Q&A: Microsoft Accelerator Boosts Six Sigma Practices

EDITORS’ UPDATE, Dec. 3, 2004
— Microsoft is evolving the Office Solution Accelerators program with the Solution Showcase for the Microsoft Office System. For additional information, see
Microsoft Showcases More Solutions Developed On the Microsoft Office System
or the
Microsoft Office System Solutions Web site

REDMOND, Wash., Jan. 27, 2003 — Executives frequently talk about improving business processes — reducing costs, increasing productivity and boosting efficiency. A number of “corporate quality” programs support such efforts, including Six Sigma, introduced by Motorola in 1980 and popularized in the 1990s by Allied Signal and by General Electric under former CEO Jack Welch.

The Six Sigma approach emphasizes measurable, bottom-line results, with lines of accountability running throughout the organization. Because it stresses breakthrough improvement rather than incremental improvement, it is often adopted as a management philosophy aimed at corporate transformation.

As a data-driven process, Six Sigma relies heavily on an effective and integrated corporate information infrastructure. In talking with executives at companies that follow Six Sigma methodologies, Microsoft discovered they were facing challenges in areas such as project tracking and financial tracking. While these companies typically had already used software for those purposes, its functionality and capabilities often did not correspond directly to the demands of Six Sigma processes.

To address these challenges, Microsoft developed the Microsoft Accelerator for Six Sigma. Built on the Microsoft Project Server 2002 family, the Accelerator is an integrated set of products and services that leverages existing software such as Microsoft Project and Visio, and is customized for Six Sigma practitioners. It also provides added functionality designed specifically for Six Sigma organizations, such as interactive Project Guides to lead Six Sigma teams through each project phase.

Ingo Heel , senior product manager of Microsoft’s Information Worker Enterprise Solutions Group, talked to PressPass about the Accelerator. Heel says it will help companies engage Six Sigma practices without overhauling their corporate software. “We’re very much about helping customers realize more value from the software they own, in new ways that help them address their specific business problems,” Heel said. “The Accelerator helps customers draw untapped capabilities and functionality from their existing software and apply it to the unique Six Sigma methodologies.”

PressPass: What is the Microsoft Accelerator for Six Sigma?

Heel: It is one of the very first solution accelerators to come out of Microsoft’s Information Worker/New Markets group, and is designed for those companies using Six Sigma quality improvement methodologies. By calling it an “accelerator,” we mean Microsoft is not creating a whole end-to-end solution, but rather facilitating a whole solution by adding additional functionality to our existing Information Worker software — you can think of it as an application layer. The purpose of this particular accelerator is to help companies achieve breakaway results in the way they’re using Six Sigma. We are working closely with third-party companies who have experience with Six Sigma, including SigmaPro and Apriso. They’ll help further customize the Accelerator for a particular company’s needs, and handle training and deployment. These relationships enable us to help companies arrive at a complete solution.

PressPass: How did Microsoft develop this offering, and how, exactly, does it work?

Heel: We met with dozens of companies via one-on-one meetings and focus groups, and looked at the tools those companies use on a daily basis, focusing on the pains they experience in using Six Sigma. We identified five specific areas where Six Sigma practitioners were challenged. These are the primary areas of Six Sigma we’re addressing with the Accelerator:

Project tracking . Many large companies literally have thousands of Six Sigma projects in progress at any given time. In talking with customers, we learned they would benefit from a more efficient way to track the status of those projects. One tool specific to Six Sigma is a customized, interactive Project Guide that leverages Microsoft Project Professional 2002 and leads Six Sigma teams through each Deliver, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control (DMAIC) phase.

Financial tracking . Executives, Six Sigma Champions, Master Black Belts, and Black Belts need to understand on a continual basis the financial impact their Six Sigma projects have on the company’s bottom line. Customized browser-based dashboards provide easy to read financial results’ views of Six Sigma projects, which can be rolled up to the corporate level or all the way down to a single Six Sigma project.

Resource management . A lot of companies are investing millions of dollars training people to become certified Six Sigma Green Belts and Black Belts. But they cannot easily track how many people in the company are registered Green Belts or Black Belts, or what skills or availability they have to be applied to projects. The Accelerator provides a platform where current information on Six Sigma professionals is stored and easily accessed by Master Black Belts and Black Belts.

Six Sigma tools management . A lot of Six Sigma teams spend an inordinate amount of time creating Microsoft PowerPoint reports, such as a storyboard in PowerPoint about the status of a particular project. The Accelerator helps Six Sigma practioners integrate their existing Microsoft software products with Six Sigma methodologies, with automated mechanisms that help get information out of Microsoft Excel or third-party tools and into Microsoft PowerPoint. This ultimately alleviates the labor-intensive process of generating daily reports — freeing up time for teams to focus on their work, rather than on reporting.

E-learning . A lot of companies send people to Six Sigma training, which are usually two- to four-week sessions. The Accelerator allows companies to integrate third party eLearning tools so trainees can not only take the courses electronically from their office, but they can also use the resource to search for people in the company who are experienced Six Sigma practitioners to benefit from their expertise.

Business Scorecards — Dashboards

DMAIC Project Guides

Document Repositories

PressPass: Does Microsoft have any previous experience with Six Sigma practices?

Heel: We have several Six Sigma Master Black Belts and Black Belts within Microsoft who have led a number of projects that have helped improve some of our own internal processes. This of course has helped ensure the Accelerator is in line with what Six Sigma customers want and need.

PressPass: What will the offering do for the Six Sigma community itself?

Heel: The Accelerator’s value proposition for the Six Sigma corporate user revolves around visibility, insight, control and flexibility. Insight and visibility come from the project-tracking and financial-tracking pieces, where it provides visibility for corporate executives and Six Sigma champions to view Six Sigma projects, and assess and evaluate how they’re progressing. This provides insight into the organization, to allow the Master Black Belt or Black Belt to determine whether some projects are lagging. The manager can look into projects and see what the problem is, whether some might be under-allocated, or some are behind because team members are bogged down with other day-to-day work, for example.

Flexibility is very important, because in most of these organizations — well, all of them, really — it’s absolutely critical as they begin a project that they have a way to track the financial impact these improvements have on the corporate general ledger. The Accelerator helps them see this information immediately, so executives can say on a real-time basis that “after two quarters, here is the impact the Six Sigma projects have on the bottom line of the company.” It also grants increased control. For example, executives can also tap into the human resources database to see the availability of skill sets in certain locations, and then allocate them as needed.

PressPass: How does this Six Sigma initiative tie into Microsoft’s overall vision?

Heel: As I mentioned earlier, we really aim to help customers do more with the software they own to improve the way their business works. We are trying to impact the “80-20 rule” — which states that often 80 percent of the software’s capabilities are touched by only 20 percent of users. The Accelerator helps customers draw untapped capabilities and functionality from their existing software and apply it to the unique Six Sigma methodologies.

It also ties into another of our aims, which is bringing a variety of Microsoft products and partner offerings together to solve specific business problems. For example, the Accelerator is built on the Microsoft Project Server 2002 family and brings together separate products like Visio, Microsoft Project and Office, to offer solutions that address specific needs of Six Sigma practitioners.

PressPass: Has customer feedback impacted the Accelerator?

Heel: Before developing the Accelerator, we engaged in a dialogue with Six Sigma practitioners to understand their challenges. We heard consistent feedback and applied those learnings to build the Accelerator. Now, we are working closely with a few pilot customers who in early feedback have found the Accelerator does address the very pains they were experiencing in managing Six Sigma projects.

Additionally, we are seeing a lot of interest from Microsoft’s field representatives who have a direct line of communication with our customers. Our Business Productivity Advisors and Business Productivity Specialists are the people who tend to speak directly to the line-of-business managers in companies. They are really excited about taking this offering to VPs of Six Sigma.

The interesting part about that is there is a totally different language and set of concerns for people in this part of a company. We’re training Microsoft’s field representatives to better understand that language and that world — for example asking a Quality VP if he knows how many Green Belts his company will have certified this year and sharing how the Accelerator can help provide that information at a glance.

We no longer work just with the IT contact at a company. Now, it’s very common for us to meet directly with specific department heads such as the VP of HR, VP of Quality or the CFO. Ultimately, our field representatives will be able to speak the language those decision makers use on a day-to-day basis and talk with them about how the various accelerators address their specific needs.

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