I’m Working in Six Sigma – Six what?

Half of my assignment with FINCA Microfinance Bank Tanzania has almost passed – time to write about what I’m actually doing, as the objective was not entirely clear at the beginning.

FINCA Tanzania is embracing a methodology to improve processes called Six Sigma. We currently  use it to analyze account opening and other back-office processes. After visiting two branches in Dar es Salaam it became clear that we should be focusing on customers at the branch (where they are facing back-office staff as per FINCA’s definition). Our trip to Dodoma enforced our believes that our time would be spent well analyzing customer throughput times.

six_sigmaBut what is Six Sigma, I can hear you asking. It is a way of analyzing and improving processes using statistical tools. Sigma (or σ) is the Greek letter for standard deviation. Six σ (mean ± 3 σ) by definition cover 99.99966% of a normal distribution and stand for less than 4 errors in a million opportunities. So far the dry theory.

What is exciting about Six Sigma are the tools. Voice of the customer being one. Whatever a project wants to change, there needs to be a rationale. The ultimate rationale is a customer who is willing to pay for a service and is delighted by it. So we went and asked customers what they think of FINCA and its services, especially the waiting time. And we got truthful answers – at least we like to think so. Of course the business also has a voice and sometimes even the process talks to us. You didn’t know processes can speak? Let me give you an example.

There was a notion that FINCA can open accounts within 5 minutes. Then the process spoke “What about the terms and conditions? The customer has to read it before signing it! Who can read two pages of small print in less than 5 minutes?” A lot of FINCA customers are illiterate, but that’s besides the point here. So we listen to all the voice around us and try to make sense of it.

Another great tool is the concept of “Cost of Poor Quality”: Companies are losing money and/or reputation on poor quality and customers suffer from it. Putting a $ number to observed issues helps management define which issues to tackle and how much to spend on resolving them. We noticed one evening that the paper basket was full of trashed cash deposit and withdrawal slips. Obviously they had been filled out incorrectly. Now what does a two-page carbonated form cost? And how much time is lost rewriting forms? We now know and maybe we do something about it.

The project charter is a one-page document stating 1. what is the current pain, 2. where do we want to move, 3. what is the business opportunity in doing so, 4. whom do we involve, 5. what is our scope and 6. what is the time plan. Very easy to read and understand. A great marketing tool to sell the project to management!

A project is split into distinctive phases. Each phase ends with a meeting (tollgate) where the project owner can decide if he or she wants to move on or not. A lot of projects suffer from being dragged to the end even though they might be doomed. This certainly happens less with Six Sigma projects, as the possibility to fail is acknowledged from the start!

Projects start with a definition phase, where the charter is created and the voices are being presented. Then follows the measure phase where the current performance is assessed. Next comes the analysis where we try to make sense of all the data and try to find validated root causes for the issues we found (that’s what I’m currently doing, as my colleagues have been to Six Sigma training in Uganda for a whole week). We then proceed to think about how to improve it and lastly put in place a control plan to make sure the new processes remain stable and well. DMAIC is the acronym used for this approach.

There is one tool I like a lot. It’s the why-why-why diagram and it allows me to lapse back into childhood, asking my way into other realms. It’s also called fishbone or Ishikawa diagram, but a simple mind map will also do. Here is ours – we look at what makes a customer spend waiting time at the branch and why (it is intended that you can’t read it, kindly understand that it is work in progress).


There are further tools to assess and involve stakeholders, assess and mitigate risks, creativity techniques to find optimal solutions, change management tools and of course the statistics tools to analyze and evaluate data. Would the world be a better place if everyone used Six Sigma? I can’t answer this and there are voices saying it may kill creativity, but the benefits it delivers can be substantial.

Most people I’m meeting outside of work (which is a small number, as my life these days consists mostly in work) have never heard of Six Sigma. “Six what?” they ask and then I explain.

You may have asked yourself why an African baby is featured in this article. The first guy from FINCA Tanzania to receive Six Sigma training recently got his first child. Upon entering Aga Khan hospital in Dar es Salaam he instantly realized that Six Sigma must be at work. No queues, smooth processes and a pleasant customer experience – even for his wife! The baby daughter, delivered by Six Sigma processes less than a month ago, is healthy and well!

(photo by USAID on flickr.com)


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