Six Sigma makes inroads in software development organizations

While still early in the adoption curve, software development and IT groups are finding Six Sigma, often combined with other process improvement efforts such as Lean and CMMI, helps to reduce defects and improve quality.

Define, measure, analyze, improve, control -- these steps, more commonly called DMAIC, are familiar to practitioners of the Six Sigma process improvement methodology. Six Sigma methodology had its roots in manufacturing as a way to statistically measure and reduce variation, and thus decrease defects and improve quality. However, there is a growing body of evidence that software development organizations and IT groups are adopting Six Sigma methodology, or some variation thereof, to improve software quality and efficiency and better meet customer requirements.

"A lot of the driving influence is that corporations are using Six Sigma everywhere else, and now they're extending that to the software domain," said Jeannine Siviy, deputy director for Carnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute (SEI) Dynamic Systems. "Software organizations are being called upon to use this method that's being used successfully elsewhere in the organization."

A lot of big companies are developing their own software engineering variance of Six Sigma training, putting software-specific examples into the normal Six Sigma curriculum.
Jeannine Siviy
Deputy directorCarnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute (SEI) Dynamic Systems

Djenana Campara, CEO of KDM Analytics, a software assurance and modernization company in Wilmington, Del., agrees that Six Sigma is applicable to software development. "In fact, Six Sigma has been tailored for software development improvement opportunities," she said. "There are companies out there that teach the extended methodology. It's actually more of a 'tuning' to the needs of software engineering."

An offshoot of Six Sigma, Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) focuses on determining the needs of the customer and developing products that meet those needs. In addition, some IT organizations are also incorporating Lean methodology, or Lean Six Sigma. Lean also has it roots in manufacturing, and the focus here is to reduce waste and create a foundation for continuous improvement.

In addition, other process improvement frameworks such as the SEI's Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI), ISO 9000 or The Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) may be incorporated into organizational efforts as well.

That's the case at DST Output, which provides integrated print and electronic billing, customer care and customer communications solutions to financial services, communications, insurance, health care and utilities companies. The company has several operations centers in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Steven F. Hodin, vice president of business excellence, said, "We lead with Lean, and follow up with Six Sigma. Lean is about speed and low cost; Six Sigma is about reducing variation and improving quality."

Hodin, who is a certified Six Sigma Black Belt, spoke recently at WCBF's Second Annual Six Sigma in Software and IT conference in Boston. (Six Sigma uses martial arts terminology to rank levels of trained practitioners.) He said the company is about three years into its Six Sigma journey and has been doing DFSS for about a year.

"These things are very interconnected; if you start with one, it leads to another," Siviy said. The SEI, she said, is looking to launch new research in navigating in what she calls a "multimodel context."

Campara added, "Six Sigma is a business approach to improvements and focuses on 'how' -- statistical quality control, business cases, customer feedback are all key -- while an approach such as CMMI is a standardization and models approach and focuses on "what" -- policies, procedures, key process areas and associated practices.

"Six Sigma includes measures around customer satisfaction and business profitability. There is work being done to integrate these approaches which, simply put, means adding business case rigor and customer feedback to improvements opportunities."

Coupling CMMI with Six Sigma
On the other hand, Siviy said some organizations may implement the CMMI process as a Six Sigma project.

"We've found that when Six Sigma is coupled with CMMI adoption you get a 'stickier,' more effective implementation and faster adoption," she said. "I've seen some organizations make incredibly accelerated progress toward their CMMI implementation goals. And it's grounded around true business needs, so it's less of an issue of doing process for process' sake."

More information on Six Sigma and other methodologies
Book excerpt: Essentials of Lean Six Sigma

Book excerpt: CMMI -- Guidelines for Process Integration and Product Improvement

How project management methods can improve software

Meeting business needs is one of the drivers for Six Sigma at McKesson Provider Technologies, according to Randal Childers, vice president of product development and quality. "Six Sigma is one of our most important tools in meeting our customers' critical to quality requirements," Childers said during his presentation at the WCBF Six Sigma conference. San Francisco-based McKesson is one of the largest pharmaceutical distributors in North America, and McKesson Provider Technologies creates and provides IT services to digitize healthcare.

Childers, who is a trained Six Sigma Green Belt, said his organization "decided to take the CMMI journey first" after acquiring 20-plus companies. "They all had their own processes and toolsets, and CMMI was a way to standardize the development process and toolset. CMMI is about looking for and adopting best practices."

Then McKesson employed Six Sigma to help speed the development process by focusing on design earlier in the cycle, improving quality and reducing resource requirements. "We've seen tremendous success in product quality based on customer satisfaction," he said.

Motorola leading the way
Motorola, where Six Sigma originated, has developed the Software Design for Six Sigma (SDFSS) model that follows four basic steps: requirements, architecture, design and integration (RADI), explained Tricia McNair, director of Motorola's Software DFSS program and chairman of the Software Development Consortium and Six Sigma Software Academy.

"We first attempted this about three years ago but didn't make much headway because we were using a hardware model," she said during her presentation at the Six Sigma conference. "We also really needed the organization to understand that software is a different animal than hardware."

McNair explained the effort restarted with a few projects, and they now have Black Belts trained in Software DFSS vs. DMAIC. The goals, she said, are to build control into the design process to remove defects early in the lifecycle, and to bring discipline to development using DFSS tools that help to make the process repeatable, defined and managed.

"A lot of big companies are developing their own software engineering variance of Six Sigma training," said Siviy, "putting software-specific examples into the normal Six Sigma curriculum." However, she said, it's early in the adoption curve. "In the software world there is a real lack of case studies that show applications of Six Sigma in software engineering," she said. And those that use Six Sigma in software are often reluctant to share examples because they consider it a competitive advantage.

Still, Siviy said, "At a lot of software conferences now you see a sprinkling of presentations that somehow touch on Six Sigma or Lean, and the quality and depth of questions have evolved tremendously. In general, and not just in Six Sigma, as the [software] industry matures you see a wave of interest in measurement and analytical techniques."

McKesson is a prime example. "Measurement is key," Childers said. "What you can't or don't measure, you don't know."

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