The Six Sigma Spell – When NOT To Cast IT

Six sigma BlogAs a career IT professional in the financial services industry, my meanderings have taken me from company to company to work on an assortment of IT projects. I’m typically brought in at that very first turning-of-the-tide that occurs between closing the deal on the “Big Idea” and the launch of the project. It’s at this point where the magicians in every organization contemplate the project’s first decision. “How are we going to deliver this?”

For some the answer is clear. They simply invoke their well-structured, regularly employed delivery process that has been matured and polished with all manner of process improvement tools and feedback. While I myself have never actually encountered this type of project, the idea of its existence keeps me in the game. This white-rhino of projects is identifiable by its distinguishing features including a bottomless budget, achievable deadlines, and endless Diet Pepsi in all vending machines. For the rest, the processes used to deliver a project are as highly and widely customized as the project scope itself. The most exciting variant occurs when the delivery process is established on the fly, Agile-Agile style.

In an effort to remedy this, you’ve likely seen one of the Wizards of Delivery, wand raised, casting the spell “Six-Sigmium Leviosa” to the delight of project stakeholders whose expectations for Six Sigma have, through no shortage of hype and artful marketing, grown to consider it THE end-all-be-all of project delivery. The truth is, it’s not.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an incredibly useful toolset for measuring and maturing almost any repeatable process. I’ve encountered it on far more engagements than I care to admit and I have enjoyed the benefits that it can provide IF it has the benefit of its one critical pre-requisite. Friends, in order apply Six Sigma to your process you simply have to have a delivery process to begin with. Moreover, this process has to be repeatable and actually repeated for any of this to work.

In my experience, most don’t have a repeatable process in place for delivery. How can you tell if you do? When the rate of revolutionary delivery process change outpaces the rate of minor tweaks and adjustments, you can be confident that you don’t have a repeatable delivery process in place.

So what if you don’t? In my humble opinion, it becomes a question of what to invest in, and when. While the fact that well implemented Six Sigma practices have provided benefits to countless clients is indisputable, for many, it may make far more sense to invest in establishing a repeatable process before investing in the means to measure and mature one.