24 Jun Part 6 Project Performance – Get on the path to continuous improvement
6 Sigma – the Greeks would be proud
So how many boards can you break with one whack? Or, a better question might be, how many projects can you juggle at one time? Even more important – what projects are on your plate? Are they the ones that will best improve your organization’s position in the marketplace? If not, read on, 6 Sigma might be for you!
6 Sigma (6σ) is a program of continuous improvement that focuses on customer requirements. Sigma refers to the Greek symbol “σ,” which represents the amount of variation in a process. The lower the variation, the fewer defective parts are produced and the fewer repair calls you need to make. The ultimate goal is to eliminate defects and errors and their associated costs.
After defining which performance measures represent your critical requirements, data are collected on the number of defects and then translated into a sigma number. A sigma of 6 translates to 3.4 defects per million opportunities. It’s common to find 3σ to 4σ levels in manufacturing processes, and 2σ to 3σ in transactional businesses. Moving from 3σ to 4σ could be classified as continuous improvement. The breakthrough occurs when a process is improved to the 6σ level – almost perfect quality.
In real terms, daily mail delivery at the 4σ level would result in the loss of 20,000 pieces each hour. If it were at the 6σ level, the result would be the loss of only seven pieces of mail each hour. The 3σ level relates to one typo per page. At 6σ, we’re talking about only one typo in a small library. If you play two rounds of golf per week, 6σ means missing only one putt every 163 years. Look out, Tiger!
The chart below shows what the sigma level means in terms of numbers of defects and yields.
While 6σ is a methodology to reduce common-cause variation in business processes, it’s not a cure for the cultural ills of an organization. It leads to improvements in organization and management, but may not address the cultural undercurrents that can scuttle any project.
As the story goes, 6σ had its birth at Motorola in 1979 when executive Art Sundry stood up at meeting and said, “The real problem here is that our quality stinks!” At a time, when most organizations thought quality cost big bucks and wasn’t worth the investment, Motorola realized that done right, quality improved the bottom line by reducing cost. 6σ first focuses on improving quality through the use of exact measurements to anticipate problems, not just react to them – to be proactive rather than reactive.
What an organization does by adopting 6σ is to challenge what “everybody knows.” It’s a proactive philosophy that helps anticipate possible problems in a process so errors and defects won’t happen in the first place. 6σ challenges the maxim, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
There are five basic phases to a 6σ analysis: define, measure, analyze, improve and control.
The questions I’ve gotten many times are centered on how project management relates to 6σ. Do you have a 6σ project management methodology? What’s the relationship between 6σ and project management?
First, an effective 6σ implementation requires effective project management. Second, excellence in project management requires constant improvement over time, which is best achieved by applying 6σ principles.
Another way to think about it is that 6σ measures, defines and statistically supports what must be improved while project management measures, defines and supports how the improvements are made. 6σ and project management are synergistic in nature. Both competencies are needed for success. 6σ requires competence in business strategy, market alignment and process engineering while project management requires competence of the individual, the team and the organization.
Are you ready for 6σ? Take a rain check if your organization displays the following symptoms:
Resistance to change – Most prevalent at management levels, either active or passive.
Blame/credit mentality – Another way of saying lack of teamwork. Are people more concerned about getting credit for their ideas (or more likely, covering their rear ends) than getting better?
Rigid, hierarchical organization structure – Are upper levels of management far removed from where the work actually occurs? Do they know or can they articulate customer requirements to the lowest levels of the organization?
Low staff appreciation – Does management insulate itself from the comments and suggestions of the troops?
Inability to dedicate project resources – Can the organization afford black belts?
Inability to measure – The symptom here is not just the lack of measurement experience, but the cultural inability to take an objective look at how things are going.
6σ implementation is a project. Like other large-scale projects, success requires the commitment of senior management with a project champion/sponsor to assemble resources, open bottlenecks and instill a vision. Scope, both included and excluded, must be clearly defined and adhered to. Resources must be sufficient and critical paths defined. Management is engaged. People are accountable.
What can you do? Integrate 6σ concepts into your project methodology. Understand how relevant it is at each phase in the project lifecycle and where it can help achieve better results. Integrate 6σ concepts within a project office. Many organizations are achieving better project results through the infrastructure of a PMO. A continuous improvement and error-free philosophy can greatly enhance a PMO’s service level. Integrate quality plans up front. Learn to better define goals. Assess project deliverables and the quality standards that apply.
So far we’ve covered TQM, TOC, COBIT, CMM and 6σ. The next article will summarize, compare and review the aforementioned methods and identify several more options for continuous improvement.
Michael J. Weymier, PMP, is founder of PM Maturity and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.