Lean Six Sigma and Agile get up close and productive at Bose

Leadership, maturity models and core value streams: How Bose IT has blended Lean Six Sigma and Agile in its SAP environment.

Can businesses orchestrate a Lean Six Sigma model -- with its roots in manufacturing -- with Agile principles, the darling of nimble IT departments, in an SAP environment?

The Data MillThe answer is yes, according to Andy Nemtzow, director of strategy and management services at the Framingham, Mass-based Bose Corp., the audio equipment maker. A featured speaker at last week's gathering of the Boston chapter of the Society for Information Management, Nemtzow and two of his colleagues laid out the case for marrying up the efficiencies of Lean Six Sigma with the quickness of Agile development.

The big picture: Success requires executive sponsorship, the right infrastructure and buy-in from practitioners. Here are some tips from Bose on how to make the match happen:

Get the buy-in. First things first; IT has to believe in the matchup, Nemtzow said. At Bose, CIO Rob Ramrath was one of the fundamental reasons Lean Six Sigma plus Agile was successful. "What's the difference between a chicken and a pig? The chicken is supportive of breakfast; the pig is committed," Nemtzow said. "Rob was fully committed to Lean within the IT organization."

Bring on the warriors. Commitment at the top is necessary but not sufficient. You need people with the right stuff: a Lean deployment leader who is responsible for establishing a Lean Six Sigma architecture, which includes things such as infrastructure, support and training; and an operational leader who is responsible for turning training sessions into everyday practice. "It's all academic without that piece," said Dave Margil, Lean enterprise leader.

Keep tabs on progress. IT uses a maturity model as a way to evaluate where it is now and where it needs to be. That maturity model, however, doesn't tell you how to get from point A to point B, Margil said; instead, it helps provide an honest accounting of current capabilities and those that still need to be developed. As IT becomes a more mature Lean Six Sigma and Agile organization, the model changes. "You learn as you go," Margil said. The Bose maturity model incidentally wasn't developed by the IT department. "We got it from a more mature organization at Bose, which was really manufacturing," he said. "They gave us theirs and we adapted it."

Figure out how to deliver on the goods. It's all fine and good to know what the customer wants. If you can't deliver on it, it makes no difference. That's where "core value streams" come in: These are the processes that produce the stuff customers want. Identifying what those are and figuring out how to improve on them is a core tenet of Lean Six Sigma. It's even harder than it sounds. For Bose's IT department, it entailed combining the Information Technology Infrastructure Library framework with other components it considers fundamental, such as human capital management.

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Baby steps, a few at a time. Rather than throw everyone into the deep end of the Lean Six Sigma and Agile pool, Margil advises a more discriminatory approach: Begin by training those who absolutely need it, such as the Lean deployment leader and executive sponsors. Branch out from there, with employees who head up areas where Lean Six Sigma will be applied. "We vowed to only train people when it's aligned with the work we're targeting." Margil said.

Build solid teams. Bose uses SAP for its back-end systems. The German software requires highly specialized expertise and tends to result in siloed IT environment, said Frank Tenore, manager of application enhancement and support. But a successful Agile and Lean Six Sigma environment depends on cross-functional teams to address diverse sets of questions. Equally important? Those teams had better get along. "We're always working to keep the team stable," Tenore said.

The old alignment question. No surprise here. Aligning the business with IT is a big challenge when combining Lean Six Sigma and Agile together, Tenore said, but it is vital. In fact, it's the business that prioritizes the list of projects IT works on. "IT is not involved in that at all," Tenore said. "In Scrum, the business owns the value … and IT owns the effort to produce it."

Apply the Lean change model. With a maturity model in place, employees trained and core value streams identified, it's time to take on a project. Bose uses an iterative four-step model known as PDCA: Plan (figure out what the issues are and develop a way to address those issues); Do (execute the plan); Check (monitor the results); and Act (based on the results, make the necessary adjustments or move on).

Go slow to go fast. This is a Bose anthem. "You need to build a culture and grow the expertise," Nemtzow said. That's especially the case when deciding on a flagship project. Rather than go for the quick win, Margil recommends going for the right win instead -- even if it means taking a couple more months to get there. "No one's going to remember that five years from now, but they will remember the result," he said. As more wins come in, the momentum will speed up.

Welcome to The Data Mill, a weekly column devoted to all things data. Heard something newsy (or gossipy)? Email me or find me on Twitter at @TT_Nicole.

This was first published in September 2013

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