Agile and Lean Six Sigma – An Advantageous Integration

Alka Bhave, Sr. Director, Quality Management, Vencore, Inc., Chantilly, VA, USA

Keywords: Lean Six Sigma, LSS/Agile Integration, Benefit of LSS and Agile Integration

Industry: Government

Level: Intermediate


Agile development methodologies, while not new, are increasingly being embraced by the Federal Government contracting space as the mainstream means to more quickly and efficiently develop and acquire systems and services. Use of agile techniques in SW development, systems engineering, and project management (vs. traditional waterfall approaches) are frequently established as the required methodology of several government agencies. Being Agile is the new mantra to convey iterative improvement and evolution. In comparison, Lean Six Sigma (LSS) is still utilized today, and deployments continue to yield substantial improvement and efficiency in all applied fields. Both approaches have similar aim to increase quality, efficiency, user need satisfaction, and value of output. The foundation of several Agile methodologies is Lean, the same body of knowledge shared with LSS. However, while sharing Lean as a parent, both practices tend to be deployed and operated independently, as the focus is often on the differences versus the similarities. There is considerable value in combining techniques where appropriate, especially in government contracting, to amplify benefit and reap order of magnitude improvement in results.

This paper identifies useful points where LSS practitioners can add value in application of the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), one of the widely used methodologies for Lean-Agile implementation at the Enterprise level, and conversely, how LSS applications can benefit from integration with SAFe techniques. At the broadest level, the foundational values of SAFe (Respect for People and Culture, Flow, Innovation, and Relentless Improvement) have high synergy with the principles of LSS. While there are numerous convergence points in philosophy, there are specific areas that stand out where integration provide further depth in skill and strengthen outcomes.

Tie-in and resultant benefits of LSS and Lean-Agile approaches is considered on multiple levels – at the Enterprise/Portfolio, at the System level, and at the Subsystem/increment level. This paper explores the following areas further:

  1. Enterprise/Portfolio Level: Increased understanding the multiple Value Streams (“finding the kidney” and Use of Value Stream Mapping (VSM); Use of Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) techniques such as QFD and Voice-of-the-Customer (VoC) analysis to determine business priorities;
  2. System Level: Increased understanding of the individual Value Streams (and use of VSM); Better characterization of Cost of Delay (Cost of Poor Quality); use of Kanban and Work-In-Progress (WIP) limits to maintain available capacity with required Takt time (pace) and maintain pull vs. push output
  3. Subsystem/Increment Level – Use of full suite of LSS root cause analysis techniques in Inspect & Adapt/Problem Solving Workshops – beyond 5 whys (Ishikawa, FMEA, FMECA, RealityCharting, Pareto Analysis, etc); LSS Black Belt (BB) support to determine Release Predictability Measures (are achievements in an acceptable process control band?); Determination of Common Cause vs. Special Cause Variations
  4. Across all Levels – Conducting Kaizen events to support the “Kaizen mindset” philosophy of Agile

·        The following two examples illustrate this integration. Example 1 demonstrates benefit of integrating Agile with LSS. Example 2 exhibits the converse, the benefit of combining LSS with Agile.

Example 1: A government customer was implementing Agile methodologies to develop enterprise software systems but was experiencing quality and integration issues. The customer needed to understand root causes of problems. The Scrum Master requested a Vencore Black Belt (BB) to lead an Inspect & Adapt Workshop, which is utilized in SAFe to reflect on what is working, and what could be improved in the current deployment. Using lightweight LSS techniques, the BB identified numerous root causes of issues, brainstormed solutions, and developed an action plan. The “objective set of eyes” and skilled facilitation led to a better outcome of the workshop.

Example 2: A government customer was experiencing issues in their processes to evaluate and select external industry standards for use in the mission architecture. The As-Is state processes were lengthy, involved many rework cycles and bottlenecks, and throughput was low. The process had a significant backlog. The Customer also did not have a good understanding of the status of each selected standard. Two Vencore Black Belts, who are also SAFe Agilists, led a Value Stream Mapping (VSM) event to develop a streamlined To-Be state. In addition, they proposed the SAFe Kanban Board concept to provide increased visual management and communication. Additional corporate SAFe practitioners were engaged after the VSM to provide further assistance. Vencore’s effective combination of techniques and skillsets resolved multiple issues for the customer in a rapid timeframe.

By embracing Agile methodologies and understanding the similarities and points of convergence, the LSS practitioner can strategically benefit both types of deployments, and increase their overall value-add to organizations and customers.

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