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Agile and Six Sigma – Are They Complementary to Each Other?

I recently responded to a question on an online discussion that asked “Are there companies that use Agile and Six Sigma?”.  This raises an interesting question of “Are Agile and Six Sigma really complementary to each other?”. How would you go about blending the two approaches?

Are Agile and Six Sigma Really Complementary to Each Other?

Agile and Six Sigma – Potentially Conflicting Approaches

There are numerous approaches that might conflict with each other such as:

  • Agile and Six Sigma,
  • Lean and Agile, and
  • Agile and Waterfall

Those approaches have different objectives. If you pursued these approaches individually and independently of each other, the objectives of each approach might be somewhat contradictory. However, if you do it intelligently, it is very possible to blend these approaches in the right proportions.  

  • That requires a lot more skill and
  • It requires a different kind of thinking to see them as complementary rather than competitive approaches

The Fundamental Problem

There is a significant fundamental problem that must be overcome to see all of these approaches in a different perspective:

  1. Companies and individuals get enamored with a methodology like Agile or Six Sigma and see it as a “silver bullet” solution to any problem that they might have
  2. They attempt to mechanically force-fit their business to one of those methodologies without fully understanding the principles behind it

An Example With Six Sigma

When I published my first book in 2003, Six Sigma was very hot and everyone wanted to “jump on the Six Sigma bandwagon”.  At that time, I researched a number of companies that were doing Six Sigma and other process improvement methodologies. What I saw was this:

Successful Companies

In companies that seemed to do Six Sigma successfully:

  1. It wasn’t even obvious that it was Six Sigma and they might not have even called it “Six Sigma”:
    • The implementation wasn’t limited to Six Sigma
    • They understood the principles behind Six Sigma, and
    • Might have blended Six Sigma with other process improvement methodologies, and
  2. It was very well-integrated with their business:
    • It was just a tool that was part of their business
    • Rather than a program that was superimposed on their business

Less-Successful Companies

In other companies, I saw a much more superficial implementation of Six Sigma that didn’t last in many cases:

  • There was a lot of emphasis on the “mechanics” of doing Six Sigma,
  • There was a lot of “hoopla” about the ceremonies associated with Six Sigma. (green belts, black belts, etc.), and
  • They openly advertised that they were using Six Sigma to promote themselves

Does that sound familiar?  I think a similar thing is going on with Agile today.

The Key Factor for Success

What I learned from that some of the key factor for success are:

  • Don’t get overly enamored with any methodology (Six Sigma or anything else):
    • Don’t think of it as a “silver bullet” for any problem you might have.  
    • Be objective and recognize that any methodology has advantages and limitations depending on the problem you’re trying to solve,
  • Adapt the methodology to fit the problem and the business environment rather than force-fitting your business to some predefined methodology, and
  • Go beyond simply doing a mechanical implementation of any methodology (Agile or Six Sigma) and understand the principles behind it at a deeper level

Are Agile and Six Sigma Really Complementary To Each Other?

On the surface, Six Sigma and Agile would tend to pull you in different directions:

  • Agile emphasizes creativity and innovation as well as flexibility and adaptivity to maximize the business value of the solution
  • Six Sigma emphasizes process standardization and control of a process to minimize process variation

The key to seeing these approaches as complementary rather than competitive is to understand the fundamental principles behind the approach at a deeper level rather than getting lost in the “mechanics” of the approach.

The essence of Six Sigma is attempting to standardize processes and reduce variation in processes.  If you became obsessive about pursuing that goal, it would also not be very consistent with being Agile. However, there is absolutely nothing wrong with attempting to standardize processes to some extent as long as it is also done intelligently and in balance with other objectives.

The importance of “Systems Thinking”

A fundamental skill for doing this successfully is “Systems Thinking”.
Systems thinking is essential for seeing these seemingly contradictory approaches in a much broader context. It enables you to see how these objectives can interact in complementary ways rather than being competitive. Here’s an article with more detail on “Systems Thinking”:

What is Systems Thinking and Why is it Important?

Overall Summary

It is very possible to blend together different approaches that are seemingly in conflict with each other as long as it is done intelligently. It requires:

  • Understanding the fundamental principles behind each approach rather than getting lost in the mechanics,
  • Using a systems thinking” approach to see these seemingly contradictory approaches in a different perspective. Systems thinking enables you to see how they might actually be complementary to each other rather than competitive, and
  • Learning to fit the methodology to the problem rather than force-fitting a problem to any given methodology

This is exactly the approach behind the Agile Project Management online training courses I’ve developed.

Related Articles

Check out the following related articles on the “Understanding Agile”:

Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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