Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Thoughts on 6-Sigma and Agile

Question that comes up from time to time:

"Does anyone have Agile project which is Six Sigma? How these two things Six Sigma and Agile complement each other on software product development project? “

My answer:

In theory Agile and 6-Sigma should fit, they both have their roots in the quality movement.

A cursory glance at the 6-Sigma toolset reveals similarities to the Lean toolkit - continuous improvement, root course analysis, statistical methods, so at first it looks good but…

While there are a few stories of Agile and 6-Sigma working successfully together my own experience, and the majority of the stories I hear are that they are contrary.

Let me briefly share my experience....

I did some work with a financial services company which was a big believer in 6-Sigma. Any change had to be set up as a 6-Sigma change, with a business objective, current status measurement, target, approach, etc. Its difficult to argue with such a rational position but it was hard to pull all these bits together.

The change then needed to be signed off by more senior managers as a 6-Sigma effort. And it was hard to get the necessary managers in the same room at the same time. Which meant efforts didn't get signed off.

And with all this effort you needed to put a lot of effort into any change which meant even thinking about change was expensive.

The net effect was to freeze the status quo. Six-Sigma had the effect of preventing change not supporting it.

On a day to day level the attention paid to variance was highly detrimental. Teams adopted behaviours designed to minimize variance (e.g. differences between estimated effort and actual effort) which both made measurements unreliable and made people wary of any change, experimentation or risk. (They had bonuses related to variance reduction.)

It seems there are some big difference between 6-Sigma and Agile, if not in intent then in implementation:

  • 6-Sigma is very top down, Agile is traditionally bottom up (although this is changing)
  • 6-Sigma is process and plan driven, 6-Sigma demands evidence; Agile is more “experiment and see what happens”, in other words Agile is happier with failed experiments
  • 6-Sigma demands study from its devotees (all those belts!) while Agile benefits from study it is a free-for-all when it comes to what to do (this may well be a disadvantage)
  • 6-Sigma anoints experts (black belts) while Agile is much more egalitarian (or at least should be)

So while Agile and 6-Sigma may have somethings in common they are culturally incompatible.

And as for the newer mutant form of 6-Sigma known as “Lean 6-Sigma”, well let me quote something I heard Dave Snowden say at a conference a couple of years back:

“Lean 6-Sigma is about removing all the waste that 6-Sigma introduces.”