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Six Sigma? Oh please!

 I’m sorry. If you talk to me about yet another totally continuous quality management improvement program, I might have a seizure. Now we’re experimenting with the Six Sigma problem-solving methodology.

In only five days over eight weeks, you can be trained as a Six Sigma Green Belt. Or go for it all—in just four months become a Six Sigma Black Belt. I think I’m going to hurl.

I just don’t understand why we need buzz words and “Karate Kid” references to apply good engineering practices to our problems. It’s like senior managers leave their brains, education, and experience at the door and get seduced into thinking that the latest fashionable regurgitated metric analysis fluff will solve all the ills of our unenlightened workforce.

Eric AsideI’m constantly confronting management in my columns. Along with PMs, managers are one of I. M. Wright’s favorite targets for ridicule. To their enormous credit, Microsoft managers have never taken it personally, and many are avid fans. Sure, my manager has occasionally been asked if these columns are sufficiently constructive. But in ten years of writing on fairly contentious topics, I’ve never had a column censored or altered by management.

But I work at Microsoft under these managers, so I had to read the articles in this issue of Interface focusing on Six Sigma and the material on the Six Sigma Web site, like it or not. Am I blown off my feet? Please. Is the content filled with new and exciting ideas that will revolutionize the way we produce our products? As if. Is there anything there of merit? Of course.

Egads! What sorcery is this?!

Six Sigma is a structured problem-solving system with a “toolbox” of techniques used to analyze and interpret issues for all kinds of business, development, and manufacturing processes. The actual techniques themselves are nothing new—brainstorming, the five whys, cause and effect diagramming, statistical analysis, and so on. These techniques have been used for years to discover the root cause of issues in engineering and business.

The methodology is based on tried and true problem-solving principles that date way back: define, measure, analyze, improve, control. This basic cyclic approach to quality improvement is used in just about every product group at Microsoft during stabilization. Bugs are defined (spec’d), measured (found and documented), analyzed (triaged), improved (fixed), and controlled (regressed, prioritized, and triaged again).

So why have a Six Sigma group? Why become a Green Belt? What’s with having 20 full-time Six Sigma Black Belts at the company?

Calling in the cavalry

Basically, in the heat of the moment we panic and forget all the engineering knowledge and practices we have learned and know so well. That’s everything we knew before the pressure crushed us or we became so engulfed in the problem that we no longer could see the dead tree for all the bugs.

So you call your local Green Belt, or bring in the big old Black Belt, and he reminds you of what you should have been doing in the first place. However, because of the highly structured nature of the Six Sigma system, all the passion and personalities get removed.

Instead of placing blame or getting caught up in guesswork and blind alleys, the Six Sigma folks look dispassionately at the real data and derive what’s actually wrong and what can be done to improve the problem. Then they leave you with a process to track your improvement and control its effects.

Creating order out of chaos

Yes, anyone with a good engineering background could find the same problems and fix them. Anyone who made it through interviews at Microsoft should have the intellectual horsepower to figure out a solution to a problem. But sometimes when you’re in it too deep and tempers are flaring, you need an outside calm influence to help you get centered and focused on doing the right things.

In addition, the Six Sigma folks get exposed to a wide range of techniques and best practices from around the company. They can bring those experiences to your group and come up with interesting solutions that may have escaped your notice.

Does this make me a Six Sigma booster? Nah, I still think the idea of Green Belts and Black Belts is goofy and that the methodology itself is recycled TQM and CQI. However, Six Sigma is the process that Microsoft has chosen to experiment with—if there’s a group that can come in and help when problems get out of hand, that’s a good thing to me.

Eric AsideWhile Six Sigma never quite took hold in product development at Microsoft, the concept of having coaches and groups you can turn to in a pinch did. I used to be the manager in just such a group.

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