Hallelujah! The gospel of Six Sigma reaches the intranet world!

Given the fervour of its apostles, you have probably heard of the term “Six Sigma” and its incredible power to literally transform organizations. Six Sigma conferences more closely resemble evangelical events than business meetings and to hear people talk about the ROI on Six Sigma you would think that they were talking about a new religion.
The disciples of Six Sigma speak about it with passion and faith that would be envied even amongst religious circles. Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of GE is one of its most fervent believers. Here’s the proclamation prominently posted on the GE website:

“Today's competitive environment leaves no room for error. We must delight our customers and relentlessly look for new ways to exceed their expectations. This is why Six Sigma Quality has become a part of our culture. Six Sigma has changed the DNA of GE — it is now the way we work — in everything we do and in every product we design."

The fact that GE remains so committed to the gospel of Six Sigma after over 20 years of its implementation demonstrates that it isn’t just a new “flavour of the day” concept. To add to the aura, the names of the practitioners have grand names like “Black Belts” with the distinction of “Master Black Belts” being reserved for the high priests of the Six Sigma world. There’s even a “Six Sigma for Dummies” book with an introduction by the leadership guru Stephen Covey! The list of converts is literally a who’s who of the business world especially those in the manufacturing world and more recently financial institutions.

So being a leading edge kind of thinker and involved in the world of intranets/Internets you’re probably wondering, do I need to know about this cult and how can I find time to learn this stuff if I do? Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I have been privileged enough to train as a Black Belt in the super secret methods of Six Sigma and I can share a few of its powerful secrets with you.

Where it all began…

Although its roots began in Motorola in the 1980’s, it was really Jack Welch, of GE who made it famous, touting returns of billions of dollars in savings and a revolution of the culture within GE. Allied Signal, Apple Computers, Dell, Microsoft, 3M, Bank of America, and Bombardier are just a few of the hundreds of organizations that have adopted Six Sigma methodologies. Most of the companies have enjoyed the benefits through their manufacturing processes which means that, if you own a car, use a cell phone, or a computer, you have probably enjoyed the benefits of the methodology without even realizing it.

So you’re probably thinking this is all very nice, but what does it have to do with intranets or Internets?

Everything, if you truly care about the quality of the user experience. Properly applied, Six Sigma delivers a methodical, rigorous and measurable way of improving usability, which will take your site to new levels of performance.

So what exactly is “Six Sigma”?

In simple terms, Six Sigma is a rigorous and disciplined problem solving methodology that uses data and statistical analysis to measure and improve a company's operational performance by identifying and eliminating "defects" and “variation” in manufacturing and service-related processes. The emphasis on data and the use of heavy duty statistical analysis gives leaders a powerful toolset and a sound dashboard of input metrics with which to measure their businesses. But in case you think this is only fodder for data lovin’, pocket protector wearing, pencil necked statistical nerds, (not that there’s anything wrong with that) think again. The heart and soul of the philosophy is core to all businesses and especially intranet design.

At its heart, Six Sigma is a philosophy that is firmly routed in the pivotal role of the customer or user for defining value and the raison d’etre for the company and its services. The methodology is so effective because of its simple but profound premise that the value of a company’s good or service is based upon knowing precisely what the customer needs and cares about and measuring specifics about how well it delivers on that specification. The ultimate goal is to delivery a near perfect product every time, which is achieved through identifying and controlling all the key variables that have an impact on the variation and defects in the product or service.

Although most companies pay at least lip service to the concept of customer feedback and customer requirements, few have taken this to the level of analysis and identification as Six Sigma companies. The starting point for any Six Sigma project is identification of the “voice of the customer” (VOC) and the definition of “CTQs” or “critical to quality components” of your product or service. In plain speak, these are essentially the specifications of what value your product or service should deliver as defined by the customer. For manufacturing companies, the definition of a CTQ is often quite straightforward. You may determine that a car should be able to accelerate at a certain speed and carry a certain payload. A cordless phone specification may include the ability to receive signals 100 feet away from the base.

Defining the customer requirements in specific measurable attributes is key to the methodology. But we deal with real people and soft fuzzy attributes like “usability” and “navigation” you may cry. We can’t possibly measure and define this the way a widget manufacturer measures its output…or can we?

Voice of the Customer

Let’s say you are building an intranet site and you want users to be able to find a few key telephone numbers easily and the company’s policy on Internet use. You would analyze user requirements (the Voice of the Customer) and establish what is the acceptable range of time and effort required to complete each of these tasks from their perspective as your “CTQ” (or design specification). Then you would use a highly developed set of data gathering techniques and analytical tools to isolate and identify the key factors that influence the overall performance and variation on the “usability scale” that you are trying to move.

Jacob Nielsen’s recent article on usability indicates that “when doing website tasks, the slowest 25% of users take 2.4 times as long as the fastest 25% of users.
This difference is much higher than for other types of computer use; only programming shows a greater disparity.” This is a big challenge for anyone involved in the web or intranet design because there is a population of users who will have a much worse experience than what is possible and we don’t have the luxury of selecting only users that can navigate poorly designed, disorganized and complex sites.

If it sounds a bit strange to be analyzing the user experience in such a precise fashion, it’s probably because of the relatively recent history of intranets/ Internets and the fact that quality as a distinguishing feature often only hits organizations after a product or service has reached an advanced level of maturity. (Does anyone remember Japanese cars in the 70’s? How about the first generation word processors? ) Combined with the fact that characteristics of the user are such an important factor in determining usability, it’s no wonder that IT departments might look at you a bit funny if you ask them to consider intranet/Internet usability issues from a user defined Six Sigma perspective. “We deal with people”, they are inherently flawed and useless! Does anyone remember “Nick Burns, the Computer Guy” on Saturday Night Live? (Here’s a link if you want a trip down memory lane and thankfully an era of technical support that has for the most part, gone the way of the do-do bird. but I digress…)

Opportunities to improve

However, it is precisely these challenges in intranet/Internet design which present huge opportunity for improvement through the use of a more rigorous approach and a measurable customer centric starting point. The Six Sigma process is data intensive and often requires data that you haven’t collected before, but this in and of itself would be a good discovery because it may represent a blind spot in your metrics and who knows where that discovery might lead.

In closing, all I have to say is that having myself been “converted”, I have seen the power of this methodology first hand and it is compelling. Given that the number one complaint of intranet users is “I can’t find what I’m looking for,” there’s a clear need to listen to the Voice of the Customer and bring a more rigorous methodology to improving their experience. If it worked for software, surely it can benefit intranets.

Bob Galvink, former CEO and President of Motorola has stated that “The lack of initial Six Sigma emphasis in the non-manufacturing areas was a mistake that cost Motorola at least $5 billion over a 4 year period.”

Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.