The Six Sigma Method

JoAnn T. Hackos, PhD
CIDM Director
www.infomanagementcenter.com

The Six Sigma method originated with Motorola as they sought to reduce the errors in their chip manufacturing process. To reduce the number of bad chips, Motorola looked for flaws in the manufacturing process. A process flaw resulted in defects in the chips. By fixing the process, they could lower the likelihood of failure and improve the quality of the product.

How does Six Sigma relate to technical-information development? As communicators, we produce information, not chips. But the problem of flaws is just as critical to our processes as it is to the manufacturing process.

Just what might constitute a flaw in information that we provide to our customers? Well–as you might expect, the list is long. Here are just a few thoughts about how flaws might occur in our information:

  • Information may be incorrect or incomplete, resulting in failed processes on the customer’s part.
  • Information that the customer needs may be missing.
  • Information may be too difficult or time-consuming to find even when it is available.
  • Information may be difficult for customers to understand even if it is correct and complete.

How might we discover flaws in our information? Customer feedback is the best source. We might ask customers about problems they have in accessing and using our information. We might watch them try to find answers to their questions during usability tests. We might discuss customer problems with others in the support chain, including trainers, consultants, and telephone support personnel.

What happens once we discover a flaw? Let’s say, for example, that we discover that information the customer needs is missing from the documentation. Once we discover that something is missing, we can work hard to produce and distribute the needed information. Unfortunately, responding to a complaint and fixing the problem will not result in a long-term solution. In keeping with the Six Sigma philosophy, we must look at our information-development process and discover why the information was missing in the first place. Six Sigma reveals that only by improving the process do we stop the same problems from occurring in the future.

If we look at the problem of missing information more carefully, we are likely to discover that our staff members never knew the information was required in the first place. In too many information-development organizations, we find that communicators have very little insight into the information needs of the users. For example, a writer recently complained to me that he would have to meet with many different user groups in an effort to learn what they need to know because his product was used in many different parts of the customer’s organization.

In our application of Six Sigma concepts to information development, we must concentrate on those parts of the process that add value for the customer. Knowing what the customer’s job duties and tasks are all about will ensure that we provide the information required to support the tasks, rather than the information that is easily available to us from the product developers.

As you know, we have no substitutes for customer knowledge. The more we understand our customers and what they do with our products, the better we can be at providing them with valuable information. Yet, customer knowledge is one of the most rare commodities in an information-development organization.

If you’d like more information about the Six Sigma method, you might find these books helpful:

What is Six Sigma? (McGraw-Hill 2002)

Six Sigma for Managers (McGraw-Hill 2002)

The Six Sigma Way: How GE, Motorola, and Other Top Companies are Honing Their Performance (McGraw-Hill 2000)

Design for Six Sigma: The Revolutionary Process for Achieving Extraordinary Profits (Dearborn 2002)