Six Sigma: 5 Reasons why Big Business is Going Geek

Businesses always want to cut down on costs, improve profits, and drive the bottom line. Yet, increasingly companies are learning that the traditional practices just won’t cut it anymore. They are turning to Six Sigma, which applies statistical practices to management, to get their answers. But Six Sigma is little more than a geek’s approach to management. The methods used are nothing new to programmers, hackers, hardware nuts, and IT guys. In this article, I’m going to show you why big business has seen the light, and is learning to think like a geek.

1. Thinking like a programmer exposes waste

In Six Sigma, you control a process. However, to control that process you have to first break it down and clarify what you mean. Programmers know this well: Define and Conquer. Incidentally, this corresponds to the first step of one of Six Sigma’s guiding methods, DMAIC. The descriptions that you come up with for Six Sigma are a lot like those for programs. You have your list of inputs (customers in a call center, for example), outputs (the customer’s satisfaction with the service), and functions (the waiting queue). When you think like a programmer, things become a whole lot clearer.

2. Benchmarking tells the story better

People exaggerate, your eyes can deceive you, but numbers never lie. Six Sigma forces businesses to measure aspects that they had previously ignored. More importantly, figuring out the right numbers to measure leads to success. Computer geeks have known this forever, though. Pull out a computing magazine and you’ll see page after page of meaningful benchmarks. Just like Six Sigma metrics, you have some that show under-the-hood information, like MIPS, and others that show the bottom-line, like render times in Photoshop.

3. Crunching the numbers distills the information

Even if you are measuring all the right metrics, you have to make sense of it all. Computers are perfect for this. Advanced statistics, simulation, and forecasting software all exist to make sense of the data. However, this is heavy duty software that takes time and effort to learn. This is the sort of computing task that geeks excel at, and business leaders with a knack for numbers are becoming a precious commodity in this world where Six Sigma reigns supreme.

4. Engineering solutions save money

After all of this work, numbers will start to become clear that point towards areas of improvement. What is needed now is that creative spark that engineers are known for. There’s a certain “Work Smarter, not Harder” approach that geeks are great with. For example, if you want to cut down on wait times in a call center, the natural approach would be to add more agents, but a better approach would be to direct calls to the fastest agents first. Many of these tricks for improved speed and reliability are pulled straight from computer networking, and are old hat to geeks.

5. Working like a (good) programmer helps maintain excellence

Every programmer has heard it a million times. Comment your code, document your versioning, always bug-fix, and keep backups. This is just like the control phase of DMAIC in Six Sigma. Like commenting code, documenting the process saves other people much work in the future. It’s boring and tedious, but a year down the road, it will pay off. Similarly, fixing the new problems that come up is an important part of the Six Sigma process. Businesses are finding that you don’t just make a change and walk away, but you keep iterating until you get it just right. Programmers have known for years that the when version 1.0 comes out, you’re just getting started.

What do you think? Do geeks have a leg up on everyone else when it comes to Six Sigma, or are these skills that anyone can learn even if they’ve never touched a programming manual?

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