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"quality" is word software developers are hearing more and more of -- and an issue that has long plagued the industry. today some software development and it organizations are taking a page from manufacturing and adopting (and adapting) the six sigma process improvement methodology to reduce software defects and improve quality.

motorola, which led the way in six sigma for manufacturing, is also an early adopter of six sigma for software. "right now the culture is to test in quality. but we're asking our engineers to design in quality," said tricia mcnair, director of motorola's software design for six sigma (sdfss) program and chairman of the software development consortium and six sigma software academy. mcnair spoke recently at the wcbf's second annual six sigma in software and it conference in boston.

according to jeannine siviy, deputy director for carnegie mellon software engineering institute (sei) dynamic systems, software organizations can use the six sigma methodology both tactically and strategically. tactically, six sigma can be used "as an analytical engine for process improvement," she explained.

"there are unique challenges in software like availability and quality of data, and the frequency in which projects go through the lifecycle," siviy said. "but with the data we do have, such as product performance and reliability, etc., we can use analysis methods to uncover the root cause of different issues and lead us to solutions."

taking a different slant, six sigma "can be used strategically to enable the implementation of what i call domain-specific improvement techniques. cmmi is an example," siviy added. [the sei's capability maturity model integration (cmmi) is a process improvement framework.] organizations implementing six sigma determine their highest priority problems, she said, which can be used to get what she calls a "stickier" cmmi or information technology infrastructure library (itil) implementation. six sigma combined with cmmi or itil "grounds the process definition into real business problems."

for those who argue that software development can be more art than science, siviy would argue that reaping efficiency through repeatable processes frees up developers to do more creative work.

"the way we like to frame it is if you apply a process improvement methodology such as six sigma and cmmi to the problem or opportunity where it's well-suited, it frees up time and energy to go after those creative things," she said. "instead of engineers scratching their heads about why they're having cost problems, scheduling problems, or so much rework, they can apply that free time to innovation and to deliver more functionality. and things that can be done in an efficient methodical manner become part of the dna of the organization."

still, it's early for software organizations in terms of adoption, siviy said. some are layering the traditional six sigma process of define, measure, analyze, improve, control (dmaic) on top of their development methodology. some are adopting dfss, an offshoot of six sigma that uses more systems engineering techniques and drives customer requirements into the product development. and some use six sigma along with other methodologies such as lean or agile. in addition, while six sigma may be mandated through other parts of an organization, it is often a grassroots effort today in it.
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