Six Sigma in IT

by Joy Blackwell

Six Sigma

Many quality and process improvement initiatives have graced the IT world over the years.  We are still in the middle of some of these initiatives’ acronyms-galore:  Agile, BPM, BRM, CASE, CMMI, Extreme, ITIL, ISO9001, RUP, SOA, etc.  Many IT organizations see their benefits and are quick to jump into the bandwagon.  However, interests wane as quickly as the next acronym starts to buzz around the hallways of IT management.   Is Six Sigma just another fad to grace the runway of CIO offices and magazines, only to melt away to the heat of another upcoming major initiative?  Is it just a fictional tale from the imagination of manufacturing folks, but somehow does not apply to IT processes?

In technical terms, Six Sigma is a disciplined business improvement approach that uses Statistical Process Control (SPC) techniques to maximize customer satisfaction.  It measures the success of all activities undertaken within the process under study, based on how well the activities meet customer requirements.  Six Sigma, as a total philosophy, may be relatively new (it began in Motorola in the mid-1980’s), but the concept of quality and Statistical Process Control that it embodies has been in place for almost a century.   Six Sigma started in manufacturing where the practice of Statistical Process Control (SPC) is already adopted.  The IT community has been slow in adopting SPC into its processes, somehow thinking that it does not apply.

Actually each of the above-mentioned acronyms represents an initiative towards business improvement that has merits of its own.  The problem with most of them is not with the idea but what comes with the package.  Most, if not all, of them are focused on methodology.  Yes! Some methodologies even come with ‘Best Practice’ standard processes that serve as a good starting point for most organizations.  Some focus on flexibility to customer requirements.  They provide generic high-level guidelines and then each customer can do as it pleases.  They also provide templates for documenting deliverables throughout the process.  All of these are well and good, but what is missing?  Answer: objective metrics!

Methodologies in today’s market range from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ to ‘flexibility ad nauseam’ features.  ‘One-size-fits-all’ methodologies provide very good guidelines and process performance measures if followed strictly.  The question is whether they can adapt fast enough to changing customer requirements.  The good thing about flexibility is that you can adapt it as close as possible to the required need.  The difficulty is in establishing a standard metric for every step throughout your process.  There are too many variables.  Best Practice standards can only remain the best if measures are in place to record history of performance.  Also, the focus of most document templates in the market today is descriptive text rather than objective, measurable results.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the ‘Belt’ (Green Belt to Master Black Belt) levels in Six Sigma and all the training required from staff to executives of the organization.  All of these may seem daunting to you at first and the foremost question that burns in your mind is ‘Can we afford to have all this?’  The question should be ‘Can we afford not to?’  The fast pace of today’s modern business is driven not only by increasing demand for better customer service, but also by fierce competition and an even faster pace in technology advancement.  All of these pressures push IT organizations beyond their normal working capacity.  Before long, customers are moving to the competition (outsourcing for internal IT organizations), employees are leaving and vendors are terminating contracts in favor of better deals, again with the competition.

Now you think this is probably not economically feasible for your IT group.  Do not lose heart.  If you sift through the rubble of hype, you might realize you already have some, if not most, of the elements required to launch a Six Sigma caliber organization.  I am not saying Six Sigma is all hype or that it is easy or simple.  I say its key strengths are meant to complement and enforce, not replace any of the famous ‘acronym-ed’ initiatives, which you may already have.   All too often we jump to setting new standards and solutions.  Six Sigma trains us into the habit of starting with what we have as a baseline process, keeping metrics as we go along and making improvements always towards the target customer satisfaction index.  The key is to have (1) measurable targets and goals to aim for and (2) the tools for measurement analysis.