We had to read about Six Sigma process management last week for class. Six Sigma is a set of practices that allow companies to improve their processes towards satisfying customer needs, which is a laudable goal. The basic idea is that you have to first Define your goals, find ways to Measure your performance relative to those goals (which has its own problems), Analyze your measurement results, and then Improve and Control your process to narrow the gap between goals and results. Six Sigma calls this the DMAIC model. And that’s where I start having issues (note: this is based on reading 70 pages of a single Six Sigma book so I am extrapolating wildly).
As far as I can tell, Six Sigma is designed to make mid-level project managers feel more important and knowledgeable than they are. Rather than say “First you have to figure out what needs to get done, and then make sure that you are doing what you said you would”, Six Sigma introduces a massive infrastructure with indecipherable jargon like DMAIC and Process POA and SIPOC diagrams and QFD Matrices, terms which have precise definitions to make those who have not studied Six Sigma look ignorant.
People who sign up for the Six Sigma cult are rewarded for their increased study with status symbols leading up to the “black belt”, giving them the title of a martial arts sensei for their command of the minutiae of management jargon. By using this jargon to separate their discussions from the rest of the organization, project managers can feel that they have mastered a discipline, putting them at the same level of achievement as trained software engineers or quantitative analysts. Since this jargon is used to refer to what should be common sense (identifying goals and ensuring movement towards those goals), Six Sigma has the feel of the more bogus aspects of critical theory, where jargon can be used to dress up basic concepts to the point where nobody can determine whether a paper is legitimate.
Our lecturer made the good point in class that the prevalence of Six Sigma does mean that it provides a common framework that one can use to communicate between organizations. Aligning language is difficult, and perhaps Six Sigma has to use artificial jargon to ensure that none of its terms could be confused with terms we might think we know. This would serve a valuable purpose, but the sense I get from Six Sigma is that it’s considered to be an end in itself, rather than a means to more effective communication.
One of the perils of introducing process is that it overrides the initiative and decision making capacity of the people who have the most relevant information. I have been suspicious of process ever since an experience where an organization applied its process so restrictively that we never answered the questions that the process was originally designed to ask. We followed every single detailed step of the process, but we didn’t get any of the benefits that the process was supposed to deliver because we couldn’t adapt it to our particular situation. Six Sigma has the feel of a methodology where that could easily happen. By letting people displace responsibility onto the process (“I did what Six Sigma said I should do”), it distracts organizations from focusing on the core function of delivering value to customers.
This distrust of process may be a result of my never having worked at a large organization. Larger organizations require a certain level of process and infrastructure to function, much like animals need a skeleton to grow past a certain size. And I have seen the disadvantages of not having any process in place at some of the smaller organizations I have experienced. Perhaps if I had worked at an organization where process enhanced productivity and initiative, I might be more amenable to believing in its usefulness.
Process is a powerful, but dangerous, weapon. When used skillfully and appropriately, processes can enable organizations to be more productive and react more intelligently by ensuring that knowledge is distributed to where it is needed. But when process is an end in itself, or is misused in a task for which it is not designed, it can choke an organization and prevent people from achieving what needs to get done. Six Sigma might be great if an organization could use the parts that it found useful to help align language and objectives. However, Six Sigma could be a disaster if if is imposed in a top-down fashion where the whole infrastructure is implemented regardless of whether it is appropriate or not.