IT Policies

Six Sigma tools for the project manager's toolbox

Patrick Gray pushes aside the esoteric set of terminology and traditions that make Six Sigma seem foreign and unapproachable to the layman to talk about its real value.

Many good management ideas and methodologies have taken on religious proportions, with their own self-appointed gurus and "preachers," and an esoteric set of terminology and traditions that make them seem foreign and unapproachable to the layman. Unfortunately, Six Sigma, a process improvement methodology that was wildly popular several years ago, has fallen into that bucket, scaring many a capable project manager away from some of the valuable elements of this methodology.

At its core, Six Sigma refers to a methodology devoted to tracking and reducing defects in a process. The sigma refers to a statistical measure that effectively tracks how successful a process is, and a "Six Sigma" process is one with only one error in approximately three million iterations of the process. It was originally applied primarily to manufacturing but can be applied to many business processes. For example, one might seek to use Six Sigma to reduce invoicing errors, with a goal of producing one error for every three million invoices sent to customers.

Like any methodology, Six Sigma is nothing more than a collection of tools that may or may not be relevant for a task at hand. Just as your average general contractor need not be a master carpenter, project managers need not be Six Sigma experts (usually referred to as Black and Green belts) to use some of the helpful aspects of this methodology. Don't let the terminology and heavy-duty statistics scare you; I became a Black Belt almost a decade ago and have long since forgotten the formulas and fancy statistical footwork, but some of the best tools from Six Sigma are also the simplest. Three of my favorites, which require little to no complex mathematical gyrations, martial arts references, or sacrifices of your firstborn are described below.

Predefined "toll gates"

We have all been on that well-intentioned project that seems to slip from design all the way to test with lingering doubts hanging over it, only to have the project fall to pieces at the end of testing or, worse yet, immediately after go-live.

My personal favorite takeaway from Six Sigma is perhaps one of its most conceptually simple concepts -- that of a tollgate and an associated toll-gate review. While not unique to Six Sigma, this concept suggests that any project define a list of requirements to move from one phase of a project to the next in advance and conduct a thorough review before moving to the next phase. While this is less relevant to agile-type projects, defining the objectives for each phase in a detailed manner before you begin and stacking your project up against those milestones is something that is done far too rarely.

Just as the best advice for losing weight is to eat less, setting objectives in stone and then sticking to them and having the audacity to stop a project midstream if it is not meeting them is easier said than done. Six Sigma can add some "moral authority" to this process. I have done this for several clients and an outside expert waving the stop sign can often help.

Process mapping

Like toll gates, many of the process-mapping tools employed by Six Sigma are not unique to the process, but Six Sigma combines some of the best tools for taking a complex process, diagramming the component parts, and showing the inputs and outputs of each step in the process. While every company (and often different departments within a company) has different standards for diagramming how they work, studying some of the formal process-mapping tools can be a great aid. While process mapping may seem like tedious documentation, understanding a business process at a detailed level is the first step in knowing which elements to modify and whether or not you have engendered an improvement.

Beyond just mapping a process, Six Sigma further looks at the time and cost to complete each step and where defects are occurring in a process, effectively engendering a "detective" mind-set to someone mapping out a process. This can help focus efforts ranging from modifying software to changing a shop layout on the biggest "bang for the buck" opportunities.

"Before and after" modeling

While this term is not likely found in any Six Sigma textbook, all the fancy and mind-numbing statistical work associated with Six Sigma has two simple goals. First, it aims to provide a performance benchmark for a process. Second, it allows you to track how successful your modifications to the process are. Combined with the detective mind-set in process mapping, Six Sigma seeks to measure not everything but the most impactful portions of a process.

Again, you need not learn all the statistical nuances of Six Sigma to apply your benchmarking in an intelligent manner before you start modifying a process or system and using it as a tool to track the results of your change efforts. This modeling can also be used after a project is complete to ensure any gains are retained and to provide an early warning signal for new problems or disruptions.

While these three tools may seem overly simplistic for a methodology that remains shrouded in mystery for many, they should provide a few concrete tools you can apply for your project, or perhaps serve as a gateway for exploring Six Sigma at your company. I would encourage anyone taking the latter path to realize that Six Sigma will not be the answer to every one of your problems, and one of the biggest risks to many companies is that Six Sigma is seen as a magic cure-all for every problem, which rapidly results in disappointment. Engage the services of a pragmatic adviser (preferably one not in the business of selling Six Sigma certifications) or borrow whatever pieces of the toolkit you see as relevant, and you can soon reap some of the benefits of Six Sigma, no multicolored belts required.

Are you currently practicing Six Sigma or would you like to get started? Six Sigma templates for IT is a comprehensive collection of educational documents, calculators, tools, and templates that will teach you how to improve the speed and quality of IT processes in your company.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

14 comments
Toadcheese
Toadcheese

I just saw this over 2 weeks late! I won't debate which are the best tools in the L6S tool chest, but I will tell you that 5-Whys and genchi gembutsu (Go see it happen) have been the simplest, most influential exercises at the time Leadership says "we have a problem - we need to build a project to solve it".

abdelrahman22
abdelrahman22

Good illustration ans simple. just wonder when to apply six sigma and what is the steps in aproject, iam working on construction project so how to implement this method for improving quality?

cd613
cd613

it going to be replaced with something better very soon

donstrayer
donstrayer

6 sigma is actually 3.4 defects per million opportunities, understanding that an "opportunity" is a value added operation during the process which could result in error. I learned 6 sigma over a decade ago. Like you I've found that people often make it way too complicated and doctrinaire, insisting that you use a certain set of tools and statistics whether or not they make sense for your partiuclar project. I'd advise any PM to become familiar with the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) problem solving approach and to pick up a book that provides an overview of SS tools (there are well over 100 of them in the toolkit). But only learn more about and use ones that help you achieve project goals.

SrikanthSR
SrikanthSR

My understanding of six sigma quality amounts to ~3 defects per million opportunities. Not sure if 1 error per million iterations means the same. Nonetheless, I agree with you that the method is very robust, common sense oriented (which appears not common!) and very much aligned to Deming/Schewart PDCA. Unfortunately many folks don't appreciate simple things for whatever reasons they may have. I got trained in Six Sigma methodology way back in 1995 and till date I adopt this practice in all the work that I do. It works for me because ?I believe in it? and is commons sense oriented. In fact I started liking statistics only after attending the first training on introduction to six sigma by Motorola University. Unfortunately, these days this has boiled down only to getting certification the so called "black belts" and "master black belts" coming out of the trainings are making merry at the cost of ignorance of several big organizations/customers. This is my humble opinion based on my personal experience of having interviewed many of them in the last five years. I have also come across several good professional black belts and master black belts. However the number of good professionals are very few as compared to other population which is floating in the industry. Only knowledgeable leaders can make a difference in bringing this cultural change. If Leaders of the organizations are not equipped to ask the right questions, PMs will not be motivated to apply these simple, effective and constructive methods/techniques.

wanharris
wanharris

Six Sigma is a measurement that emphasise on cultural change such as breaking down barriers between departments and employee empowerment. It demands perfection by driving out variation using data-based decision making and systematic statistical method. It controls the process by getting the requirements. However, Six Sigma can be very complicated system as it is difficult to gather sufficient data. The value of reducing variation may not actually be worth the time and money, especially when time is an important factor.

Clive_Billinghurst
Clive_Billinghurst

Thank you for writing this. Its always good to get an overview of what to expect from learning something and an opinion that is well grounded. Many thanks

dd8989
dd8989

I have used Six Sigma tools to great success on projects. Really allows the ability to drill down into issues and solutions. ROI can be calculated and -- tools to sustain improvements. PMs can add substantial value to their portfolio of tools and to the business by obtaining their Six Sigma Green Belt certifications.

kluse
kluse

Great to read a discussion of some of the practical process improvement tools we're already using in the context of Six Sigma methods... indeed they may be pillars of the 'gateway' into the more esoteric and specialized aspects of it

mckinnej
mckinnej

I love your opening line. "Many good management ideas and methodologies have taken on religious proportions, with their own self-appointed gurus and ?preachers,? and an esoteric set of terminology and traditions that make them seem foreign and unapproachable to the layman." So very true. Sadly many (most?) of these good ideas have been warped into tools designed to guarantee revenue streams for consultants. (A similar situation exists for individual certifications.) It's refreshing to see someone publish a common sense approach to the complicated monstrosity of Six Sigma. If a person wants to eat fresh tomatoes they don't have to buy a farm. A pot on the patio is all they need. Sadly most management ideologies are pitched with the exact opposite approach. Consultants push the "full monty" because it means a fat wallet for them. Managers, and especially executives, need to be savvy enough to understand how to dissect the methodology, take the pieces they need, and leave the rest by the curb. Of course this approach will not win any certifications and will also garner criticism and ridicule from the zealots. If none of that matters to you, then press on.

SrikanthSR
SrikanthSR

Jokes needs to be first understood before someone can appreciate it. It doesn't really matter "what replaces what" as long as one understands the basics. Long live Common Sense (which is not common) and PDCA. There is a good old saying which states that "a process or a tool is only as good as the person using it".

SrikanthSR
SrikanthSR

I delibrately used ~3 instead of 3.4 since, to me, .4 defect sounds odd. Albeit I know the figure is arrived as a result of normalizing it to million opportunity, I always quote 3 defects/million opportunity.

JSPeak
JSPeak

I agree witht he sentiment but question the limit of noting only 3 tools. FMEA, Cause and Effect (Fishbone diagrams, Control Charts, Kano models, House of quality are all viable tools easily portable between traditional project management and Six Sigma.