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Major businesses, and even a few prominent law firms, have developed Six Sigma efforts to reduce waste in their organizations. But has it really improved the way they do business? And, what are some Six Sigma lessons for those in the project management world?

For the uninitiated, Six Sigma is a methodology that measures defects in an effort to get them as close to zero as possible, and thereby reduce waste.

Six Sigma is data-driven, and when the data applies to machines, that data has value. When the data relate to work done by humans, the data are less valuable.

My concern is that a business which strictly applies principles that were developed in a machine economy will risk getting so consumed by misleading data that it misses the customer’s real needs. The fact is that humans are not machines.

Work done by people in our knowledge economy is unlike work done by machines in a different era.

Work done by people in our knowledge economy is unlike work done by machines in a different era. Share on X

Let me count the ways:

Intellectual capacity. The intellectual capacity that humans bring to a task varies considerably from person to person.

Instruction processing. Humans don’t always process instructions the same way. Consider this instruction: Will you pick up a gallon of milk at the store? Was the person receiving this instruction supposed to buy the milk? Bring it home? Taste-test the milk? Get whole milk, low fat, fat-free, or lactose free milk? You get the point.

Curiosity. Humans have differing levels of curiosity – which can slow the completion of repetitive tasks, but which can offer great insights into things that other people haven’t considered. Take for example, document reviews. I spend much longer on a document review than others, because my curiosity will cause me to raise 10 great questions that others haven’t thought about.

Energy and focus. Humans work with varying levels of energy, simply wear out, or get distracted. Putting aside mechanical disturbances, typically machines work just as well in March as they do in February, while human productivity goes way down during March Madness.

Speed. Not all humans work at the same speed. One person may spend twice as much time developing the same instruction manual as another. The quality of the instruction manual may or may not reflect the time investment.

Despite my concern, Six Sigma offers valuable lessons for businesses today, and focusing on these lessons will improve the way you do business, and the way you manage your projects.

Five Six Sigma lessons for a knowledge economy:

Value your client. Focus on understanding your customer or client’s needs, preferences, desires, and business model. Continue to engage the customer throughout the project so that changing needs are identified promptly. And, provide more value with each succeeding encounter.

Define needs. Clearly define what is needed. Remember the instruction – pick up a gallon of milk?

Improve efficiency. Focus on achieving the project objectives most efficiently. Consider partially staffing your project team with people who live in areas with a lower cost of living. Consider outsourcing work that can be done by others more efficiently.

Reduce waste. Understand what is needed so that you aren’t overworking the matter. Do you need a 20-page, carefully edited document, or a 1-page emailed summary? Who needs to approve the final product? (Time to finish is inversely proportionate to the number of approvals needed.) Reduce printing needs when possible.

Isolate workflows. By focusing on identifiable workflows, organizations can automate repeatable processes. That said, be careful about spending too much time or money trying to automate something that is very knowledge dependent or has considerable variation.

Understand what is needed so that you aren’t overworking the matter. Share on X

Six Sigma focuses on data and when the data applies to machines, that data has value. Be careful when analyzing similar data on work done by humans. The fact is that humans are not machines. They don’t all work the same way, at the same speed, with the same level of focus, or with the same level of intellect or curiosity.

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Photo credit: Techno Delight by Graniers; CC by 2.o License; https://ow.ly/SWGXy