Applying Six Sigma to IT operations

Some of the largest IT organizations are looking trim and vigorous these days. It’s no miracle cure or diet of the month. It’s a particular piece of process methodology called Six Sigma.Six Sigma is a defect reduction methodology that transforms organizations by forcing them to focus on the quality of the customer experience.

he term sigma refers to deviations from an ideal level of operation, where each level of sigma, starting from one, allows for fewer defects. Sigma six, the operational equivalent of nirvana, allows a mere 3.4 defects per million outputs. If you’re in manufacturing, that means 999,996.6 flaw-free widgets. If you’re in IT, that means fewer servers, faster call response times and better project delivery.

Having got its start in manufacturing at Motorola Inc. in the 1980s, Six Sigma spread to nuts-and-bolts powerhouses like AlliedSignal, General Electric Co. and Honeywell International Inc. But now CIOs at companies of all disciplines are adopting Six Sigma for its fact-based, quantifiable insistence on continuous improvement and its ability to doggedly root out and improve defects in processes.

“Six Sigma isn’t just a manufacturing thing. It can be applied to the financial services industry very effectively,” says Doug Sutton, president of Fidelity Wide Processing, where the methodology is delivering cost reductions and quality improvements in the range of 20 per cent to 50 per cent across the board. “A lot of our potential customers are asking if we use it. They want to know if we’re focused on business process improvement, and the answer is yes.”

On the numbers side, Six Sigma provides CIOs with an objective, measurable way to justify technology investments; on the karma side, it serves as a judgment-free common language between IT and other project stakeholders within the company.

Addressing quality

Six Sigma has a lot of normally staid CIOs excited for a good reason: quality is back on the corporate radar in a big way. “We’ve cut so far into IT in the past couple of years that we’re starting to see some quality problems,” says Val Sribar, a Meta Group Inc. senior vice-president. “If you’re smart about where you apply (Six Sigma), if you apply it to your core disciplines, it makes a lot of sense right now.”

Still, wary and weary CIOs, especially those who have endured both the 1990s flavour-of-the-month management mania and the apparently endless post-bubble budget crises, are justified in wondering if Six Sigma is right for them.

Six Sigma users insist it works for all types of companies and in all functions, but they do admit there are a few times when the methodology won’t take. If your resources have truly been cut beyond the point of pain, now isn’t the time – not because you don’t need Six Sigma’s benefits (you probably do, more than ever) but because burned-out staffers and stressed-out managers aren’t likely to be able to give the regimen its due.

While very small IT shops can benefit from Six Sigma’s approach to error reduction, they’ll have to wait to see quantifiable benefits. “There’s still applicability, but it will take a small shop a long time to know whether they’ve reduced their defects to three in a million, just because it’s going to take longer to get to that first million,” observes Matt Light, a research director at Gartner Inc.

And finally, every single IT professional experienced with Six Sigma emphasizes that it absolutely, positively requires top-down buy-in. Six Sigma is an executive-directed transformation tool, and if senior management isn’t interested or willing to personally sponsor the strategy, it’s going to fail.

Translating to IT

Despite its origin in manufacturing, Six Sigma isn’t about widgets; the focus is on processes. When applied to IT operations, Six Sigma aims to measure and improve both internal processes, such as network speed and reliability, and line-of-business processes in which IT has a role, such as how well an online ordering system is working.

“IT is a big user of processes: testing and hardware implementation and software development,” says Doug Debrecht, vice president and CIO at Raytheon Aircraft, where the entire IT workforce has had some form of Six Sigma training. “Six Sigma has given us a good toolset that we can use consistently and repeatedly to analyze how we have things set up and running.”

Six Sigma analysis tends to begin with the formulation of a problem statement. One Six Sigma team at Raytheon, for example, was charged with analyzing why the division had what Debrecht admits was “an ungodly number” of servers – 350. “We needed to figure out a way to consolidate and be smarter in how we deployed our servers,” he says.

The Six Sigma team determined the root cause of the problem – that each application got its own server, regardless of its size or bandwidth requirements – and then worked out the specifics to allow applications to share servers logically and securely. The result: a 40 per cent consolidation in servers, with the attendant time and labour savings added back to the bottom line.

The methodology breaks down problem evaluation into five distinct steps: define, measure, analyze, improve and control. Practitioners call this rubric DMAIC for short, pronounced “de-MAY-ick.”

Tools and measures

At each of the DMAIC steps, organizations apply appropriate tools and measures from a wide variety of choices. Some, such as histo-grams, Pareto charts and Scatter diagrams, may already be familiar to IT. Others, which boast names such as Voice of the Customer or House of Quality, probably aren’t, though CIOs report that these customer-centric tools are often the ones they find most enlightening. Textron used the DMAIC process and the Voice of the Customer tool, among others, to tackle data-centre sprawl. “We found we had over 80 data centres inside our company,” says Ken Bohlen, Textron’s executive vice-president and chief innovation officer. “We used Voice of the Customer to canvass our customer base and ask some very specific questions,” such as what critical information was stored where. By making customer needs the top priority, Textron has been able to consolidate or shut down 40 of the data centres, which were supporting legacy or underused applications. Bohlen hops to get down to five data centres.

Selling Six Sigma

For all their enthusiasm, CIOs acknowledge that the most difficult aspect of Six Sigma may well be trying to sell its benefits to the rank and file, many of whom have lived through too many rah-rah kickoffs in the conference room to embrace any more management initiatives.

Six Sigma can certainly turn into some executive’s pet leadership strategy that’s launched and forgotten three months down the line. But if it’s done right, practitioners say, Six Sigma stimulates a fundamental change in the way an organization conducts business and makes decisions.

So what’s the best way to introduce that change? Maybe not at all. Fidelity Wide Processing’s Sutton is a fan of the show-first-tell-later strategy. When Six Sigma was new to his organization, he sometimes shunned the words Six Sigma or training or quality.

“We don’t come in with touchy-feely training and have (skeptics) say, ‘Oh yeah, right, Six Sigma,'” Sutton says. “We say, let’s talk about your business problems. You need to drive improvements in your business, and we’re going to show you how to do it.”

And that, Sutton says, reels them in every time.

Six Sigma best practices for IT

Pick the right people Workers trained in Six Sigma techniques act like internal SWAT teams, coming together to tackle a given process, then breaking apart and reforming, often in a different configuration, to undertake the next challenge. Depending on what level of Six Sigma training employees have undergone, they’re known as green belts, brown belts or black belts, with black belts most often deployed to lead a team or tackle projects on their own. It’s important to tap motivated employees for training, which produces a high-performance team and at the same time signals that Six Sigma is part of an upward career path. “If you grab the C- and D-level players because you can spare them, you’re sending the wrong message,” says Textron’s Bohlen. “We started with the best and brightest, and showed that (Six Sigma training) accelerated their careers. Now I have a waiting list of people wanting to get black belt training.” It is beneficial for trainees to take a project with them into training or to start something right after.

Don’t substitute Six Sigma for thinking For IT staffers particularly, the urge is strong to first use tools they know (that is, technology) before dipping into untried methodologies. Resist that urge, counsels Fidelity Wide Processing’s Sutton. “If you just throw technology at a business problem, all you wind up with is a bad process with new technology. If you wring out the process first, then you can really use technology to move it to a higher level.”

Don’t be afraid to tinker While the philosophy behind Six Sigma is, or should be, sacrosanct – focus on the customer, reduce defects, streamline and improve processes, evaluate continuously – you needn’t treat the tactics and tools as if they’re set in stone. Many big companies, including Honeywell and Textron, have their own internal “brands” of Six Sigma that have been tailored to their line of business and oftentimes combined with Lean, another manufacturing technique designed to weed out non-value-adding subprocesses. Other organizations fine-tune the DMAIC model as needed. At the toolset level, Raytheon’s Debrecht says his teams have wide latitude when it comes to suggesting which measures are appropriate for which projects. “We use brainstorming, value mapping, fishbone diagrams and something we call the ‘five whys’ to help us get to the root cause of an issue,” he says. Textron’s Bohlen gives that approach a thumbs-up. “Six Sigma is a system of tools,” he says. “There’s no prescribed set. You have to determine what you want to bring to your workforce before you choose your tools.” One word of warning: a cautious CIO might be tempted to try a little bit of Six Sigma here and there to see if it works. That’s a mistake.

Don’t get bogged down in numbers Like any other measurement-based system, Six Sigma can be driven into the ground by too many numbers. “All that statistical analysis that the black belts use, all those data points don’t add up unless you understand what you’re measuring,” says Gartner’s Light. The “define” phase in DMAIC is, in his opinion, probably the most important part of the discipline, and it’s the one that involves the fewest metrics. “Chartering the team and specifying who the customers are and defining what a good experience is and what’s a defect, that’s where the value is,” he says.

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