Six Sigma has been adopted by some of the world’s leading companies as a mechanism to improve bottom line results and delight customers. But though the companies have made spectacular gains in some areas – millions of dollars in increased revenue or reduced costs – success has not been uniform.

Deploying Six Sigma in areas of high workforce mobility or dispersion, such as field sales and service, has proven challenging. This is ironic in that mobile workforces are often people who spend most of their time dealing with customers face-to-face, in the customer’s workplace. And one of Six Sigma’s strengths is its focus on delivering what customers really care about (the key outcomes, or “critical Ys”).

Among organizations which have tried using Six Sigma in field sales and service, many have too quickly reached for information technology solutions, such as sales force automation systems. Technology does have a key role to play, but technology-only solutions are doomed to failure because they do not address the factors that conspire against use of Six Sigma in mobile workforces, such as:

  • Perception: There is an erroneous perception that Six Sigma is more likely to interfere with the productivity and creativity of frontline staff, or take away time they should be spending with customers, rather than enhance or promote these desirable qualities.
  • Little exists to build from: Many transactional services areas, and sales in particular, are plagued with both a lack of available data and the lack of defined process – so there is huge variability in work methods and little process knowledge on which to build.
  • Cultural norms: Sales staff and other field personnel often lead a relatively autonomous worklife, held accountable only for their final results. To them, Six Sigma appears antithetical to what they think they need to succeed.
  • Logistics: Communication, training and project work are all more difficult when staff members are not regularly together in a centralized office.

To successfully use Six Sigma with mobile workforces, organizations need to fully understand their underlying business needs and the factors that work against Six Sigma. Here are some tips and insights to make the job easier.

Tip 1. Identify Relevant, Critical Ys

This tip is not unique to mobile workforces. Six Sigma practitioners have been increasingly aware that people are more likely to want to use Six Sigma methods and tools if they can see the benefit to them personally and to their business goals.

“What we’ve learned is to make sure that projects are tied to your business Ys,” advises Art Larson, the general manager of U.S. services operations at GE Healthcare. “For a sales or service force, that means defining business goals around price erosion, profitability, cost, productivity, cash, etc. Then, start deploying projects.”

The first step is to clearly link specific outcomes (critical Ys) to the field processes that affect the targeted business goal. Is it first-call effectiveness that will contribute to a revenue goal? Tim Bates, director of business process development at 3M, says his groups make these linkages explicit. “What we do is build a tree diagram with the corporate Ys, the outcomes we’re trying to drive, at the left, and our projects and tools at the right. Then we can look at the gaps and build gap-closure strategies around process improvements and the eventual linkage to tools.”

Tip 2. Focus on Support of Field Staff

There is absolutely no doubt that many field staff will initially resent Six Sigma as an intrusion on their worklife – a legitimate concern, especially when talking about people whose job it is to spend time with customers. So both Larson and Bates advocate adopting a realistic, practical approach to Six Sigma implementation.

“There are really only two outcomes of interest to a field agent – making more money or spending less time doing what they are supposed to do,” explains Art Larson. He recalls that the first year he spent as a Master Black Belt with the sales force led to $6 million in savings associated with sales effectiveness techniques, such as writing good quotes on the first pass, reducing rework.

Also there is a limit to the amount of time mobile workforces should be expected to spend directly on improvement activities. “You need to be realistic about the amount of time you want your sales force to be devoted to doing Six Sigma – versus having Black Belts do the data collection and the analysis and the implementation with sales participation,” says Larson. This approach works with any mobile workforce, be it sales representatives, installation and repair technicians, or whoever. But it is still necessary to provide basic familiarity with the tools and approaches to everyone. At GE the sales representatives initially come together for two three-day training sessions. Now there are self-study sessions for new employees, with competency tests to ensure Six Sigma methods are learned.

A third impact of the “be practical” advice is to focus on the simple tools. “Make sure the tools and methodology match the people and project capacity,” says Larson. He says his work groups have gotten a lot of mileage out of simple tools like SIPOC, where they identify and map out the basic relationships between suppliers, inputs, process steps, outputs and customers.

Tip 3. Leverage Technology to Automate Data Gathering and Process Logistics

The need for some type of technology support for Six Sigma projects with mobile workforces should be obvious. A Six Sigma team’s success depends on communication and sharing of ideas – things that are even tougher to achieve when people are dispersed. Unfortunately, many of the mobile business tasks performed by field workers are not well-suited to PC-based software applications, and even the smaller laptops are too cumbersome in many situations.

More Technology Advantages

Mobile task automation software also facilitates improved customer service. It can give staff instantaneous access to everything from product availability and delivery dates, to pricing and discounts, to repair procedures for problems diagnosed in the field. This enhances the value delivered to customers, giving them greater confidence in sales representatives and the company.

MTA also can help in process adherence as a key error-proofing mechanism, providing sales reps with reminders about discounts or alerting them to deals that do not follow guidelines. The technology also offers the opportunity for redesigning field processes from the ground up, more fully leveraging home office capabilities to better serve customers with greater efficiency and minimum cost.

This can lead to processes with fewer opportunities for errors and omissions, more consistent on-time performance and more customer delighters.

That’s why companies are increasingly turning to specialized handheld devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) equipped with what’s called mobile task automation (MTA) software applications. These applications are designed specifically to simplify and speed up the everyday business tasks for which mobile workers use a PDA.

One of the key failure points around field implementation of Six Sigma is data entry. “Sales or field service staff don’t really pay attention to data; they want to store it in their heads,” says Tim Bates of 3M. “After all, we hired them for their ability to build relationships with customers and not to be data entry folks.”

That objection is fairly easy to overcome with technology. Many field organizations manually track data such as sales offers, repair or warranty terms, etc. MTA simplifies those tasks, making the field staff’s job easier and quicker. They no longer have to scribble notes by hand and then later enter them into a laptop. They just take the notes once and are done with it – which reduces the possibility of transcription errors and reduces the amount of time spent on the data collection task.

The speed and ease of data collection reduces the delays between performance of task (a process input, or X) and the specific outcomes (such as revenue generation) that a Six Sigma team is tracking. So cause and effect become more closely tied in time, which speeds up the learning cycle. Both the quality and quantity of data available to the project team improve. Rapid learning cycles can be especially beneficial in Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) projects, where early field performance is commonly used to refine the next generation of the design.

Once entered, the data can then often be quickly retrieved both for business management purposes and for project improvement purposes. Executives can more easily update any of their dashboard metrics. Schedulers can get instant updates on product or service demands, management can get real-time updates on customer needs. When it began implementing Six Sigma within the sales areas, GE Healthcare found that it was not always easy to go back and retrieve needed data. “Teams often had to spend a month or two collecting the data they needed,” says Art Larson. Something like mobile task automation software can not only help capture the needed data, but provide historical records.

Tip 4. Pay Attention to Change Management

“Initially you will get significant resistance from the field,” says Tim Bates of 3M. “That’s why when we go through this, we put a lot of emphasis on change management, focusing on the people as opposed to the technological side of the change.”

Elements that are particularly important when dealing with field staff are:

  • Addressing the what’s-in-it-for-me? factor for the people who are expected to adopt the change – what Six Sigma can mean to them personally.
  • Presenting a clear business case for using Six Sigma – the data that show why and how much improvement is needed.
  • Involvement by and communication with those expected to change. This encompasses everything from open discussions at periodic staff meetings to training all affected personnel in new methods. This also means effectively advertising the benefits achieved from Six Sigma approaches.
  • Changing organization structures (policies, procedures, incentives, rewards, etc.) so that it is better and easier for people to comply with the change than to fall back into the old ways of doing business. For example, reward field repair technicians based on customer satisfaction with their repairs – and not just on the number of repairs completed.

As Bates says, “You wouldn’t see these things listed if you went in to look at the x’s of the process. But these are overall higher level x’s that are crucial to the success of the improved process.”

Conclusion: Make It Relevant and Use Technology

Logistics and attitudes often combine to make adoption of Six Sigma methods more difficult in areas where staff works in the field – sales and service reps in particular. Managers of such operations can achieve greater success if they put special emphasis on making Six Sigma relevant to the targeted workforce – focus on supporting staff work rather than expecting them to abandon their customer responsibilities in favor of Six Sigma tasks. Effective use of technology to simplify work tasks, data collection and communication plays a key role in making Six Sigma a powerful ally of the mobile workforce.

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