Six Sigma: Let the data lead you to quality software

IT organizations are successfully using a variety of quantitative and qualitative tools in their Six Sigma initiatives to improve software quality and processes.

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Let the data -- and the business needs -- lead you, advises Raytheon's Jill Brooks to those organizations embarking on a Six Sigma journey.

Brooks, software process technical director for the Software Center of Raytheon Network Centric Systems in North Texas, spoke recently at the WCBF's Second Annual Six Sigma in Software and IT conference in Boston. She said there are several triggers for deploying the Six Sigma quality and process improvement methodology: a need to reduce cost, a need to reduce schedule lead time, and a need improve quality and functionality.

If you spend the extra time up front and do it right, you save time in the long run, you increase quality, and you have fewer defects. 
Randal Childers
VP, product development and qualityMcKesson Provider Technologies

To obtain the data to address those needs, Brooks and other Six Sigma practitioners use a variety of both quantitative and qualitative tools, as well as train staff in the methodology.

"The quantitative approach to problem solving is very powerful," said Rich Boucher, the Lean Six Sigma deployment leader for IT in the Six Sigma Program Management Office at EMC Corp. in Hopkinton, Mass. On the qualitative side, "a lot of tools lead to brainstorming," he said.

Boucher, who also spoke at the conference, said his organization uses a variety of tools, including the Pareto chart, affinity diagram, risk assessment tool/FMEA (failure mode and effects analysis), effort impact grid, and an input-process-output (IPO) matrix.

"When we've got to get something done fast, we use the affinity diagram," he said. An affinity diagram allows a team to generate a large number of ideas and then organize and summarize natural groupings. "It's a structured way of gathering business requirements. It's being used through IT now, and it's a very powerful way to generate ideas."

Boucher said risk assessment/FMEA is also an effective and proactive tool for his group. They use FMEA to identify ways a product, process or service might fail and to develop countermeasures to avert that. In addition, they use FMEA to look at the impact and probability of failures, rank those in terms of priority and then pull the data into an action plan.

Getting requirements right critical
For McKesson Provider Technologies, the healthcare IT organization of San Francisco-based McKesson, one of the largest pharmaceutical distributors in North America, the software group relies heavily on a quality function deployment (QFD) tool to develop and refine product requirements.

Getting the critical requirements just right for a healthcare IT product is crucial, said Randal Childers, vice president of product development and quality, during his presentation at the WCBF Six Sigma conference. "Any solution that gets in the way of helping patients will be pushed aside," he said.

Childers said McKesson Provider Technologies puts together cross-functional teams, including physicians, to narrow requirements to a critical few using the QFD tool. "If you spend the extra time up front and do it right, you save time in the long run, you increase quality, and you have fewer defects. We find in software that demand exceeds capacity; there are too many features."

Using QFD throughout the development process helps the team figure out the most critical requirements and higher needs. "QFD is the primary way to eliminate design problems. It's important to remove defects as early as possible. If you identify defects in the requirements [process] and remove them, it's a smaller cost," Childers said.

In addition, Childers' group uses a Defect Removal Efficiency (DRE) tool. "You're trying to calculate defects that are latent," he said. "You can set goals to reduce latent defects. With DRE you can identify opportunity for improvement."

Childers offered some wisdom when looking for quality problems:

  • Always question and look for latent defects where you can improve the process
  • A breakdown in process is where you inject flaws in software
  • Only measure and collect data you'll use -- anything else is a waste of time

Individual and organizational buy-in important
Even with Six Sigma tools in place, however, it's important to not only train people how to use the tools but to also get buy-in at both the organizational level and the individual level.

A Six Sigma effort involves several levels within an organization, and it's terminology for trained practitioners borrows from the martial arts. First, a Six Sigma effort typically has executive leadership, and "champions" from upper management. Master Black Belts are the in-house Six Sigma experts and devote all their time to Six Sigma integrated across the organization, while Black Belts devote all their time to Six Sigma-specific projects. Green Belts are trained in Six Sigma and devote some of their time to Six Sigma projects, and Yellow Belts have been trained but have not completed a Six Sigma project.

Organizations, of course, often adapt the training and levels (and terminology) to what suits their needs best. And while some Six Sigma efforts are driven from the top down, others are more bottom-up or grassroots. Similarly, some Six Sigma initiatives are mandated, while others are merely encouraged.

More information on using Six Sigma for software development
Six Sigma makes inroads in software development organizations

Six Sigma helps reduce software defects, improve quality

Essentials of Lean Six Sigma -- Chapters 1 and 4, Introduction and Improvement

At Tyco, the IT group trained some Green Belts, "but it didn't spread," said Alexandra Phillips, director, IT Americas Operation, Tyco Safety products in Westminster, Mass. "We backed off and trained 'blue belts' [an adaptation Tyco made]. We didn't have time to do a Six Sigma project. We had projects from business; we didn't have time to get certified." However, she said, since being exposed to the Six Sigma tools, they've added them too their toolbox and apply them where appropriate.

Phillips' colleague, Scott Matchunis, senior manager, IT finance and operational excellence at Tyco in Boca Raton, Fla., said when the IT personnel did go through training "they had light bulbs go off" and could see the benefit. The CIO, he said, is in favor of the effort, but it's not mandated.

EMC's Boucher characterizes his company's Six Sigma initiative as a grassroots one. When the organization decided to go in that direction in 2000, the CEO and management team went through a full day of training, and in 2005 they became Green Belt trained. "We have buy-in from top," he said.

After EMC merged its Six Sigma and Lean efforts enterprisewide, Boucher said they looked at the IT organization. With its roots in manufacturing, a natural IT reaction to Six Sigma is "What's in it for me?" Boucher said. Through several grassroots projects they were able to demonstrate Lean Six Sigma in action.

To make the methodology less threatening, Boucher said they aligned their waterfall and phased gate development methodology with the Six Sigma DMAIC define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC) steps. "And in 2006, one of the keys was we tied it to the project management curriculum; we put the Green Belt course into the training," he said.

Deploying Six Sigma is a culture change, which often poses challenges. But there are things you can do to overcome those challenges, according to Kay Kendall, director and Master Black Belt at Sun Microsystems, and Jim Nash, SEI-authorized lead appraiser and instructor at Nash Laboratories Inc. Those steps include the following:

  • Acknowledge that organizations are systems
  • Identify and leverage the natural interactions that exist
  • Assess the system to see what is working and what needs to be changed
  • Use a model that reflect the complexity of the organization
  • Work with individuals

Punctuating that point, Nash added: "Almost all change happens at the individual level; make your case at the individual level."

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