Ann All spoke with Michael Marx, research manager for iSixSigma, online content provider for the Six Sigma community and iSixSigma Magazine [www.isixsigma-magazine.com], and founder and editor of www.SixSigmaCompanies.com, where he provides "the Six Sigma scoop" on deployments at companies around the world.
All: Only 17 percent of the respondents to a recent iSixSigma survey said they "always" or "usually" use Six Sigma to improve IT processes. Were you surprised the number wasn't higher?
Marx: I was not surprised, given the historically slow rate of Six Sigma adoption among IT professionals. Note that in companies that have been using Six Sigma for seven or more years, that number jumps to 41 percent. The Six Sigma methodology has its roots in manufacturing, but has since evolved to become an improvement framework used in a wide variety of disciplines, including areas such as financial services and accounting, software development and sales. We even see private equity firms using Six Sigma in the business acquisition process. But the broader application of Six Sigma to areas outside of manufacturing didn't happen overnight.
In many cases, a company adopts Six Sigma in order to tackle a specific business need - be it to address customer complaints, reduce costs or gain market share. A company's initial Six Sigma efforts will focus on that business need. From there, the Six Sigma deployment spreads out and gains a stronger footing throughout an organization. It takes time for the methodology to be fully utilized in all the functional departments. IT is often one of those functions that Six Sigma gets to over time. We had a large number of respondents (53 percent) from companies with only a year or two of Six Sigma experience, and this influenced the overall results. Having said all that, I am a little surprised that, given the ubiquity of IT to support so many aspects of business operations, there isn't more widespread use of Six Sigma to improve and optimize technology processes.
All: You found that companies that outsource IT functions were more inclined to use Six Sigma for IT processes. Why is this so?
Marx: Outsourcing is not a panacea for broken processes. To most effectively outsource an IT process, there is a significant amount of planning and pre-work required - process documentation, service level agreements, etc. Process improvement is often a necessary step before outsourcing. Six Sigma is an ideal method for making such improvements or simply for guiding process definition. Through the routine use of Six Sigma, companies may be better positioned for outsourcing and, thus, are more likely to use this strategy. Further, if you clean up an IT process first (through Six Sigma), it's easier to determine if it should be outsourced or kept in house. It's hard to say which comes first in companies - IT process outsourcing or Six Sigma - but each can be used in conjunction with the other. I think the process documentation and performance definition required by outsourcing goes hand-in-hand with the process mindset of Six Sigma.
All: Your survey found that 86 percent of respondents who "always" use Six Sigma to improve IT processes were companies that see IT as a key part of corporate strategy. What does this tell us about Six Sigma and its relationship to IT management?
Marx: Six Sigma and IT management are closely related. The management principles that define a successful Six Sigma initiative also define a successful IT initiative. Six Sigma is most effective - in terms of results, buy-in, lasting change - when it is linked to a company's strategic priorities and goals. The same is true with IT. If you are an IT manager in a company for which IT is central to the business strategy, you'll want to be a champion of Six Sigma. Six Sigma and IT are both means for executing business strategy. IT management can be influential in both the development and the execution of strategy.