Monday, May 26, 2008

PM Meets 6σ

Six Sigma is a tool of choice for companies working to improve quality, process time, and customer satisfaction. Borne out of the manufacturing environment, Six Sigma today can be found across nearly all sectors of business. Banks use it, software developers swear by it as do service industries. It is a mature protocol with a wealth of knowledge content that can be adapted by any organization, large or small.

Regardless of what the business of your business is and how evolved it is, beginning a Six Sigma effort will bring changes. The Six Sigma process forces a rigorous evaluation of every facet of operations. As a result, organizational culture may become stressed causing shifts in working methodologies, process design, and efforts to enhance teamwork and communication to name just a few. It is a bit ironic that these very positive changes are sometimes impossible to measure because of their “soft” nature, although they result from a system of disciplined measurement, analysis, and correction.

The application of Six Sigma is becoming more prevalent in the Project Management realm, and can have direct positive benefit to virtually the entire PM process. There are a few specific suggestions to improve the quality of your Six Sigma effort.

Developing a solid Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) brings clarity. Charting and comparing old and new methods and processes improves visibility and spotlights key opportunities. Achieving that helps ensure that stakeholders are informed, the right resources are engaged, and that consensus is attained in the earliest stages.

Put your project planning process under the microscope. As Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, the Devil is in the details (so is God, by the way, but that’s another story). In the project planning continuum we deal with tasks, sequences, costs, resources, and contracts. Each one of these has a myriad of details, each a chance for that mischievous guy we call Murphy to work his ill. But Murphy only gets into the room if you leave the door open to him. Knowing that you know the details, in detail, brings confidence and keeps him out.

Increase your Risk Management focus. Since we have all experienced the effects of the aforementioned Murphy’s Law, we know that in hindsight we most often say “I should have seen that coming.” Why didn’t you see it? Probably because you skimped on the Risk Management portion of the project planning process. A key part of project planning is to develop a list of “what ifs?” What if management approval is delayed beyond the scheduled date? What if the critical long lead component is delayed out of the factory? What if one of the subcontractors doesn’t perform? What if field conditions consume contingency money early? And so on and so on. You know what I’m talking about. Each foreseeable risk should be quantified in terms of scale, probability, and impact, and a work out plan developed in advance.

Be intentional about PM skills and career development. Good projects require strong leaders and smooth functioning teams. Technical skills, people skills, specialty knowledge, and the abilities to both develop consensus and motivate agreeable participation from those who may not naturally be so inclined are important. These are the hallmarks of good leaders. Look for these traits in your PM staff and invest in them when you find them.

Water from the top, grow from the bottom. That is my silly way of saying that Six Sigma must have strong executive sponsorship, but bears the best results when it transitions to a grass roots effort with widespread participation and enthusiastic acceptance. Easy to say, you say, and you are correct. It is not easy to do. It requires a vision and commitment from the top, and will only truly be successful when it is part of the organization’s DNA. Common languages, standards, metrics, processes and the like all contribute to this commonality and shared vision.

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