In life, they say, "Where there's a will, there's a way." Similarly, in business, where there's a
demand, there's a supply. This maxim certainly holds true when it comes to Six Sigma software.
Arguably one of the most popular contemporary quality systems, if not business philosophies in general, Six Sigma focuses businesses on one goal:
delivering near-perfect products and services. More exactly, Six Sigma borrows its name from a mathematical quantification of a near-perfect (just 3.4 defects per
million opportunities) quality level. In decades past, the best of companies operated at a 99-percent defect-free level (which allows for some 10,000 defects per million).
Just 3.4 defects per million seems a lofty goal, which intuitively brings to mind a degree of accuracy the likes of which we're used to expecting only from
computers. So when Six Sigma initiatives call for a top-down approach and strict adherence templates, methods and tools, it makes sense that computer
technology is one of the first resources we consider to make this journey as navigable as possible. And why not?
Perhaps the only thing to grow as exponentially as Six Sigma during the past 10 years or so is the personal computer. The typical modern-day home now has as
many computers as it had TVs 10 years ago. And today, most businesses, many of which own at least one computer per employee, would be lost without these modern-day necessities.
But selecting Six Sigma software isn't like choosing the right word processing application. You can't just run down to the local office supply warehouse and
browse a few titles for features listed on the boxes. Six Sigma is a comprehensive, holistic program, and as such, it's unlikely you'll find any one title
to meet all your needs. Moreover, it's implausible that you'd find it at Office Depot anyway. But, hey, that's why you read Quality Digest.
Six Sigma is synonymous with lots of data. Consequently, a major sector of the Six Sigma software market is statistical tools, which different software developers
provide in different formats. Air Academy Associates, for example, sells a suite of software packages that integrate into Microsoft Excel, a spreadsheet
application that many businesses already utilize. Alternatively, the flagship title of the company with the same name, MINITAB is a stand-alone statistical and
graphical analysis software application that is no less comprehensive.
Both of these approaches have their virtues. The Excel-based applications are
user-friendly for anyone with even a little experience with the popular spreadsheet title. On the other hand, the stand-alone architecture of MINITAB and similar
products means that the authors of the software weren't constrained by the limits of the base application.
But again, statistics are just one element of Six Sigma software. "For traditional Six Sigma using the define-measure-analyze-improve-control approach, one will
need descriptive statistics, measurement systems analysis, control charts, test of proportions, t-test, F-test, confidence intervals and sample size calculations, and
a DOE capability to include full and fractional factorials, Taguchi designs, and regression analysis with prediction and multiple response optimization," suggests
Sue Darby of Air Academy Associates.
"The Six Sigma practitioner frequently must use PowerPoint, Excel, a good
flowcharting program [to map processes] and good statistical software," adds Susan Portrey of StatSoft Inc., which makes STATISTICA. Minitab's Jeff
Ozarski adds QFD/FMEA tools, simulation software and team collaboration tools to this list.
"For design for Six Sigma in manufacturing, one will need some form of Monte
Carlo simulation that can predict defects based upon an engineering relationship or an empirical model, also known as a transfer function," says Darby.
"For transactional and service DFSS, one will need a robust discrete-event simulation capability to allow the processes to be modeled and optimized."
Six Sigma recognizes that businesses' primary mission is to make money, which the system aims at doing by becoming more efficient to better meet the needs of
the market. Likewise, to make your journey toward six-sigma quality as smooth as possible, make sure that any tools you select fit your needs.
"Most companies [new to Six Sigma] focus initially, and rightly so, on the low hanging fruit," explains Darby. It's in these early stages that we hear of companies
saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per Six Sigma project. But the opportunities for these grand savings, although very important both financially and
to build support and inertia for a new Six Sigma initiative, are often quickly exhausted. "The future heroes will be those who prevent the waste from occurring in the first place," Darby adds.
Bear this in mind when looking for the Six Sigma software solution that's right for your company. It's likely that what you need to get started won't completely
meet your future needs. So be sure to invest in packages that offer a little growing room. A few considerations when choosing software include:
Will many people at multiple sites need access to the information in any of
these programs? If so, consider looking for Web-based solutions.
How computer literate is your workforce? The more comfortable with computers and various software your employees are, the more complex the software can be and the less the user interface matters.
What is your budget for this software? Data analysis software, including a suite of statistical tools, can cost up to $2,000. You should be able to find some
good process mapping and simulation packages for about $1,200. And QFD, FMEA and team tools should come to less than $500.
In all of the myriad choices available, one thing is certain: Just as the popularity of Six Sigma seems poised to continue its upward trend, so too is the number of
software companies vying for the business of providing supporting software. (See the list of Six Sigma software providers that follows this article.) "There will be
more software companies providing Six Sigma tools as the Six Sigma market expands," agrees Ozarski as he considers the future of this market. "At the same
time, the existing companies that provide complementary tools will begin to collaborate to ensure their tools work well together."
About the author
Robert Green is Quality Digest's managing editor. E-mail him at contact_us . Letters to the editor regarding this article can be
e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .