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Six Sigma and Lean Meet BPM: Q&A With Software AG's Bruce Williams

There are plenty of Six Sigma and Lean Manufacturing practitioners out there, but all too often they worked in isolation, unable to penetrate the IT domain and hard-pressed to measure and replicate success. Bruce Williams, general manager of business process management solutions at Software AG, says there's a big opportunity for companies to connect their Six Sigma or Lean initiatives with the data-gathering, execution and closed-loop-improvement advantages of BPM.

Bruce Williams

You've written white papers and offered seminars about the opportunity to magnify the benefits of continuous process improvement initiatives such as Six Sigma and Lean with the aid of BPM. Can you start by describing where Six Sigma and Lean have come up short?

As a rule, the Six Sigma practitioner is an industrial engineer, a mechanical engineer or maybe a business person. They are not IT people, they may not understand IT, and furthermore, when they've looked for data and measurement around processes, they haven't had a lot of success getting it out of IT. The IT department has generally asked them to take a number and get in line because they have had other priorities.

As a result, Six Sigma and Lean practitioners typically collect information on their own and then they measure it, analyze it and design and implement improvements outside of enterprise IT, which means several things. Number one, there's a lot of redundant gathering of information and a lot of problems calibrating the data sources. As a result, they're spending way too much time in the measurement phase. Secondly, when these continuous process improvement efforts get back to the control phase, there's no closed loop. Six Sigma and Lean teams tell people what to do to optimize a process, but it's like herding cats [because there are no measures or control mechanisms in place].

Finally, Six Sigma and Lean initiatives have tended to affect human-centric systems, but not the system behind the iron curtain of IT. In the early years of a Six Sigma or Lean initiative you could make a lot of hay just fixing human-centric problems without ever touching IT, but the next-highest level of low-hanging fruit involves enterprise IT.

So what can BPM do to bridge those gaps?

BPM can take a lot of what the Six Sigma and Lean practitioners have been doing off in their corner and make it more enterprise capable, creating more synergy and getting a lot more reuse and leverage out of those efforts.

When a Six Sigma practitioner starts analyzing a process, he or she goes through a five-step approach to find, measure, analyze, improve and control that process process. You begin by defining the space that you want to affect and some significant outcome you want to improve, like throughput yield, bottom-line profit or facility utilization. Next, you start collecting data about that space, and typically that involves a lot of manually collected data that goes into Excel spreadsheets and that sort of thing. One of the biggest advantages BPM offers is an instrumented environment that lets you get at process data in a systematic and well-calibrated way so you can measure things more consistently.

You also point to the overlapping tools of BPM, Six Sigma and Lean environments — modeling, analysis and simulation among them — and you extol the opportunity to take advantage of BPM execution engines. Sounds great, but are Six Sigma and Lean practitioners aware of and prepared to embrace BPM?

I'd say that people on the corporate side — the implementation side — of the Six Sigma and Lean communities are showing quite a bit of interest. It's a little bit different on the practitioner side because those people are kind of in their little niche, but practitioners, trainers and consultants in the Lean and Six Sigma communities are just now beginning to talk about this. Some analysts have been talking about it for some time. Paul Harmon and Celia Wolf of BP Trends, for example, have been talking about this pretty extensively for more than a year. They recognize that the synergies are there and are coming. Inside the practitioner environments there's a lot of interest, but they want to see products and they want to see capabilities before they are willing to take that step.

You've described what's lacking in Lean and Six Sigma, but what about the gaps in BPM? Is it becoming too focused on technology without enough of the discipline and methodology of Six Sigma and Lean?

The risk with all technologies is that people treat them as a hammer and they just go around swinging it. There is no methodology necessarily implied inside a BPM suite; it's just a tool set, so you are really relying on the knowledge, expertise and capabilities of whoever is implementing it to do something groundbreaking and significant. However, if you combine the methodologies of a Six Sigma or Lean practice with a BPM tool set, you can leverage both environments.

For example, when you begin a BPM implementation, some will say, "The first thing we do is model the state of where we are going." Everyone in a Lean or Six Sigma environment would stop you from getting out a blank sheet of paper or a blank modeling tool because they recognize the value in first identifying the "as is" — where you are today. You can then look at the existing process to determine what steps and changes you want to make, and you can then instrument those areas properly and measure the delta so you know what kind of gains you've made.

Without some kind of methodology, who is to say what the KPIs are, what is measured, what the upper and lower spec limits are, and what constitutes a yellow condition or a red condition? A methodology like Six Sigma or Lean defines that, and you know exactly what to instrument because you understand cause and effect, and what limits should be around any causal element to affect the outcomes.

Is the combination of Six Sigma and BPM or Lean and BPM a bit too much for the average company to take on all at once? After all, a lot of companies have trouble just embracing any one of these elements on its own.

Close to 40 percent of Fortune 1000 companies are already practicing Six Sigma at some level. When I sit with the IT people or the Six Sigma practitioners or the executives who oversee both and explain how Six Sigma and BPM can come together, it often leads to a kind of epiphany. They recognize the opportunity to use BPM technology to create so much more reach and leverage with what they are trying to do with these initiatives.

So how would you sum up your message to those who are practicing Six Sigma or Lean without the benefit of BPM or those who are exploring BPM without a methodology or framework like Six Sigma or Lean?

I'd say that BPM offers a toolset that is very similar to the Lean and Six Sigma toolsets they're used to [including modeling, analysis and simulation], but it can reach out across the enterprise and give them the leverage, the reusability and the extensibility that they have never had before.

I tell those who are embracing BPM that they can use the technology tactically, but if they want to use it strategically as a weapon — to really address productivity, innovation and other business issues — you can reach out to Six Sigma or Lean as an underpinning to know how to best apply the technology and the toolset.

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