Software Teams Can Use Six Sigma in Agile Process Improvement

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In today's competitive market, there's one primary approach to developing software products, identifying errors, and improving overall management quality – agile. Agile development is a methodology where teams deliver value to customers faster and with fewer headaches, focusing on short-term improvements via daily collaboration or retrospectives. Traditional strategic planning makes it impossible to make quick decisions, a scenario that doesn't benefit the organisation or its stakeholders. By using Lean Six Sigma principles, IT teams can improve project performance. The lean concept of management is centred around reducing variation and refining processes, creating a tangible impact on the organisation's overall productivity. Owing to its core values, it's an universal management tool. 

What Is Lean Six Sigma? What Are the Basic Things to Know? 

Lean Six Sigma is a concept that enjoys popularity among businesses, allowing them to use data to eliminate flaws in any process. The methodology, which all organisations and business professionals can implement, is a combination of Lean and Six Sigma – in other words, two different schools of thought have merged into a single one. While Lean emphasises eliminating waste (or muda, if you prefer), Six Sigma is centred on improving output quality by pinpointing and removing the causes of errors. Lean Six Sigma is suited for companies seeking to streamline their processes and bring value to the customer. 

Certification validates individuals who possess the necessary skills to identify loopholes in business processes, eliminating waste and reducing overhead costs. Examples include but aren't limited to a positive attitude, leadership skills, communication skills, a good understanding of business processes, and management skills. The Lean Six Sigma Company supports organisations in developing skilled Lean Six Sigma professionals through knowledge transfer via training, workshops, and coaching. Courses can be completed online, and there are no prerequisites for attending. To successfully implement Lean Six Sigma, an organisation must change its culture. 

Agile Methodologies and Lean Six Sigma Can Coexist 

As global markets require a focus on efficiency and quality (and flexibility), there have been attempts to adopt Agile and Lean Six Sigma simultaneously to deliver products of very good quality quickly and at the lowest cost. The key to making the two work is understanding how they complement one another. Lean Six Sigma is about process control and standardisation, while Agile is about flexibility and incremental delivery. At times, informed decision-making is based on soft observations. For an agile team, Lean Six Sigma offers a structured problem-solving approach, so it's possible to address the root causes of problems impacting performance, quality, and customer satisfaction. 

These methodologies might seem to pull the organisation in different directions, but that's not the case. Agile can be leveraged for designing new products and as an overall portfolio management technique. On the other hand, Lean Six Sigma helps ensure quality in the production and delivery of products, addressing the gaps identified from customer feedback. DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control) is the problem-solving approach that drives Lean Six Sigma. It can be applied to business processes to identify flaws or inefficiencies, aiming to improve, optimise, and maintain existing processes. It improves team and organisation communication, which leads to improved performance. 

Adopting Agile and Lean Six Sigma together requires effective leadership to balance speed and rigor through open, transparent communications. Some leadership traits are more important when it comes to a successful deployment of Lean Six Sigma in IT organisations, of which mention can be made of visibility control, communication skills, inspiration, responsibility, and flexibility. Leadership isn't only about driving and promoting change, it's about being that change. Agile teams should monitor and manage their own performance, make decisions relating to their work, and take collective responsibility for meeting their goals. Even if they're largely on their own, these teams aren't uncontrolled; executives create the environment in which they thrive. 

Lean Six Sigma Provides a Large Selection of Tools in Use 

To drive focused improvements in agile process development, it's useful to incorporate tools from Lean Six Sigma to eliminate wasteful steps and processes, such as CTQ analysis. CTQ is an acronym and it stands for Critical to Quality, and it's a metric of a product/process output that matters to the customer. Therefore, it's defined from the customer's perspective. CTQ analysis can be used during the requirement gathering phase to greatly improve the chances of customers and users getting what they want, but it can turn out to be valuable as the concept of the project is developed to translate customer needs into process KPIs. 

Another Lean Six Sigma tool worth mentioning is the Pareto chart, which can be used in situations in which the 80/20 rule doesn't apply. It can be deployed to classify products according to their consumption value; for instance, products that fall under the A category are very important to the organisation, while products that fall under the B category carry less weight. By visualising the amassed data and grouping information into categories, the chart provides insight into areas of improvement. More complex problems can be broken down into smaller components and call to mind the most significant ones. 

Closing Thoughts

Most of the challenges encountered when using Agile methods are strikingly similar to the ones experienced in Lean Six Sigma deployment, namely resistance to change, scepticism towards new ways of working, lack of training and coaching, and poor prioritisation. Leadership is a critical success factor for organisations that want to deploy either one of them. More often than not, agile teams are so caught up in what they do that they ignore hidden issues that affect performance and quality in the long run. Since they require deeper insight into these problems, Lean Six Sigma can offer a much-needed solution, helping them effectively address those issues. 

To sum up, Lean Six Sigma is a practical approach to software development. It falls short in one area, that is, measuring a system architecture for quality, so agile teams are better off consulting peer reviews and conducting simulations. Other than that, Lean Six Sigma is a sound methodology, and it will continue to evolve to support effective software development.  


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