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.