Can Lean Six Sigma Enable Software Process Excellence?


While Lean Software Development principles aim to uncover and reduce waste, Six Sigma places primary importance on customers, business results, and statistical analysis of processes. Lean also aims to make discoveries about where to target improvements compared with Six Sigma, which measures the results of process changes. By implementing both methodologies—Six Sigma and Lean Software Development—together, you can take advantage of the best in both models. 

Together, applied as Lean Six Sigma, they address and change similar management and technical staff behaviors. The organizational change management approach with both techniques is quicker and less costly than a sequential approach and provides more benefits than an “Either / Or” approach.  This article will provide an overview of the benefits and recommendations for the training associated with the staff responsible for Lean Six Sigma implementation. Figure 1 provides an overview of the strong partnership provided when these two process improvement methodologies combined. 

Figure 1, slsep09-1

Figure 1. Lean and Six Sigma - Strong Partners

Keys to Success
When government agencies choose Lean Six Sigma implementation for improvement, there are many benefits.  A few of these follow:

    • Provision of confidence to customers about the consistent performance of the software development organization,
    • transparency of operations within the organization,
    • lowering of costs and shortening of cycle times, through the effective use of resources
    • improved, consistent, and predictable results resulting in an overall increase in production and growth,
    • provision of opportunities for focused and prioritized improvement initiatives,
    • integration and alignment of processes that enable the achievement of planned results resulting in an increase in organizational confidence,  and
    • the ability to focus effort on process effectiveness and efficiency.

Staff Responsibilities and Training
Training process champions may be the single most important part of any process improvement initiative.  However, training is only effective if it is applied.  It is important that training be part of a planned process improvement initiative based upon tangible results.  The principles must be applied to real projects and real results must be expected. 

Training for Lean
Classically, a mentor on the job or factory floor taught Lean principles.  There are courses available that now teach these principles.  The principles used in support of the Lean methodology are typically taught as separate workshops.  Each workshop combines a short training session with a Lean principle and the direct application of that principle.  Students are then advised to take what they have learned during the workshop back and apply their knowledge.

Six Sigma Training
Six Sigma training is typically broken down into phases that support the DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) process.  Individuals attending training should be provided with time in between each training session to practically apply the tools that they have learned during each training session.  Ideally, trainees then go back to their projects and apply their newly gained knowledge.  During the next phase of training, these same students would return with a renewed respect and ready for the next Six Sigma training phase.  Table 1 describes the individuals within a Six Sigma organization, their role, and the typical training that they might receive.slsep09-2

Table 1.  Six Sigma: Special Staffing and Typical Training Programs

LSS Training and Certification Issues 
Lean and Six Sigma are popular process improvement methodologies and experts are in demand.  The recent rise in the numbers and types of certification programs that offer Six Sigma and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt certifications has been exponential.  Many offer certifications with online training in as little as two weeks.  This implies no skills growth or practical application of acquired knowledge.  The classic Six Sigma model is that as an individual trains that they climb the ‘belt’ ladder learning to apply their skills on projects, assimilating and honing their techniques as they mature, taking their classroom knowledge into the field to learn personally what works – and what will not.  This is how a true Six Sigma Black Belt or Master Black Belt is created.  This is not accomplished in two weeks.   

In addition, many have been touting a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.  This is a marketing creation.  It will probably take off, when there is market demand, the market will respond.  As previously noted, employers seeking candidates should carefully review any Black Belt credential.  Credentials should be married to demonstrated experience in an applied domain of interest.

The Bottom Line
It is important to remember that in the true spirit of Lean Six Sigma, Lean emphasizes process improvement through the application of the simplest methods, not the most complex data collection or statistical analysis.  While real software process improvements can be realized it is important that the individuals leading these efforts have the training and practical experience necessary to help customers achieve the goals they seek. The objective should be to identify the greatest process challenges that will bring the most production gain and work towards these incrementally – ‘Leaning production’, and then using the Six Sigma to record, document, and report the gains practically. 
For more information, contact Susan K. Land at [email protected].

Note: “The author’s affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE’s concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions or viewpoints expressed by the author”

Susan K. Land (Kathy Land), an employee of The MITRE Corp., has more than 23 years of industry experience in the practical application of software engineering methodologies, the management of information systems, and leadership of software development teams. She is an acknowledged expert in the field of software engineering standardization, process improvement, and engineering management.  Ms. Land is the 2009 President of the IEEE Computer Society (CS).  She is a current member of the CS Standards Activities Board (SAB), Software and Systems Engineering Standards Executive Committee (S2ESC), and also serves on a number of other CS boards and committees. In 2007 she was the recipient of the IEEE Standards Association Standards Medallion.

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