Several weeks ago I took a class at UW Madison at the Fluno Center titled Accelerated Six Sigma (a 3 day class that ends with a test and if you pass you receive your Yellow belt; no worries, I passed). The Fluno Center offers many Executive Education classes, including many on Project Management and many come with breakfast, lunch and dinner (and they offer an on site hotel too).
I knew a few of the basics including that Six Sigma is typically used to improve processes. The abbreviation they use for the process is DMAIC (pronounced Da-mayic):
Define: Define the process you want to improve (this includes a charter which is similar to one, one would create for a standard project)
Measure: This is where you draw out a flow chart of your process and then pick what you want to measure (time, number of errors...) and how you want to plot these items out. Then walk the process and make your measurements (gather data).
Analyze: Here we look at the data and the flow chart again to determine the root causes for delays, errors or whatever you were measuring and come up with a value for if it happens how does it effect the process (i.e.: it may delay the process by 3 days). Then create a pareto diagram to determine which root causes you will focus on. Why focus on something that will only have a small return.
Improve: This is where you review the root causes and then brainstorm possible solutions. Don't forget to include those wild and crazy ideas to fix the problems! Then flow chart the new process. My personal favorite type of brainstorming I learned from Darin Eich of BrainReactions. His method has the person with the question or issue sit in the middle of a circle of people. The person in the center states their problem or issue and then the folks around the circle go around with suggestions, but no questions to the person in the middle (that is the key part).
Control: We Measure the new process and identify opportunities for further improvement in the process.
The typical pitfalls of Six Sigma happen when people only do the D and I steps so they have no measurements or no root causes (which typically means the project will DIe).
Overall, I enjoyed the 3 day class and it was nice to see some standard project management mixed into Six Sigma.
"Six Sigma is the most important initiative GE has ever undertaken." -Jack Welch CEO General Electric