Business Architecture – Lean-Six-Sigma’s (Un)Natural Bedfellow

by admin on October 16, 2009

Cats and dogs living in harmony, bright sunshine the weekend of the big BBQ and used car salesmen standing behind their guarantees. These are just a few of the unnatural events that some say also includes business architects and their business blueprints cooperating with lean-six-sigma black belts and their value stream maps.

However, on closer inspection, this is not as daft an idea as it may at first sound to many.

Despite the misgivings of some business architecture ‘priests’ who see themselves as at the pinnacle of the value-add pile. And those of the lean-six-sigma ‘zealots’ who KNOW that everything but what they are doing (AND how they are doing it) is a waste of time. They in fact very often need one another and are very complementary to one another.

The key to understanding this assertion is in the respective histories of the two camps.

For the more pedantic among you we will state in advance that the following histories are somewhat stylised for the purposes of telling a story and getting the message across.  They are not necessarily complete and accurate in every detail…..because for our purposes here THAT IS NOT THE POINT!

Anyway, for its part business architecting has a provenance that goes something like this:

  • Once upon a time it was just programme management writ large with every piece of software being coded from scratch every time.
  • Functional and technical specification documents grew out of this and introduced ever more rigour into requirements capture, but it was still mostly a collection of textual descriptions.
  • In the fullness of time the specification documents sprouted a market for ‘technical’ models and CASE tools. With these business analysts tried, with mixed results, to model ever larger parts of the organisation so they could develop the corresponding software applications.
  • These ‘technical’ models and CASE tools in turn started to be aided by various methodologies (e.g. ITIL, CMMI, etc) to support their use and increase the standardisation and reusability of their outputs.
  • The ‘technical’ models, CASE tools and methods were finally combined into the concept of an enterprise architecture, which some would argue is still the ‘top’ architectural layer….or at least should be. The enterprise architecture attempted to define a view of an entire organisation (or enterprise) and its environmental context from an IT vantage point. Eventually they were frequently allied with PMO tools, and workflow engines that can turn appropriately defined models into executables.
  • Enterprise architecture approaches diversified (e.g. TOGAF, Zachman, etc) and became ever more nuanced (some might say impenetrable) to cover ever more use case scenarios, but significantly, this was largely from an IT point of view.
  • To bridge the gap back towards a business, as opposed to an IT, view of life the idea of business architecture was born. It is meant to take a holistic, top-down, integrative view of the business and its goals, and be more easily understood by management and other line staff. The business blueprint has in fact achieved many of the aims of business architecture but it suffers from a lack of acceptance by business people who tend to perceive it as somewhat ‘techie’.

At present business architecture is still having spats with its older sibling enterprise architecture about who is in charge of whom. This will likely go on for some while longer.

Then there is lean-six-sigma, or should we say lean AND six-sigma because they each had somewhat separate beginnings.

The provenance of lean goes back longest, and is something like this:

  • Sakichi Toyoda began applying ‘mistake-proofing’ to weaving looms in the 1920s.
  • His relative Kiichiro Toyoda took this across to automotive in the 1930s in what was to become Toyota. Its primary goal at that time was to ‘beat Ford’.
  • Over time various other quality luminaries like Deming, Shingo, Juran, Ishikawa, Ohno and Drucker added pieces to what we now think of as lean; as broadly based on the Toyota Production System for improving shop floor performance.
  • Lean was more widely popularised in the Womack & Jones books on the subject.

For its part the provenance of six-sigma goes like this:

  • It is based on the theory of random statistical sampling, the related distribution curves and the size of their ‘tail’ deviation ranges which is the source of the name.
  • It has a long history of use in control engineering under the guise of SPC / SQC.
  • It was widely popularised by the successes of Bill Smith who applied it to improve yield rates in the high volume manufacture of semiconductors at Motorola in the 1980s.

Lean was strong on business philosophy, management guidance and visual tools, but less so on rigorous quantitative analytical techniques. Six-sigma was somewhat the inverse, being extremely quantitative but not long on management philosophy apart from its strong statistical basis…..which sadly makes it a bit impenetrable to many managers.

It was a marriage, if not made in heaven, at least forged on the principle of mutual complimentariness…..this not being the same as compatibility as the followers of the relatively recent newlyweds do frequently have their falling outs.

To put the final piece in the history jigsaw, the newly forged lean-six-sigma brigade decided to claim (somewhat falsely, but that is neither here nor there, because it is all history now) that most of the following were always (more or less) part of their kitbag of philosophies, tools and techniques anyway:

  • World Class (ala. Richard Schonberger).
  • BPR (ala. Hammer & Champey).
  • And various other lesser-known ideas left lying around in the messy hodge-podge of the history of management thinking that could readily and usefully be repackaged.

At this point lean-six-sigma as we know it now was fully formed. It only remained for Jack Welch, he of General Electric CEO fame, to let loose the newly formed approach onto his business units in and around the millennium and the legend was born!

Now, the salient points in these potted histories, which may or may not have jumped out and bitten you by now, are as follows:

  • Business architecture with its layered business blueprint views has a strong top-down, integrative business perspective. It readily links to and drives the programme and project management of large and complex business transformation initiatives.
    However, this ‘ivory tower’ viewpoint by itself it is not know for its executional prowess apart from its links to IT via the enterprise architecture; i.e. neither the ability to see and integrate top-down, analyse business scenarios or link into programmes and projects tells you anything about which techniques to use to solve real-world problems at the coal-face!
  • Lean-six-sigma on the other hand was born at the coal-face. It started at the bottom and has been steadily expanding and moving up the added-value chain ever since. It is extremely strong in the practical tools and techniques needed by practitioners to assess and solve practical shop floor issues.
    However, for its part, it has never really achieved a fully integrated top-down view of the holistic business. Most lean-six-sigma initiatives can be characterised as solving (perhaps sub-optimally) problems in individual areas, most commonly by examining key operational flows and ignoring supporting areas…..this is not really ‘whole systems’ thinking NO MATTER WHAT the black-belt zealots may believe!

Clearly each has much to offer the other.

Business architecture provides the holistic top-level business blueprint views, natural linkages to big programme & project definition and governance, and strength in the IT enablement space.

Lean-six-sigma brings superb problem solving tools and techniques and the ability to focus down onto the detail level and solve real problems yielding real business benefits. But it has an almost pathological hatred (or fear?!) of almost all things IT….it is often their scapegoat for the failure of business change efforts (i.e. you should have listened to us, shouldn’t you!).

It is the Biz4ge view that these two need each other and should get together……they just don’t fully see it for themselves yet. And we certainly don’t fancy being in the middle of the matchmaking negotiations between this couple…….one a somewhat priggish academic type and the other a feisty bar-room brawler!

We DO, however, readily and regularly use the insights, tools and techniques from both camps when we work with clients on their business transformation initiatives…..after all, someone has to be able to referee!

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