakest link in the chain? An FMEA can do wonders, surfacing hidden design issues and saving a business from enormous risk exposure. For that matter, practitioners should try applying Lean concepts to a simple C code by acquiring the high level design and the flow diagram, and asking value stream questions.

3. All Lean, All Six Sigma

This method involves leveraging Six Sigma to find hidden problems, applying core statistics and using design of experiments (DOE). The best thing about software is, without much cost, practitioners easily can experiment and find the optimum level of various controllable factors in computer programs. Today, in the age of object-oriented analysis and design service-oriented architecture, almost every product feature is configurable or tweakable. Hence, the more complicated Six Sigma tools are all applicable to software projects. Some sample project areas and the tools used are:

  • Performance tuning of a batch process (DOE)
  • Determining schedule slippage variation across large projects (ANOVA)
  • Detecting service-level agreement variation for large clients (regression analysis)
  • Setting up a customer service desk for optimum performance (DOE)
  • Creating software defect prediction model (Monte Carlo simulation)

The table below is a recommended deployment matrix that has the highest probability of success, irrespective of organizational culture and environment.

Mix of Project Types Across Deployment Phases
Project Categories Strategic Deployment Phases
Project selection Practice or application Middle out Move to top Top down
No Lean, Little Six Sigma Kaizen or root cause analysis work outs 80 percent 40 percent 30 percent
All Lean, Little Six Sigma Development process and technology, Lean thinking 20 percent 50 percent 30 percent
All Lean, All Six Sigma Advanced Lean six Sigma to address hidden variation N/A 10 percent 40 percent
*Percent figures refer to the percent of projects delivered in each category

Lean Six Sigma in IT Grows Up

Lean Six Sigma in IT should no longer be a myth. It can be as successful in the IT domain as in any other. Practitioners need to not only be careful about using the best fit deployment model alongside appropriate project selection, but also to come forward to share their success stories (and failures) with each other. This will help to transform the use of Lean Six Sigma in the IT world.

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