Motorola wasn’t about to let the auto industry take all the credit for project management innovation, so decades after Toyota’s introduction of Kanban, the mobile phone company’s engineer Bill Smith created Six Sigma in 1986. It’s a more structured version of Lean than Kanban, one that sets specific stages and adds in more planning to save resources, ship quality products, and eliminate bugs and problems along the way.
The ultimate end goal is to make customers happy with a quality product, which is done through continuous improvement heavily reliant on data analysis. You ship parts of your project along the way, while at the same time address product pitfalls that come up—something very similar to the Apollo project’s workflow.
Six Sigma Structure
This is accomplished through Six Sigma’s five steps, known as “DMEDI”: Define, Measure, Explore (or analyze), Develop (or improve) and Control.
- Define: This first step is much like the initial steps in other project management frameworks. Everyone determines the scope of the project, gets information from all sides, and determines what the business goals are (for example, sales).
- Measure: Because Six Sigma is big on data, the measurement stage establishes the nature in which the team will calculate progress—your overall goals. Seeing the rate of success—the value to the consumer as well as the business—as a quantifiable thing is at the core of Six Sigma.
- Explore: During the exploration stage, it’s up to the project manager to figure out the ways in which the team can meet and exceed product requirements. This keeps you from going over budget and missing deadlines. If something didn’t work last time, it’s likely not going to work this time, so project managers (PMs) have to be adept at thinking outside of the box.
- Develop: It’s only at this fourth step is a strategic plan is put in place. And it’s a detailed one—anything that will or might be needed to get the job done finds a place somewhere in this plan. Most of the project’s momentum occurs here, because you apply the plan, work on the next project map, and measure results as you go.
- Control: The last stage is about long-term improvement, which is what a Six Sigma project strives for. A documented review full of lessons learned is applied throughout the company, and to future projects, as well.
It’s much like a Kanban approach, only this time with set stages for the project that make you plan, define goals, and test for quality at each stage. You’ll likely end up with more meetings than Kanban calls for, but you’ll also have a far more structured way to approach each task. And just like Kanban, you can customize the phases for what your project needs—you’ll just need to keep the measure and control steps in place if you want to learn from past projects and continually improve your processes.
Six Sigma Strengths
Six Sigma runs a tight ship, which can help you continually improve your processes and ship better results. By defining the goals and then reviewing them later, you’ll have objective data to measure project success with—something that’s far better than just going on intuition. While gathering and learning from data can take up a significant amount of time, you’ll be able to learn from what you’ve done and improve your work in the future—and that’s where time and quality savings should come in.
There are plenty of scenarios in which the job is never really done—that’s where Six Sigma shines. It helps you ship your tasks, learn from them, and improve the next time around.
Six Sigma Weaknesses
Project manager seem to have similar gripes about Six Sigma: cost savings are the goal but not guaranteed since customer satisfaction will take precedence. If you’re continually adjusting your goals with each task in the project, it’s easy to let things spiral out of control even while you’re trying to ship your best possible work.
Then, Six Sigma’s underlying motto that good is never good enough can be frustrating for some, who may feel like the ghost of continuous improvement never brings them the satisfaction of finalizing a job well done. Some project may only be done once, and the focus on metrics and incremental improvements may seem unnecessary there.