A Fit for Government IT

The city of Fort Wayne, Ind., enhanced IT processes by embracing Six Sigma. Find out how to implement this methodology.

The city of Fort Wayne, Ind., has embraced Six Sigma methodology in many areas of government and has a well-documented track record. Since 2001, the city has achieved more than $25 million in savings from using Six Sigma practices.

Our implementation has been aided by Scott Lasater, a nationally recognized Six Sigma expert with the TQM Network (Lasater trained former General Electric CEO Jack Welch when the company took a serious interest in the methodology). Former Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard captured many examples of the city's Six Sigma exploits in his book, Performance is the Best Politics.

Some organizations have been reluctant to use the Six Sigma process-improvement methodology. Among the reasons:

  • IT already has several processes, such as Information Technology Infrastructure Library and System Development Life Cycle, and doesn't need another.
  • Six Sigma takes too long to implement, is too complex, requires a degree in statistics and costs too much.
  • Six Sigma is a manufacturing tool.

These are myths. IT does have several process methodologies, but you do not need a lot of statistic courses, time or money to benefit from Six Sigma in your IT shop.

Six Sigma has an arsenal of tools including Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC); Failure Effect Mode Analysis (FEMA); and Design of Experiment (DOE) -- that may seem daunting. But once you spend some time with the experts, you'll wonder why you waited so long.

Good Governance

The DMAIC approach is core to Six Sigma success. Unfortunately, many IT implementations are doomed to underperform. Many IT professionals acknowledge the value of planning, but confess that they are prone to a "fire, aim, ready" project-execution style.

The define phase should be simple enough for IT professionals because we assist in defining projects all the time. In Six Sigma, however, the define phase is like project triage or prioritization. Sadly, in many shops prioritization is given to the department that screams the loudest, is the director's favorite or has the most money.

Best-in-class IT operations have a strong project-governance process. Organizations need to develop the courage to question the return on investment (ROI), asking project managers such questions as:

  • Why do you feel this project fits our mission?
  • Why do you feel this solution is the best solution?
  • Why do you feel this solution is the best fit for our organization?
  • Why should this project move ahead of others?
  • Why do you feel this implementation will meet the ROI?

A healthy governance process must also choose the order in which projects are begun, so another sign of a healthy define phase is a backlog list. The city of Fort Wayne allows all departments to question the enterprise value of each project request. We are continually identifying which project will go next and which will have to wait.

Another Six Sigma tool for project selection is to identify the weakest link. Organizations move at the pace of their slowest process or weakest link. Organizational energy pays greatest dividends when automation is used to reduce the cycle time of the weakest enterprise process. Too often we expend energy on the strongest link, with marginal results on enterprise performance; basically, we sub-optimize. Using the easy-to- implement, low-cost tools mentioned, your IT shop will be on its way to better project selection and definition.

Build a Baseline

Measurements or baselines are extremely important. Successful IT implementations attain an accurate measurement of the current state to compare with a future state to ensure that goals are achieved. Without a credible baseline, identifying success is at best a guess, or at worst, falls way short of project potential. With credible measures of success, IT practitioners will be able to quantify which path to resolution will provide the best result.

Additionally, collecting baseline information helps the organization identify noise in the process, a special case or a process out of control. Tools such as quality standards, measurement systems and control charts are not unique to Six Sigma, but the Six Sigma methodology uses them collectively to amplify their individual strengths.

The IT practitioner analyzes which inputs or factors are likely contributors to the current output and which, if adjusted, would provide the desired course correction.

Reap Results

The improve phase starts with a strong understanding of the prior phases. The IT practitioner prescribes or implements a solution. Best-in-class IT shops will reflect on the measurement phase to ensure that desired results are being achieved while watching for unintended consequences or breakdown in other areas of the process.

The control phase is intended to ensure that expected results are being achieved, but IT practitioners have been known to take shortcuts during this phase. Many shops check progress only once after an implementation, taking the Ronco approach -- "set it and forget it." Best-in-class operations periodically review their implementations to ensure that efforts are still meeting objectives.

Tips for Success

Adopting Six Sigma brings about a cultural change in an organization. Cultural change is slow and requires a champion with the influence and authority, given or assumed, to affect that change.

Using only a few Six Sigma tools, IT practitioners can start quickly and carefully on the low hanging fruit among their projects, demonstrate success and thus slowly change the culture of their organizations. Resist the Big Bang approach to adopting the Six Sigma methodology all at once for everything.

These steps are meant only as a starting point for organizational change. Invest a couple of weeks with an expert or visit the city of Fort Wayne to see first hand how Six Sigma has transformed government.

Engineers at Motorola developed Six Sigma in 1986 as a method for improving processes by eliminating defects. Major corporations, such as Allied Signal (now Honeywell) and General Electric, adopted these methodologies to generate returns.

Steps to Take

Define. Create or strengthen your governance process, selecting projects that have the greatest effect on process improvement.

Measure. Value the data-collection process as the foundation for future improvements. Measure correctly and repeatedly to ensure the accuracy of your baseline.

Analyze. Understand the correlation between cause and effect. Experiment with the settings to achieve optimal results. Utilize IT tools, such as proof of concept and rapid application development, to quickly identify an appropriate course of action.

Improve. Speed implementation by giving the development teams the right resources. Continually reflect on your baseline measurement to ensure that you are trending in the right direction.

Control. Continue your measurement cycle past the implementation with continuous data collection. Dashboards are an effective way to identify a process gone wild. Get in the habit of reviewing lessons learned and using them to move forward.

Help for the Help Desk

For many years, end users have been unsatisfied with the help-desk experience and IT couldn't reduce the number of calls or shrink the cycle to close a help-desk ticket. Using a Six Sigma approach, we reduced the call rate by 25 percent and maintained a 3.65 (out of 4.0) or better customer-satisfaction rating. We analyze help-desk statistics to help us continually improve.

Mar 27 2008