Does Six Sigma Help or Hurt Business Transformation?


I've never been that interested in Six Sigma, beyond thinking it would be cool to be a black belt in anything, even process improvement. A few years back, when I sat through several presentations with large financial institutions that were using it, it struck me as a particularly rigid and inflexible framework, although I do agree with its idea of making quantified financial goals a focus of improvement efforts.


Here at IT Business Edge, I've written about it sporadically at best, focusing more on ITIL, COBIT and other improvement frameworks utilized more often by IT professionals. Way back in 2006, the research director of iSixSigma Magazine confirmed in an interview with me that Six Sigma hadn't gained much traction with IT pros. "Well, no wonder" I thought, when he told me Six Sigma was more commonly applied to IT processes at companies that outsourced IT functions.


He said:

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.

He contended Six Sigma and IT managment were "closely related" as both required close alignment with a company's strategic priorities and goals to be successful.


Interestingly, HCL Technologies CEO Vineet Nayar recently implied that many U.S. university graduates lacked the kinds of skills needed to succeed in IT, including a grounding in methodologies like Six Sigma. One of the folks who commented on my blog post about Nayar's remarks was a reader named Joshua, who said he was a recent graduate who has been working at the same company since a third-year internship. He wrote:

I find the most stupid part of his remarks was suggesting that Six Sigma is somehow more important than developing the next big thing. Although I do a lot of boring work, my desire (and others) to IMPROVE OUR PRODUCT has driven most of the genuine improvements to our code. On the other hand, the countless resources we have wasted on Six Sigma and SAS70 compliance have probably made our stuff worse, as our management makes token gestures to fit the official definition of "best practices."

In another of my posts, from 2007, I cited a couple of Six Sigma critics. Consultant David Taber, in a SandHill.com piece, wrote that Six Sigma didn't work well in product development efforts because focus would likely shift away from customer input and result in overly complex specifications. The EVP of a company called QualPro (which, skepticism alert, has its own process improvement mthodology called MVT) had a number of beefs with Six Sigma. Among them: Six Sigma initiatives can be costly. It tends to yield small, incremental improvements rather than breakthrough transformations. Six Sigma takes responsibility for improvement away from the line organization and assigns it to a Six Sigma expert or two, which he said "tends to dilute the effectiveness of performance improvement efforts."


A BusinessWeek article from the same year featured some quotes that implied Six Sigma's reputation had gotten tarnished after one of its staucnhest champions, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, retired from that company. While it can help cut costs and boost profits, it can stifle innovation, said Babson College professor Tom Davenport, who added that process management should be "leavened a bit with a focus on innovation and (customer relationships)."


The definition of Six Sigma in IT Business Edge's Knowledge Network doesn't exactly make me want to rush out and get my black belt. A more friendly view of Six Sigma is also found in the Knowledge Network, in this Six Sigma fact sheet from ITBE partner The Art of Service.


I am admittedly no expert. I'd be interested in hearing about other folks' experiences with Six Sigma, both good and bad.