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Six Sigma for Services: The Great Divide

By Phil Verghis on June 2, 2008

(taken from the June 2008 Verghis View newsletter)

Major philosophical differences exist between managers who run large-scale operations – ones with a massive number of incoming calls – and operations with a lower volume of quite complex calls.

One big disparity revolves around metrics. High volume support centers generally concentrate on metrics that show how smoothly their operations are running. These managers know that slight changes in efficiency make a significant difference in a unit’s profitability. The folks running complex support centers, on the other hand, tend to dismiss Six Sigma and focus on things like customer satisfaction or loyalty.

Is there a happy middle ground?

I spoke recently with Geetha Panda, Hewlett-Packard’s worldwide head for service delivery excellence. She explained a pre-emptive escalation model they’ve developed in their Bangalore service delivery center. The model was based on a study of the relationship between output metrics (customer SLAs and KPIs) and the input metrics that directly or indirectly affect them.

This derives from Six Sigma, in which you focus on the things that you have control over (e.g., staff availability), and ignore the things that you don’t (e.g., customer satisfaction). By ensuring a good end-to-end understanding of the implications of decisions made along the way, a strong alignment is created. This reduces variation and unpredictability, which in turn helps ensure that the outcomes are more likely to be statistically “in control.”

Geetha cited one example of how this approach has transformed HP’s Bangalore center. They took over an exceptionally high-profile, at-risk account from a native English-speaking center, and successfully converted them into fans again. She credits their pre-emptive escalation model for this win. In fact, the model has been so successful that HP is now extending it to other centers around the world.

As I reflected on my conversation with Geetha, I wondered why many in the support world – especially those who run lower volume, high complexity support centers – tend to dismiss Six Sigma. I would guess it’s the apparent focus on process and metrics to the exclusion of everything else. Think about it. Complex technical support inherently has a “people first, process second, technology third” hierarchy. Six Sigma’s priorities seem to be process first, followed by people and then technology.

But is that really true? A careful analysis of Six Sigma shows it’s not. In fact, one of its key tenets is gathering input and suggestions from those actually doing the work.

Are you successfully using any aspects of Six Sigma in your support organization? Let me know. I’m particularly interested in lower-volume, high-complexity support organizations using Six Sigma.


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