When Six Sigma is not the answer

Written by Ian James, Mar 3, 2016

Six Sigma is not the answer to every process problem and gets more unsuitable the further away you get from manufacturing. 

Sketch of martial arts perfomer being warned off approaching by office building

I recently did a one-day process audit for a client. This is where I take a high level survey of the current health of their business processes. Usually the client already knows they have a problem perhaps because they have noticed one of several warning signs.  What I provide is mostly independent confirmation. (Shameless plug: The day ends with a whiteboard presentation: what I found, ways to get things straightened out).

The client was a law firm. Business was good and growing rapidly. They were an experienced and smart bunch of people but they were exhausted. What had worked as a set of processes in quieter times, worked no longer. There were the usual signs: insane amounts of email. Reams of paper. Endless status meetings. And one of my favorite tells, a plethora of tracking spreadsheets.

Most worryingly, there were signs that they were dropping the ball for clients. Ironic really. Their very success was threatening to drive them into mediocrity.

Is Six Sigma the right approach?

So when they called me in, they knew they had a process problem. That was the good news. The bad news was they were convinced they needed a Six Sigma initiative.

In case you don’t know, Six Sigma is a very well established and successful process improvement method.  It has a lot of really useful concepts, tools and approaches to solving difficult process issues.

That said, Six Sigma has its roots in manufacturing. It works best when there are cookie-cutter type processes and in real life situations that is not always the case.

This is often a surprise to those who place too much faith in one process methodology. In theory however,  while there was some degree of variation in the law firm processes, Six Sigma may have still been a good approach.

When Six Sigma is not the answer

As it happens, I got to sit in on a status meeting within minutes of arriving at the client’s offices. This consisted of everyone updating everyone else on cases and making decisions about which cases to prioritize, which to put on the back burner. Someone was updating a spreadsheet that was showing on a massive TV screen.

There were hundreds of active cases. Many were on hold, waiting for outside parties or for court dates. Most of the meeting was spent just establishing where things were. Only then could people make decisions about what to do and whom to allocate to do the next task.

This was my first clue about what the real problem was here. Maybe it was not the processes. What if it was the sheer volume of cases flowing through the processes?  What was abundantly clear is that there were few cookie-cutter processes here.

I could see that the meeting was performing three vital functions:

  1. Make things visible

  2. Re-order the priorities as needed

  3. Load balance resources

This kind of meeting goes on in conference rooms all over North America. Probably the entire planet. It is a tremendous waste of time. Also, deadly dull.

People Make for Messy Processes

When I looked at the individual processes, there was not much I could see to improve the actual steps in the sequence.  I did identify other non-cookie cutter type issues. One of the killer problems was communication. People did not know when someone else had done their bit in a process. So there was no way of knowing the ball was in their court. This is a classic hand-off problem. There is nothing  to trigger the next action.

Once you get away from manufacturing and into services and/or consultation, process become far less predictable. It was clear that the time had come for me to explain to the managing partner that Six Sigma is not the answer to all business process problems.  Since my approach was going to take a lot less consulting hours than the typical Six Sigma project, she was happy to at least consider it. The idea that Six Sigma was the right solution began to fade.

Ultimately, we did not try to improve the individual processes using Six Sigma. Instead, we switched the focus to improving the management of the processes. Strictly speaking, we improved the management of instances of the process. Each case in this context being an instance.

What we wanted to do was find a way to make the status meeting more productive. We needed a solution that gave us three outcomes. First, greater visibility.  Then it had to allow us to re-order the priorities and balance the workload.  Whatever  it was it could not create a big admin burden to do all this.

Finally, we needed some way to hand off the work with some kind of non-email dependent trigger.

The solution was relatively simple. We got rid of the spreadsheet and replaced it with a simple task management application. Not every one loved it at first. And that is typical but temporary.

After a few days, people could see the benefits of the task manager. It allowed them to update things as soon as they happened. It cut down on their email. But I think what sealed the deal was the sense of control it gave every one. Reducing the uncertainty of not knowing if they were missing something helped everyone across the firm feel better about their jobs.

We soon had enough users on board so that it took hold very quickly. That meant that the status meeting was just about priorities and load balancing. I was still getting thank you emails months later. Very gratifying.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

It’s not that Six Sigma is not a good method for process improvement. Sometimes the problem is not so much with an individual process.  It could be that there are too many processes.  Or just too many instances of a single process. Theoretically, all the process could be perfect.  But there would still be problems of visibility, prioritization and capacity.

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