More companies are using approaches such as Six Sigma and Agile in their business. And there’s no surprise there. We have seen technology take the spotlight in the past decade. We use technology in our everyday lives whether it be at home or work. Whatever the task, people would immediately say, “There’s an app for that.” Consumer behavior is heavily influenced by technology and if your company isn’t constantly innovating, it’s only a matter of time until your customer finds something else that fills the gap. Modern consumers also expect speed of delivery and high levels of quality from companies. And if you’re not delivering both, they will surely bring their business elsewhere. 

Approaches such as Six Sigma and Agile allow companies to combat the pressures and demands of the consumer market and even excel in their industries. But these two methodologies are distinct in their goals and implementation. We seldom see them applied at the same time. But could companies use Six Sigma and Agile at the same time? 

Comparison Between Agile and Six Sigma

What is Agile? 

Agile is a philosophy that advocates evolutionary change for software development. This is in stark contrast to Waterfall project management that was commonly used for software projects. 

In 2001, 17 software development experts gathered in the Wasatch mountains of Utah to reflect on how to develop and deliver software better. This gave birth to the Agile Manifesto. But even before 2001, these experts were already brewing Agile practices and methodologies in their respective domains. The result of the informal convention in 2001 was the accumulation of learning and the realization that there is indeed a better way to do software development. Agile was the new way where change is embraced and responded to while delivering products fast and with high quality. 

Agile is not a methodology but a set of values and principles that guide software development teams on how to do their work. Agile emphasizes collaboration, customer engagement, and responding to change compared to rigorous process implementation, documentation, and planning that non-Agile approaches, like Waterfall, are known for. Various methodologies subscribe to the principles and values of Agile. Some of the more widely applied include, Extreme Programming (XP), Scrum, and Adaptive Software Development (ASD).

What is Six Sigma?

Six Sigma is a process improvement methodology that started in the 1980s. Bill Smith and Bob Galvin spearheaded the implementation of Six Sigma in Motorola. They used statistical quality control methods to lessen defects and quality issues in their manufacturing operations to increase revenues. This gave birth to the Six Sigma framework called DMAIC which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control.

DMAIC Gate Review

The focus of Six Sigma is to control variation and reduce defects. This entails getting to the root cause of problems and eliminating the reasons for quality issues. By ensuring consistency and quality, Six Sigma companies can achieve higher levels of customer satisfaction. 

The DMAIC framework is a well-defined process that guides teams in their Six Sigma implementation. Six Sigma projects are led by Six Sigma practitioners who have gained their Six Sigma belts. Green belts and Black belts are the ones usually spearheading projects depending on scale. 

Difference Between Six Sigma and Agile

When we look closely, Six Sigma and Agile methodologies can be deemed as conflicting approaches. This is primarily because they have different objectives. Six Sigma focuses on process control and standardization through reduction of defects and variation. Agile focuses on flexibility to change and incremental delivery. Rigorous documentation and planning is required in Six Sigma, while Agile emphasizes responding to change, team interaction and customer collaboration. 

But both approaches aim to provide the best value to customers. And it’s this pursuit to deliver high levels of customer value consistently that companies should focus on. The key to making Six Sigma and Agile work together is understanding the fundamental principles of both and seeing how they complement each other. 

Combining Six Sigma and Agile

The success in combining Six Sigma and Agile lies in the ability to see both from a different perspective. These approaches are not be-all and end-all solutions but are tools that help companies improve their processes so that they can provide better value to customers.

To combine Six Sigma and Agile requires a deeper understanding and experience of applying both approaches. This is because more experienced practitioners have a good grasp of the fundamental principles of both and have had success in implementing them in projects even when done separately. More experienced practitioners are also past the mechanics of Six Sigma and any Agile methodology or what we call superficial implementation

Less-successful teams who apply Six Sigma or Agile care more about doing the methods and framework “by the book” and less on what the fundamental principles of each approach are. Just because you’re doing DMAIC doesn’t mean you’re successfully doing Six Sigma. One of the more popular Agile methodologies, Scrum, prescribes a set of roles, like a Scrum Master, and ceremonies to perform. Similarly, just because one team has a Scrum Master and they’re doing Daily Standup meetings (one of the Scrum ceremonies) doesn’t mean they’re doing Scrum properly. It also doesn’t mean they are Agile. To successfully combine Six Sigma and Agile, companies must first ask themselves what they want to achieve or solve and how using Six Sigma and Agile can help them achieve that. 

Agile and Six Sigma in Software Development

Agile implementation is easy to imagine in software development because it started there. But what about Six Sigma? 

Software teams can use Six Sigma in tackling process improvements within their Agile practice. It starts with identifying a problem or a goal. It could be about repeatedly missed deadlines, high defect rates, frequent requirement changes, scope creep, or too many bugs in the system. The team needs to gather data about the problem that they want to zoom in. They’d use process metrics to have a better understanding of the problem then analyze what could be the root causes of it. They then develop ways to improve the process based on their analysis and continuously measure if their performance and results are within standards. That’s doing DMAIC on a software development process. And this can happen within an Agile environment. 

Say, a software development team is using Scrum. One of the ceremonies used in Scrum is called the Sprint Retrospective. This is when a team gathers to reflect on the recently concluded sprint and discuss what they did well and what they could improve upon. This is a venue where process problems can be raised on any part of the Scrum process. And this is where improvement projects can be triggered.

Scrum Framework Process using Kanban Zone

I believe Agile teams can use Six Sigma as a process improvement tool to further strengthen their performance. Six Sigma blends quantitative and qualitative analysis on process performance and surface problems that could possibly be left unnoticed when implementing a less rigorous approach such as Agile. 

Can Six Sigma and Agile Coexist?

Six Sigma and Agile should be seen as complementary approaches. The key is in finding the balance between rigor and flexibility. While Agile is certainly not a laissez faire approach, combining it with Six Sigma especially for areas where process improvement is the goal, can help bring a more structured framework to problem-solving, ideation, and process optimization.

Six Sigma and Agile are proven and tested to help companies achieve better results. But to be successful in implementing Six Sigma and Agile together, teams must veer away from focusing on the mechanics of the methodologies. Instead, teams need to look at the system as a whole and find how Agile and Six Sigma principles can be effectively used to create a product or service that customers will love. 

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