Matt's Articles

Agile Lean Six Sigma

I recently attended the IISE Lean Six Sigma conference in San Antonio. I made some great connections, attended thought provoking sessions, and had a good time. The sessions ranged from education to manufacturing and included a track dedicated to healthcare. Healthcare is such an important area for continuous improvement because of the life and death situations that are routinely encountered, the growth in demand, and cost of these services. Applying Lean Six Sigma (LSS) in this field has become quite common over the last several years. Healthcare service providers all over the world are adopting these practices. This highlighted for me that there is another growing field that was not adequately represented at the conference.

Software development and information technology operations are increasing integrated into the products we use. Advancements in artificial intelligence and automated driving will increase the role software products play in our lives. Software development already has many types of improvement techniques and frameworks such as Agile Software Development methods, CMMI, ITIL, and so on. They share similar beginnings in manufacturing and quality assurance as does Lean Six Sigma. So, why are they missing from a large international conference focused on continuous improvement? Much like 1990s where practitioners talked about Lean versus Six Sigma we have again set up separate Agile versus Lean Six Sigma camps. Previous attempts to force fit the software development process into a tight serial path such as you might do with manufacturing and service process have been unsuccessful. I believe it is because of this the software field approaches continuous improvement separately from other fields.


The growth of Agile Software Development methods has demonstrated that CIOs and CTOs recognize the importance of continuous improvements and are willing to make investments. Unfortunately, for every company leader that tells me they are applying Agile I find 5 more that tell me they aren’t applying it correctly. For Agile Software Development methods to work companies need smooth flowing operations and a culture of continuous improvement. This is no different from what LSS practitioners face. We have learned over decades now that one improvement technique is not the panacea. There is no silver bullet. Lean practitioners had to recognize that the PDCA cycle (Plan, Do, Check, Act) too often lacked a good “Check” step. Six Sigma tools greatly improve how we “Check” and model proposed future states. Six Sigma practitioners had to recognize that discrete improvement projects do not create sustained improvement and too often lead to analysis paralysis. The combination of Lean and Six Sigma has led to much greater deployment, adoption, and bottom-line results.


The combination of techniques and experience from LSS practitioners with Agile Software methods will lead to much greater success as well. This next step is to start intermingling practitioners at conferences like the one I attended in San Antonio. Software is becoming a greater part of our daily lives and like healthcare this will create life and death scenarios. It’s time to increase the rate and success of continuous improvement deployment in the software field as it will be a great benefit to us all.